Long ago in a land far away, I was a confirmed card-carrying rock and roll chick. Before I started belly dancing professionally, I was one of the original punks on the scene in Los Angeles; I fronted three bands that put out records and toured all over the place, I was also a music journalist and club booker for years. But then my life got taken over so thoroughly by belly dance that my music career sort of ceased to exist. I made a 360-degree turn in what seemed like an instant, with Om Kalthoum replacing Elvis and Hakim taking the place of The Cramps. Once in a while, I even felt guilty for my new allegiance- it felt like I was “cheating” on rock ‘n’ roll because nothing I listened to had lyrics in English!
I had long since become fully reconciled to my new lifestyle, but then an odd coincidence occurred. In 2006, I was asked to headline at the Majma Festival in England, where I’ll actually be returning next month. It was my first major belly dance gig in a foreign country, and I was super- excited! Just after accepting that gig, my music publisher contacted me and said that the well-known UK dirty house deejays Peace Division wanted to sample some of my spoken word vocals for a new track they were working on. I said yes, and we signed the papers. Shortly after, I was contacted again and told that my samples had now turned into the lead vocal and the track would be released the week I was heading to Majma. The song came out as “ “Blacklite Sleaze” by Peace Division, Featuring Pleasant Gehman…and the moment I touched down at Heathrow Airport, it entered the British Pop Charts. You can listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goZ41xzs3_o
Ironically, the moment I’d switched my focus from music to dance, I suddenly had a legion of new fans who wanted to hear my audio recordings, but my dance career kept growing, and I didn’t find the time to do any more recording. After a while, I began to miss being in the recording studio, as opposed to the dance studio. I wanted to make a track or track the melded my two favorite things- writing and belly dance, but it didn’t seem possible.
Enter Karim Nagi.
If you are a belly dancer or a fan of cool rhythmic mixes, undoubtedly you already know Karim’s work, released under his own name as well as his moniker Turbo Tabla. But on the off chance that you don’t, Karim is a multi-faceted artist: musician, deejay, dancer, instructor and orator, who is extremely knowledgeable about the traditions of Arabic music and dance… but he’s also a forward-thinking risk-taker artistically, and ridiculously talented and funny to boot! In addition to his own compositions, he’s made “Arabized” cover versions of everything from Vivaldi to the 1970’s hit “Low Rider”! In fact, he’s probably the only person on earth who can sing a tongue-in-cheek acoustic version of the Queen hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” (in Arabic, no less!) accompanying himself on the tabla! Though this epic bit of clashing cultures will probably never be documented for posterity ( ok, it was an impromptu dressing room performance after a belly dance show) I realized at that very moment that I had finally found my dream collaborator!
Though Karim and I are each infused with the culture of our native countries, we love, admire and are immersed in the culture of our adopted countries as well. Together we created “Heart Full Of Cairo” a crazy ethno-soundscape that we conceptualized together.
I wrote the words and did the vocals; Karim did the music and produced it, putting it all together. The project came about organically, and of course the idea was spawned at belly dance festivals where we were both working. We started discussing it at Cairo Caravan in June 2012, and by the time the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive rolled around in September 2012, we were onto something. We decided that whatever we did had to be Oriental, but not traditional. I have done many vocal and spoken word recordings in the past, but I never combined my recorded work with belly dancing- I kind of inadvertently kept those two areas of my life compartmentalized.
Many of you readers may remember my posts about Egypt during the revolution as well as my reports from the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival in 2011, post-revolution Cairo. I was nervous about my Egyptian and ex-pat friends during the protests, concerned for their safety. I was also a little apprehensive about the future of a country I loved so much; afraid I might not ever get to return. Cairo is definitely my favorite place on the globe. The moment I stepped off the plane on my first trip to Egypt, I started to weep, I was so happy to be there, and my feelings for it never change. I get giddy every time I go there; it’s a sensory overload of the very best kind. Karim is from Cairo, so undoubtedly he has a different “relationship” to the city than I do, and understands it in a way I never will.
But we both have a profound love for the city often known as Masr, or Al-Qahirah … so, just in time for Valentine's Day, here’s the audio love letter to Cairo from Karim and me… Enjoy!
TURBO TABLA (KARIM NAGI) FEATURING PLEASANT GEHMAN (AKA PRINCESS FARHANA) “HEART FULL OF CAIRO”
Karim and me backstage at Cairo Caravan 2012, posing as Egyptian Golden Age movie stars
Photo of Princess Farhana on "Heart Full Of Cairo" cover by Andre Elbing