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Hebrew: רונה (girl's name). Circle dance by Sefi Aviv, 1987.
The original song is named Zahma Ya Dunya Zahma (Arabic: زحمة يا دنيا زحمة, sometimes just "Zahma"). This is literally "Crowded, O World, So Crowded" and more idiomatically, "What a Crowded World".
The lyrics are by Hassan Abu 'Atman, an important Egyptian poet who lived from 1929 to 1990. One day in 1978, Abu 'Atman and a friend were stopped at checkpoint "Kamin". They were put in a detention room and were surprised to see how crowded it was. Soon the friend began saying the single word "crowded" over and over, and Abu 'Atman wrote the poem on the spot while still in custody.
The poem portrays the world's congestion and the feelings that crowds engender in the poet. A sample from the musical setting, rather literally translated:
Crowded, the world is crowded.
Crowded, and lovers aren’t to be found.
Crowded, and there’s no longer any compassion.
It’s like being at a saint’s festival, but without any saint.
I come from here (zahma [crowded])
I go there (zahma)
Here and there (zahma)
Everywhere I go there’s a crowd.
At some later point, Yafit Avitan wrote Hebrew lyrics to the tune, calling it "Rona". It's a commonplace love song with no reference to crowds. The chorus, however, is adapted directly from the original Arabic:
I'm going from here (Rona)
Returning to there (Rona)
From there to here (Rona)
My Rona, you are Rona.
Compare with the final four lines of the Arabic version above.
This version was popularized by Samir Shukri, who sang both the original Arabic and the new Hebrew versions. Shukri's rendition in Hebrew is the one typically used for the dance.
In 1996 a version combining Spanish and Arabic was written by the world music group Alabina, which is a pairing of lead singer Ishtar, who sings the Arabic, with independent band Los Niños de Sara, who sing the Spanish. This version is also a love song to Rona, more elaborate than the Hebrew.
A 2020 interview with Hany Shanouda contains this paragraph:
Shenouda confirmed that the distinctive melody of the song “What a Crowded World,” sung by ‘Adaweya, changed the form of the folk/popular song and achieved an amazing success. It was stolen by the Spanish group “Gipsy Kings” for use in their song “Rona.” When that song achieved world renown, he [Shenouda] brought a suit in France for the theft, and the judgment was decided in his favor.
...but something is clearly amiss. There is no overlap between Alabina and the Gipsy Kings, though both groups are French and sing in Spanish, and Rona is certainly not the song of the latter. It may be that Shenouda actually sued Alabina and either he misremembers or the interviewer made a mistake. It also seems puzzling that Shenouda would have waited to sue Alabina rather than Shukri/Avitan, though this might be explained by the fact that credits for Rona on the Alabina album do not mention Shenouda at all, but give credit for the melody to members of the band.
In 2020, Ron Shalom wrote כל העולם קורונה ("All the World Corona") a parody in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The credits say that the melody is "עממי", that is, "folk".
Two very different variants of Rona are commonly danced; neither is the same as the original choreography!
Sefi first introduced the dance in the USA and taught the very first step as "Sway R, sway L, strong step on R" or even "Change weight in place R-L-R with exaggerated hip movements".
When he returned to Israel to present it in a hishtalmut, Yoav Ashriel told him that the first two sections of the dance were too similar and that he wanted a change. Sefi then altered the first part to a box step with pivot turn. He is on record with this story, asking people to do the new version starting with the box step.
Meantime, the version taught in the USA changed slightly: Instead of an in-place change of weight at the very beginning there was definite progression along the line of direction: side-together-side, then behind (with L) side and in front. This sequence became known as the "Rona" step.
Part 2 also differs slightly; in Israel it's much more like the Rona step (justifying Ashriel's original criticism); elsewhere it's more of a run in the line of direction with a jumping turn to face reverse line of direction.
The final bit of the dance is correctly done starting with right crossing over left and ending with a turn to the right, all in the same rhythm as the rona step (that is, cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha). Other rhythms and turn directions should be considered errors.
As of 2020, the original choreography (but with progression during the Rona step) is danced in (at least) the USA, England, and Japan. The newer and "official" choreography is danced in Israel, Europe, and Australia.
Footnotes / References
- Exact location unknown.
- From the "Criticisms" section of Abu 'Atman's Wikipedia article.
- That is, very very crowded. Abu 'Atman was a Egyptian Copt.
- The timing here is a little mysterious. It is not clear exactly when the Hebrew version was first written, nor exactly when Shukri began to perform either version. The Hebrew version was probably recorded in 1986; see next note.
- Shukri's eldest daughter is named Rona and the song may well have been written about her by Avitan. For example, this 2008 article about Shukri in NRG says "In 1986, Shukri came to Israel and recorded "Rona", a song of longing for his eldest daughter, which he wrote and composed." But the latter part of this statement is definitely false so it's hard to be certain.
- Ishtar's real name is Esther Bitton, almost certainly no relation to Gadi Bitton.
- The Seventh Day (an Egyptian newspaper), "The Great Musician Hany Shenouda", February 29 2020.
- This conflation of the Gipsy Kings with Alabina happens in other places too. It may be that the Gipsy Kings themselves did at some point cover Rona, adding to the confusion.
- A comment at the YouTube site states that "עממי" must translate as "we don't know and we're too lazy to find out".
- Video-in-Motion Productions tape 26 dance 16.
The original song, performed by 'Adaweyah
The lyrics of the original song (Arabic)
Lyrics to Avitan's Hebrew version, in Hebrew (the tune is credited to "folk")
Translation and transliteration of the Hebrew version (excluding the last verse) and transliteration of the Spanish/Arabic version
Samir Shukri performing the Arabic version
Samir Shukri performing the Hebrew version, with his daughter as prop
Alabina performing the Spanish/Arabic version
The 2020 parody Corona