Learn About this Iconic Song and the Singer Who Bridged the Gap Between Middle Eastern & North African Cultures
What belly dancer doesn't love Esmaouni?
If you've never heard this song before, today you are in for a treat! And if you are already familiar with it, you are in for a full-on feast, as we're about to take a deep dive into the background, translation and meaning of this beautiful, timeless classic.
So keep on reading, and next time you dance to Esmaouni, notice how it takes on a whole new level depth and meaning for you!
Esmaouni (اسمعوني, alternatively spelled Ismaouni, Esma3ouni, or Isma3ouni) is a classic Arabic song that was released in 1974. It was famously sung by one of the biggest stars of Egyptian music, Warda Al-Jazairia, written by lyricist Sayed Morsi and composed by Warda's husband and popular composer Baligh Hamdi. Its title means "Listen to Me."
The Warda 1974 original was over 20 minutes long, and today there are countless shorter, modern renditions of it by other famous Arab singers and musicians, both with and without vocals.
The Rose of Algeria
Although Warda (1939? - 2012) is now known as an icon of Egyptian music, she was actually not Egyptian at all.
Throughout her life she lived in many countries: France, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt--where she married Baligh Hamdi and built her ultimate stardom. In Egypt, Warda performed with some of the most famous Arab musicians of her time, eventually becoming one herself, and she even acted in several movies.
Having been born in France to Lebanese and Algerian parents, Warda did not speak in the Egyptian dialect for much of her younger life, nor was she able to write in Arabic. It was thanks to her demanding mentor--the prominent Egyptian singer/composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab--that Warda learned to sing with an Egyptian accent and write in Arabic script!
Warda's singing "plays on a specific emotional range successfully combining strength and frailty: on the one side will-power, self-assertion, even challenge; on the other side sweetness and a tenderness implying some kind of vulnerability," as beautifully stated by Daniel Caux, a lecturer of Arabic music at the University of Vincennes. This is why so many are infatuated by her music.
She also bridged the linguistic and musical gaps between various Arab countries, making her a truly pan-Arabic icon of her time, which she remains to this date. She sang patriotic Algerian songs during the time of Algeria's fight for independence, she sang songs honoring Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine, and could even sing folk songs from the Arab Gulf.
Nicknamed The Rose of Algeria, Warda was and still is admired and beloved all over the Arab world, where her voice brings joy to people every day through her classic, timeless songs.
Listen to Esmaouni
Now are you ready to listen to Warda singing the original 20-minute rendition of Esmaouni ? Here it is...
"Listen to Me" - The Meaning
When Warda sings Esmaouni, she is telling a story of heartbreak and failed love. You can hear in her voice the pain of having been rendered invisible and insignificant to someone with whom she had once shared a passionate, intimate past.
It was a love that had once felt so deep and real. They had meant the world to each other. But now it is as if he "never knew" her, "never met" her, "never saw" her, "never dealt" with her before.
Repeatedly pleading "listen to me..." the singer is demanding (to her friends? her community?) to be heard. As she tells her side of the story, she is remembering it again herself; feeling again the emotions she had felt during their romance. The passion, the love, the intimacy... and then the anger and the pain from being rejected in such a dramatic, final and public way.
Well, at least that's my interpretation of it! You can judge it for yourself, by listening to the translation below.
So now you get a treat for making it to the end of this post. Watch this video to get an almost word-for-word translation of Esmaouni from Arabic to English.
The version used here is a more modern rendition of Esmaouni, by the amazing Egyptian singer Safaa Farid.
This video includes the original words in Arabic script, for those of you who can read Arabic--as well as the transliteration into our alphabet, for those who can't--this way we can all sing along!
As you're listening to this version, keep in mind that Arabic songs are usually sung using male pronouns, even if the person being sung about is female. This will be the case with this version.
Also keep in mind that certain words being used in the lyrics should not be interpreted literally, but instead as euphemisms for feelings or actions that are passionate or intimate. Arabic is a very expressive language with many layers of meaning that are dependent on context.
Video by SharqiDance
Translation by Ahmed Elswify, International Lighthouse Arabic Academy
Music by Safaa Farid. If you love this song, you can listen to the full version here.
Was This Post Helpful?
I hope this post has been insightful for you, and that it helps you better understand this song so that you can interpret it in an informed and meaningful way. It's hard to truly do justice to classic Arabic music without understanding the words and the stories or meaning behind them!
