small city, Eugene's music scene is extremely eclectic. Besides a thriving jazz and rock culture, Eugene boasts a wide variety
of ethnic musics. To name just a few, I have witnessed an East European folk ensemble playing at a pizza pub, a Zimbabwean
marimba/mbira organization playing at outdoor benefit rummage sales, an Irish fiddle jam in an Italian cafe, and open mic
bluegrassnights at a local brew pub.
Americanistan is a band that plays Middle
Eastern-inspired music, primarily to accompany belly dancers; that fits well into this diverse mix. What most distinguishes Americanistan from other Eugene musicians is their powerful link to the separate cultural community of belly dancers. While Americanistan does not play solely for belly dancers, they do primarily. The bond is both symbiotic and synergistic, as I will elucidate.
Americanistan and its Members
formed in Eugene around 1991. Of its four members, three
are American-born and one is a New Zealander.
Denise Gilbertson is the band’s director. She also goes by Dunyah, a name she took from her belly dancing days.
Denise plays harmonium, frame drum, dumbek (Middle Eastern goblet shaped
drum), Arabic tambourine and finger cymbals. She is responsible for booking engagements
and setting up dance collaborations. Denise has composed several compositions for the
band. Denise is a self-employed child-care provider.
Denise’s husband, Wayne Gilbertson, is sometimes referred to as Omar, a name
he took from his father. Wayne plays Egyptian dumbek, frame drums, ney flute (oblique rim-blown Arab flute), mizwij (double clarinet), handmade bagpipes, cumbus saz (dulcimer banjo), baglama saz (Turkish long-necked lute), arghul (double clarinet), sruti box (bellow-pumped drone instrument),
zurna (conical wooden shawm), tone drum, didgeridoo and berambau (musical bow). He also sings and chants. Wayne is the workhorse, the one who transports much of the equipment to and from performances. He works as an independent contractor driving a taxi.
Janet Naylor, also a former belly dancer, is Americanistan’s kanun player. A kanun
is a 76-string Arab zither, played with picks on the index fingers. Janet also
plays percussion and occasionally the lever harp with Americanistan. Outside
of Americanistan, she is a member of the ensemble The Celtic Tradition, and is
also a solo Celtic harpist of high repute. One of Janet’s talents is transcribing
music from recordings for Americanistan. She works for a university English department.
John Marzicola plays flute and percussion for the band.
He also joins local musicians at Eugene’s Saturday Market, playing flute and drum.
He works a union job as an electrician. John composes for the band, provides
some musical transcription and helps Wayne with the transportation of equipment.
interviews, each member of Americanistan emphasized to me that they play Middle Eastern-inspired
music. The suffix “-istan”, included in the name of several Middle
Eastern countries, means “country”. Americanistan is so called because
they are honest about being Americans who are inspired by Middle Eastern cultures’ musics. Between performances, Denise Gilbertson announced to a Café Paradiso audience:
We honor the origins of the music and dance that we adore, but
we also realize that we are American people doing it with our point of view and our own stylization.
When interviewed, she qualified:
Well, we’re not totally ya-ya [I take “ya-ya” to mean
rank amateur]. We’ve gone to Middle Eastern dance camp twice to study with
musicians from Turkey, musicians from the Arab world, Egypt, and you know, we try to stay within the traditions, especially the
rhythms. And we have some of the instruments.
Naylor points out:
Middle Eastern-inspired, as opposed to saying we’re doing accurately Middle Eastern music, is
because not all the instruments are authentic. We do our best, but we aren’t
from the culture.
None of us want to be full-time scholars…To learn a two to three hour repertoire as played by
masters over there would take years. Because of our Western preconceptions, it
lets us off the hook if we’re not quite in the exact style. We’re
a single Café Paradiso show, Americanistan may perform various pieces with roots in Turkey, Greece and Egypt. The particular style of music they play
depends on who is dancing and to what music they typically dance, or it may relate to a guest instrumental performer, done
in their honor before they are on stage and also to accompany them. When saz player Daniel Eshoo and his wife, dancer Nataysa Katsikaris, were guest performers, Denise Gilbertson announced:
We wanted to warm up with a little bit of Turkish-Greek, music from that
part of the world, because that’s where our featured performer is from. That’s
where her ancestors are from. She’s an American, but a Greek-American. So we’ll be bringing her out later to do more with that part of the world. Right now, we’re switching over to Egypt.
personal sense that comes from listening to Americanistan is that they have immersed themselves in the music they adore. I enjoy the music, as it creates for me a feeling of warmth and energy, and
watching the belly dancers while listening to Americanistan sparks a sense of the aforementioned synergy; a different culture
(not just the music) is being performed for my pleasure. The music enhances the
dance, and the dance the music. It may not be “authentic” in a pure
Middle Eastern sense, but this is not a problem because Americanistan does not purport to be authentic, only in love with
As one very famous belly dancer named Delilah puts it,
They are Americans touched deeply with the Middle and Near Eastern
folk music elements and atmosphere. Many folks are these days. [These] are all instruments being used in all sorts of fusion crossover music world wide because of its
earthy, visceral, old world soul quality. Americans are always, well, say it
gingerly, American. There is a trade mark ethnically born folks will have that
make the music seem like a different animal altogether. That does not diminish
the American interest or contribution, it’s just different…I love the earthy visceral quality. It brings neighbors together. It’s important.
When I asked about responses from Middle Easterners, Naylor informed me that
Americanistan received a kind letter from a Lebanese man commenting that Americanistan was playing from the heart and not
the head, feeling rather than thinking. In a sense, this is the ultimate compliment.