LONDON: “For me, it’s the voices of the mountain,” says the Lebanese musician Wael Koudaih, perhaps better known as Rayess Bek. “The singers always have these amazing, big, beautiful voices. Because they needed to shout in the mountains. It’s a legend of course. An image. But I like this image.”
Koudaih is talking all things dabke: The music, the dancing, the rhythm, the history. “You know, they used to put mud on the rooftops of houses every summer, or something like that, to protect it from the rain,” he says. “So people would invite the whole village to come over and tap with their feet so the mud would be compressed. And in order to do this in a nice way they would dance. They would bring instruments and have a party on the roof.”
No country or religion has a monopoly on dabke. It is intrinsic to the culture and identity of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and it is as vibrant today as it’s ever been. In Lebanon and Palestine alone there are multiple regional variations, which not only differ in tempo, but have different groove patterns and rhythm signatures. The dances, too, are varied, although a handful of styles form dabke’s traditional backbone. In the most popular, the dancers will be led by a lawweeh (waver), a charismatic improviser who controls both the tempo and the energy of the line.
“Dabke has a particular energy that is different from other dance forms,” says Jamila Boughelaf, a member of Hawiyya, a London-based women’s dabke group that explores identity, culture and resistance through dance. “The synchronized and powerful stomping of the feet, the power of connection neatly expressed through the line, which is then broken into energetic improvisations and jumps: all made me realize that it’s not just a nice dance, there’s a very important message behind it.”
That message is of a culture beautifully rooted in the land, says Boughelaf, and of resistance and existence. After all, for Palestinians, dabke is much more than cultural expression. As Anas Abu Oun, project coordinator for the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe in Ramallah, says, it is a political act, with dancers emitting a “united energy and a common language of movement — language that comes from years of sharing the same suffering”.
“Dabke serves as both creative protest and an emblem of courage and defiance against injustice,” says Nadia Sibany, a colleague of Boughelaf at Hawiyya. “The physical arrangement of a group — moving and stomping together, merging with and becoming instruments of the land, holding hands and chanting in unison — expresses a mighty narrative of pride, resilience, love for life and resistance against all that threatens it. Dance can tell stories, and once stories are told it is impossible to deny their existence. To exist is to resist.”
Yet dabke is far more than a static form of cultural expression or an act of non-violent resistance. It is an evolving art form. Bands such as 47Soul and the Ministry of Dub-key have taken it, fused it with reggae, hip-hop and electronica, and created the sound of a new generation. For 47Soul, that has meant creating what the band once described as the ‘futuristic sound of dabke.’ For the Ministry of Dub-key, it has meant playing homage to dabke as both a dance and a performance.
“Artists like 47Soul add a nice touch to traditional music and dance, merging various genres and reflecting the ways in which our identities are similarly hybrid in today’s world,” says Farah Haddad, another member of Hawiyya. “This is part of a wider underground/alternative art scene emerging from the Arab world, which has created a more relatable and inclusive artistic space for both artists and art lovers.”
In Lebanon, both Koudaih and Wassim Bou Malham, the guitarist and lead vocalist with Who Killed Bruce Lee, have reworked dabke for a contemporary audience. Back in 2018, they were part of a project called Dabaka, which also featured the Syrian musicians Samer Saem Eldahr (Hello Psychaleppo) and Tanjaret Daghet’s Khaled Omran. Funded by the UNHCR, the collaboration sought to place folkloric dabke within a contemporary context.
“Dabke is, and is not, a traditional dance and music; it’s a universe,” says Koudaih. “We took dabke somewhere else — to somewhere we would like to go — but it’s important to remember that dabke is a very modern music too. When you talk about 47Soul and other bands, these are independent, alternative musicians that are working on dabke, but in Lebanon and Syria a lot of dabke musicians are already creating very modern dabke using synthesizers and drum machines. It’s their music, they’re adding stuff. It’s alive. It’s so big and so many people are working on it, but it has no limits. The limit is your imagination.”
In a similar fashion, the dance element of dabke is evolving, although Boughelaf says it is important to differentiate between traditional dabke and folkloric dance that is inspired, or influenced, by more contemporary styles. The former, which is danced at weddings and other celebrations, is composed of a set of very specific steps that are not intended to be changed and contain certain unspoken rules. The latter, however, is open to evolution, and has no limits in terms of its potential development.
“Whilst being rooted in its purest traditional form, the type of dabke we, as Hawiyya, dance is very much influenced by modern or contemporary styles, which gives us additional tools to be able to express ourselves and share our messages with our audiences,” says Boughelaf. “In this form, dabke is ever-changing, constantly evolving, and shaped by the variety of styles, interests and strengths of the different members of the group.”
Boughelaf, for example, is interested in the fusion between Palestinian dabke and traditional Algerian dances such as Alaoui, Chaoui and Kabyle, while for Abu Oun the creation of a contemporary identity inspired by the past is an essential element of Palestinian resistance.
That’s why, in 2018, Hawiyya and El-Funoun collaborated on “Curfew”, a fusion of traditional and contemporary dance that sought to encourage individual action in the face of injustice.
“I would like to see dabke progress in every way possible so that we have an array of sounds that we can choose from,” says Bou Malham, who believes it is his life’s mission to present dabke in a way that suits his generation. “I would to love to see more people get into it. I would love to see more people researching it and understanding it. There has to be some sort of common knowledge from now on about the maqam and about the beats of dabke, so people can take them and then use them in the context that they want to hear them in, no matter what that context is.”