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And if there is a song you love and would like to understand better, or if you want to learn Arabic, you can reach out to International Lighthouse Arabic Academy for translations or online classes (and get 10% off with discount code "sharqidance").
Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Background & Breakdown of One of the Most Famous Belly Dance Songs of All Time
Even if you haven't been belly dancing very long, you might have already come across Leylet Hob before. And if you've been doing this for a while, you've definitely danced to it countless times by now!
But how much do you really know about this timeless classic and belly dance favorite? If your answer is "actually, not much" you've got to keep reading this post because it's packed with information about this absolutely must-know composition.
About Leylet Hob
Leylet Hob (ليلة حب, alternatively spelled Laylet Hob, Laylet Hobb, Lailet Hob, Laylet Houb, Lelat Hob, or Leilet Hob) is a classic Arabic song that was composed in the 1960's by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, written in 1973 by Ahmed Shafiq Kamel and subsequently sung by Om Kalthoum. Its title means "Night of Love."
The original song, like many of the Arabic orchestral classics, was an entire concert on its own, at over 50 minutes in length. Today there are countless modern renditions of it by Arab and non-Arab musicians alike, usually around 5 to 15 minutes long, with or without vocals.
Singer, Lyricist & Composer
Om Kalthoum (1904? - 1975) was a legendary Egyptian singer who was--and is to this date--renowned across the Arab world. Her face, name and voice are recognized and loved throughout the region, where she is likely the most famous singer of all time. Such a revered figured she was, her funeral was one of the largest gatherings in the world, attended by around 4 million people. Many of the most famous Arabic songs (and most popular belly dance songs) were originally sung by her.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902? - 1991) was one of the most prominent composers and singers in Egyptian history. He was responsible for composing many of the classic masterpieces that us belly dancers perform to on a regular basis. He introduced Western instruments such as the guitar, bass, accordion, organ and synthesizer to some of his compositions, innovating upon existing traditions and influencing all Arabic music thereafter.
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel was an Egyptian poet who became known as the "Poet of the Two Pyramids" for unifying the two great talents--Om Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab-- in his work on Leylet Hob, which became the first of many collaborations between the two.
The Full Rendition
You can listen to the full, 59-minute rendition of Leylet Hob sung by Om Kalthoum here:
Can you spot the guitar, accordion, and synthesizer in this composition?
Leylet Hob is a song of love and longing. You can hear in Om Kalthoum's voice the longing that is felt for an absent lover. It speaks of yearning for that lover's return, where the singer imagines their night together while describing their love in the deep, poetic terms the Arabic language is so well-suited to relate. You can read a full, line-by-line translation of Laylet Hob by clicking here.
One of the most famous interpretations of Leylet Hob is this one by Soheir Zaki, one of the most famous belly dancers of the 1960's-80's:
Soheir Zaki is a classic, timeless dancer. You can read more about her in our Timeline of Egypt's Biggest Stars post.
Laylet Hob is played in the Maqam Nahawand, a type of melody that is perfectly suited to evoke the feelings of love and passionate yearning that this song speaks about.
Some of the rhythms encountered are malfuf, maqsum, baladi (masmoudi saghir), masmoudi kebir, and 6/8. Let's break down* each rhythm by section, using the shorter 8-minute version of Leylet Hob in the Soheir Zaki video above as our reference:
Baladi/masmoudi saghir (0:11-1:09, 1:27-1:52, 6:37-6:57, 7:19-7:40)
|DD| T|D |T |
Malfuf (1:10-1:20, 6:57-7:19, 7:40-8:34)
|D T| T |
|D | | |T | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Masmoudi (4:02-4:15, 5:51-6:01?)
|D|D| | |D| | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Guitar solo - no rhythm
Is Leylet Hob one of your favorite classics and go-to songs, like it is mine? If so, I hope this post has been helpful to you.
I encourage you to listen to the hour-long version for study and for enjoyment, and that you hear as many versions of this beautiful composition as you can get your hands on.
What's your favorite version of this song? Which dancer have you seen do the best interpretation of it? Let me know in the comments below... And if you've found this post informative, don't forget to spread the knowledge by sharing it with your belly dance students, teachers, and peers.
Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Leylet Hob/Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Om Kalthoum's Funeral
Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel
Leylet Hob Translation
Leylet Hob Rhythms
*Note regarding the rhythm breakdown: I am not musically trained, so I am breaking down this song by rhythm to the best of my knowledge and untrained ability. If you are a musician and have any corrections to make to this breakdown or anything to add, please contact me via email.
Yamê is a Brazilian-American belly dancer based out of New Jersey, USA.