and Reason Series, Article 12
by the Music
Mary Ellen Donald
published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing
This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.
Revised for Gilded Serpent April 8, 2006
with the theme of this issue, I’m going to write about beauty
this time. For me, a person who doesn’t see very well, beauty
reaches me mainly through my ears rather than through my eyes.
Beautiful music of course. I’d like to share some personal
notes about my musical evolution in hopes that some new doors
to beauty might open up for you.
I call music
beautiful when it touches off my deeper feelings and fantasies.
We all have a wide variety of such feelings and fantasies and
we can all be touched by many different kinds of music.
In high school, it was the power and rejoicing of Handel’s Halleluia
Chorus and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In
college, it was the romance in Green Dolphin Street as
performed by George Shearing and Nancy Wilson; the gripping melancholy
of the Concerto de Aranque by Joaquin Rodrigo; the boundless
energy and excitement of Beethoven. Then there was and still
is for me Jazz – much beauty. Somewhere in there a joyous
gospel song slipped in and held me prisoner for a long time –
the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Oh, Happy Day.
of music softens me when I become harsh; brings me new energy
when I’m tired; inspires me to keep moving toward my goals when
I feel like forgetting them.
more important than all of this that I have found that being touched
by the beauty of music allows for a special kind of sharing between
myself and others whom music so moves. Such sharing comes
as a welcome relief after hours spent in individual strivings.
You and I have been so moved by different kinds of Western music
for years. So it’s not surprising that Middle Eastern music
has cast its spell on us.
How to share
my journey from Middle Eastern folk to Egyptian urban music?
Several years ago after drumming for a show – “Mary Ellen, that
music you and your musician friends are playing sounds like rock
and roll or, better yet, square dance music” – loving commentary
from my favorite critic, my husband, Ed.
At that time I was playing some of the millions of songs that
are in the baladi rhythm all the way through with a half a dozen
verses and choruses all sounding the same. Yes, these were
folk tunes, whose popularity was based simply on their familiarity.
At that time, I liked those good old standard songs with their
earthy sound and continuous steady driving rhythm. From
time to time someone would introduce me to a new record with more
of an Arabic urban flavor. I would listen to it once, conclude
that it was good music to iron by (that’s a joke) or good background
music for a Middle Eastern dress-up party – but for dancing to
or learning how to play the drum, it didn’t do a thing for me.
came Bert with one of
his Middle Eastern treasures,
record for which he had paid twelve dollars in Morocco and guarded
with his life all the way back to the States – only to find that
the record was already popular with Bay Area dancers and selling
for seven dollars at Samiramis Imports. That treasure was
Belly Dance, Spectacular Rhythms of the Middle East with
the Rahbani brothers. Organ and drum, accordion
and drum. Where was the oud? Where was the saz?
That heavy baladi going into all kinds of 4/4 variations that
were fascinating. Exciting and definitely not to iron by.
The door to beauty opening slightly. Not too long after
that, I was nudged a little further by the words of my Arabic
music freak friend, Khadija: “Mary Ellen, you
play the drum pretty well. Why don’t you learn some decent
The door really
swung open on Saturday, October 8, 1977. I was teaching
at a seminar with Bert Balladine for Patrima
and Bob Margrave in the Washington, D.C. area.
Five minutes into the rehearsal for our show, I was a convert.
I was invited to join the band on tambourine – an outstanding
band with Steve Ballajia, musical director on
doumbec; Sayed Anany on tambourine, bongos and
mazhar; Mahmoud Hassanan “Totto” on nay and mizmar
(all from Washington, D.C.); Sammy Ansary on
organ; and Hamouda Ali on violin (both from New
York). The sound system was excellent so the good music
came across powerfully. Many of the songs we played had
a wide variety of rhythmical changes and breaks. I must
say that rehearsal was a crash course for me.
show itself the next night, I concentrated intensely, took lots
of deep breaths, and prayed.
I did all
this because those sudden shifts in rhythm and tempo and the abrupt
breaks in the music that were unfamiliar to me could have made
me look like a fool – I making a beautiful stroke when everyone
else was silent. (Needless to say, you as a dancer run the
same risk of embarrassment when you perform to music that is unfamiliar.)
That night the combination of beautiful Egyptian music, dynamic
performance of Emar Gemal, Dalilah, and Patrima
and Bert, and the exuberant audience made me pleasantly crazy
and I think I still am.
number of records in my collection doubled in three months with Middle
Eastern music with organ, accordion, trumpet, saxophone, guitar,
and moog synthesizer. Records that were just collecting
dust now played every day. Music of Mohammed Abdel
Wahab, Oum Koulsoum, Farid el
Atrache, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Omar
Khorshid. Heavy, heavy percussion with pleasing
combinations of American, Latin, and Arabic flavors.
such a kick out of the fact that we in the West are trying to
be so pure in our interpretation of Middle Eastern music and
dress, frowning on anything that wasn’t used for at least a
thousand years, while Middle Eastern musicians and dancers are
straining to be as Western as possible.
playing guitar on his Tribute to Oum Koulsoum opened the
door for me to the heavier orchestrated original recordings by
Oum Koulsoum, the most renowned Arabic female vocalist of all
time. Alf Leyla with its powerful violin sections
and dramatic melody and rhythmical shifts is my favorite of Oum
Koulsoum, with Leilet Hob also high on my list. With
my discovery of Egyptian musical treasures I feel like I used
to as a teenager listening to Elvis’ Love Me Tender for
hours on end. It’s that bad. My friend Natasha
from Chicago tells me I’m suffering from a common addiction known
to the bellydance world.
like to finish by sharing my most current musical turn-on.
Because I’m playing it so much, my husband has threatened to put
me out on the road for a really long trip. It’s an album
called Viva Bellydance by Hassan Abou Seoud.
The particular song which does me in is called Enousa.
My hope is
that you will always be open to the beauty of music and that sometimes
your beauty and mind will be the same.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
5-15-06 Rhythmical Truths Rhythm
and Reason Series, Article 11, by Mary Ellen Donald
my books and in person, I make the point that there are two basic
kinds of rhythmical variations – embellishments and fill-ins.
Tribal Fest 2006, May 19
in Sebastopol photos by Susie Poulelis
Performances from Saturday late afternoon including:
BlackSheep, Sashi, InFusion...
I Love Lucy: Confessions of a Dancer
by Yosifah Rose
Lucy does not believe that one can properly perform Oriental
dance with a set choreography.
Fresh Old Sounds by Charmaine
Seeking fresh sounds in belly dance music? Consider a
trip back to the 1950s up to the groovy ‘70s when a new
style of music was bringing the East to the West.
Traveling to Tizi Ouzou by Linda
When I was in high school, I was fascinated by some of the names
I read about when studying world geography.