Metrotainment: Cairo cabaret

A line of parties characterized by classical Egyptian music and belly dancing is shaking up Tel Aviv.

Cairo cabaret 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cairo cabaret 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The moment the first note of “Enta Omri” rings out, the crowd at the nightclub goes wild. Everyone knows the repetitive, plangent tune; many know the lyrics as well, singing familiar Arabic words together with the band. The musicians on stage are entirely focused on the music, at one with their instruments – oud embellished with mother-of-pearl, kanoun, violin and others. Their repertoire includes well-known Egyptian classical tunes written and performed by Abd al-Halim Hafez, Om Kalthoum and Leila Mourad.
The trendy Lima Lima nightclub at Lilienblum Street has been transformed into a scene from Old Cairo – though this music could be played in any corner of the Middle East, since it remains an all-time favorite not only in Egypt, but in other Arab countries as well.
This Old Cairo cabaret atmosphere in the heart of Tel Aviv – a city that was apparently hungry for this forgotten but familiar type of entertainment – is part of “La Falfula,” a line of parties characterized by classical Egyptian music and belly dancing.
The overwhelming majority of those attending this one have never been to Cairo, but many grew up with the presence of black-and-white Egyptian movies starring Omar Sharif, Fatin Hamama and Hafez. The interaction between the band and the audience during the break indicates that many of those singing “Enta Omri” weren’t first-timers.
Although the La Falfula trend only started a few months ago, it has already gained massive popularity among Tel Aviv party-goers. By midnight, the Lima Lima club is so crowded that it is impossible to move freely.
Doodi Regev Zaarour, the man behind La Falfula – which in Egyptian Arabic means “feisty girl” – says he owes his success to his great-grandfather Yusef Zaarour, a renowned kanoun player from Baghdad. The kanoun is a traditional musical instrument made of wood, strings and metal keys, close to a harp in its shape and sound. The elder Zaarour used to play with the most famous Iraqi and Egyptian musicians during the first half of the 20th century.
Exactly 80 years ago, he and the Iraqi national orchestra won first prize during a competition in Cairo.
Now his great-grandson is trying to revive the glory of the old days through La Falfula, as well as through the unique project of reviving the music of his great-grandfather, going through notes and music and recording old songs in a new interpretation.
“We only play classical Arab music here, the good old stuff by Om Kalthoum, Abd al-Halim Hafez and others,” Zaarour says. “Classical music will stay forever.”
Is there an audience for this kind of music in Tel Aviv? The answer seems obvious, as the club is packed with classical Arabic music enthusiasts.
“We have a mixed crowd here. Some people come every time, and there are new faces that show up every time as well. The younger crowd is drawn to the ‘world music,’ while the older generation fancies the music they once tuned in to at home,” he explains, as Yoni Perez, his life partner, performs an Egyptian baladi dance while dressed as a country girl.
Perez has been to Cairo and danced there. She dreams of returning there someday, although it seems the course of events in the Middle East is not in favor of such a visit.
“That’s why we have a Cairo cabaret atmosphere brought to us in Tel Aviv,” says Eran, a 34-year-old marketing manager from Tel Aviv, with a laugh. He says it’s about time the city had more of these kinds of parties.
“This music does something for me, although I’m not Mizrahi and I never heard it at home,” he says.
Many revelers at Lima Lima, where the last La Falfula party took place, are not shy about expressing their longing for the East and its music, sensual dance and ambiance. Zaarour adds that nowadays, Arabic music has become much more acceptable and popular than it was before, courtesy of the world music trend. He recalls that as a child, his father, a new immigrant from Iraq, was embarrassed by the Arab music his mother used to listen to at home and constantly asked her to turn it off, since he would be called names on the streets.
“But now everything has changed. People have become interested in classical Arab music. Surprisingly it was the Mizrahi pop music that gave it a certain push,” Zaarour says.
As we speak, more and more people step onto the dance floor, showing off their belly-dancing skills and demonstrating unexpectedly high abilities.
“I have this dream that one day we’ll invite the Egyptian ambassador to one of our parties here at La Falfula,” he says. “Another dream is to perform in Cairo, at the National Opera House.”
Perhaps one day this dream will become a reality.