Meditteranean fusion band partners with bellydancers

Nov 14, 2013

Wisaal and Karma Bellydance
Wisaal and Karma Bellydance
Credit Jena McShane

Mediterranean fusion band Wisaal will play tonight at Bell’s Brewery alongside dancers from Karma Bellydance. The Lansing-based band has been partnering with belly dancers almost since the group started.

“It’s good to have some variety, try some new collaborations.," says Wisaal oud player Igor Houwat. "Play new tunes or even play same tunes and see how these turn out and how they feel when we have, you know, ‘movement’ in front of us. It’s really fascinating how the tune can suddenly change on you.”

Houwat says Sheila Bauer also known as Leilah, started collaborating with Wisaal on her own about three years ago. Since Bauer created her troupe Karma Bellydance, Wisaal has shared the stage with more dancers every year. Houwat says there are some things he has to keep in mind when he’s performing with bellydancers.

“With dancers we have to think about a couple of things. You know, how fast are we going to play these tunes? Because you don’t want to play it too fast and have them trip all over themselves, right? And we’ve had some of those situations where like, ‘Oh, that was too fast. Now it’s too late to go back,’ but he apologized later. So that’s one thing, how fast to play. Another one is how to listen. If I’m soloing, improvising with my group, that’s one dynamic going on. I’m listening to certain people in the group and I am listening to the audience. But if I’m playing with a dancer and improvising and she…or if that happens to be he—there are some male bellydancers. But whoever the dancer is, if they are improvising along with me, I have to give and take with them. And that creates a whole new dynamic because they have their repertoire of movements. They have their preferences that are quite different than what musicians do. So we have to think about these things. And then slowly that develops your language.”

Wisaal’s latest album The Warp and the Weft came out about a year ago. The terms “warp” and “weft” refer to thread layers in a tapestry rug.

“When you’re creating a tapestry there are two layers. There is a layer that is more structural that’s hidden you don’t see really in the final product. And then there’s the other layer which is what you see,” says Houwat. “And it reflects our group identity. So, on the surface you’ll hear what we are now calling ‘Mediterranean fusion.’ But our background that’s not necessarily visible includes such things as classical music upbringing. All of us are classically trained musicians. Includes jazz training—some of us have played jazz or trained in jazz. Includes rock, pop influences. So that’s not really apparent. But it’s part of who we are.”

On The Warp and The Weft there’s a song specifically for bellydance.

“Zeina is a bellydance tune from an old Egyptian movie," Houwat says. "The dancer was called Samia Gamal. And it’s one of those situations where the music starts playing and the dancer starts dancing—very much like a musical where suddenly somebody breaks out into song, right?”  

Howat says the song makes a great bellydance tune because it has an infectious beat and it starts slow, then gets fast, and then gets slow again. Just like a tightly woven rug, Houwat says both the band and the dancers have formed a better bond, which makes Wisaal’s performance one smooth show.

“The time difference between the first album and Warp and the Weft is huge when you’re thinking about how the band meshes. It’s one of those things that it’s not just related to music, it’s a very human thing. The more you spend time with somebody the more the chemistry can develop, the more you know each other’s habits, the more you’re comfortable with the music itself. So we definitely mesh much better. And even since the album was released a year ago, we’re even much more solid as an ensemble. Cause it’s just time and putting that investment into a relationship.”

Wisaal is performing with Karma Bellydance at Bell’s Brewery on Friday night. Progressive bluegrass band Fauxgrass will also be there. The show starts at 9:30 p.m.