How many belly dancing records does one need? With its latest release, Hany Mehanna‘s 1973 albumThe Miracles of the Seven Dances, the Belgian label Radio Martiko—which has assembled a small but inspired roster of such vinyl reissues—answers, “at least one more.”
Last year, Radio Martiko reissued three ‘70s albums from Abdou El Omari, dubbed “The Organ King of Morocco.” El Omari’s North African folk music, which we reviewed here, was tinged with generous portions of psychedelic and space-age timbres that it at times suggested a belly-dance band led by Sun Ra. The label taps a similar vein with Miracles. Known as “The Organ King of Cairo,” Mehanna has a long career in Egyptian film music and has accompanied such legendary Egyptian vocalists as Oum Kalthoum. If his solo work isn’t as far-reaching as that of El Omari, Mehanna still tempers traditional modes with funky and psychedelic touches.
“Dala’” starts the album with a sultry rhythm, the track’s winding traditional melodies and percussion augmented by bursts of soulful brass, wah-wah guitar and Mehanna’s bubbling farfisa lines. “Farha” (“Joy”) begins with a suitably percolating farfisa that leads to more playful, navel-shaking rhythms.
The album’s mood shifts quickly but effortlessly from smoldering and seductive to lighthearted, as on “Badaouiah” (“Bedouin”), which Mehanna introduces with a restrained unaccompanied intro that soon follows the frenetic example of percussion that sounds like a rapidly cycling metronome. The melody of “Mouled El-Khaleej” (which Google inelegantly translates as “Gulf Generator”) suggests the swinging score for a comedy set in a bustling metropolis.
“Tahiya wal Assaiyah” (“Greetings and Exclamations”), featuring just keyboards and tabla, may be the keyboardist’s most impressive showcase, as he builds tension from a slow, sinuous unaccompanied opening to an increasingly rapid display of virtuosity. Mehanna and his accompanist reach a fevered level of interplay as they drive each other to ever more expressive, undulating heights. That this all happens in just under three minutes is remarkable, and it points to the album’s only drawback. With nothing longer than four and a half minutes, these seven tracks in 24 minutes barely give Mehanna time to stretch out. By the time each track ends, he’s just getting started. Which means that the album leaves you wanting more.
The cover photo is irresistible, with a smiling Mehanna at his farfisa, while behind him a belly dancer plies her trade amid the Great Pyramids. The music more than lives up to the promise of that image. If you’ve been following Radio Martiko and are coming to this after the El Omari reissues looking for more of that magic, note that The Miracles of the Seven Dances doesn’t quite approach those flights of fancy. But even if you think your thirst for belly-dancing music has been quenched, the label lures the adventurous listener with such musical charms that you will find it difficult to say no.