The Gilded Serpent presents...
Peter Fels
Master Cymbal Maker
Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela

I recently hosted a two-day workshop and concert with Aisha Ali. Even up in our remote corner of the Northwest it was a great success and as part of the enthusiastic response, a dancer from Vancouver, B.C. wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed the show. She was impressed by the variety of styles, the inclusion of flamenco, and especially surprised by how many of my students played finger cymbals. Now it was my turn to be surprised. I was alarmed to think that perhaps they are a dying art. It made me think of an essay I recently wrote for a friend's literary magazine. Here is an excerpt.

Peter made the most exquisite finger cymbals. Each one was a work of art. His name was legendary among those of us who danced with Jamila. From her enormous bag of tricks each week Jamila produced a set of four brass disks 4 inches in diameter with a smooth, high dome, strapped them on her thumb and middle fingers, and played patterns of intricate complexity. In her hands these cymbals were not merely an accompaniment to her dance; they were instruments of profound subtlety. And the sound they made was almost celestial. It resonated deep within my solar plexus. Their simplicity and convenience fascinated me. With them, you became a dancer with your own portable band. When Jamila carelessly dropped the name "Peter Fels" and added, "Peter makes all my cymbals," I immediately wanted a pair made by him. Perhaps with his finger cymbals, I too would be endowed with the magic ability to play like Jamila, and, by extension, dance like her. Of course, it wasn't that easy. Nothing about dancing with Jamila ever was.

You couldn't just ask her for Peter's address. Everyone knew about his cymbals but no one knew where to get them. Jamila was the only key and she wasn't about to let go of all her secrets.

Among the many rumors abounding in that dance circle was that these cymbals, or sagat, the Egyptian word for them, were made from the bells used in telephones. It made sense, considering their size and insistent ringing. The cymbals that were available to most of us were dismal little things. The most common ones were from Syria and hardly counted as real instruments at all. Made of a heavy brass alloy, they were cheaply manufactured from molds. With a large flat playing surface and tiny domes, they produced a flat, harsh sound with little ring. In 1972 dancers in the US weren't expected to be very good at playing cymbals, if they played them at all. In fact, dancers were mostly expected to wear skimpy costumes, lots of make up and sort of prance around the stage in a series of seductive poses. This was the norm in American clubs, anyway. In Middle Eastern clubs expectations were somewhat higher,

but the idea was still the same; keep the customers coming in and keep them drinking. There was no illusion as to the role of a belly dancer, not like now where the lines have blurred and we wrap ourselves in veils of respectability.

The alternative to Syrian cymbals was a set of brass, semi-conical tinny sounding things from India, cheap and not really meant to be played. They were more like bells, not serious at all. Through a friend I managed to acquire a set of cymbals from Turkey. These were heavy, loud zills, the Turkish term for finger cymbals. They were still a little flat, but the real thing. Their edges turned up like the brim of a bowler. I was told they were made that way on purpose. Supposedly in the distant past, a metalsmith was asked to make a set and as a model was given some old ones that had warped on the edges from constant playing. A charming story and probably true, but I didn't care how long they had been made that way. They sounded awful and were ungainly, unwieldy. It was hard to find good, instrumental quality finger cymbals, as there wasn't a huge demand for them.

It took me two years to find out how to contact Peter Fels. I began by asking dancers who had been with Jamila longer than me. They were reluctant to tell me anything, and referred me on until I found a musician who knew him.

Musicians have different loyalties, and certainly none to dancers.

Peter lived in a small, somewhat remote little town on the Big Sur Coast of California. Now I had a location and it was easy to contact information and get his address.

I ordered my first pair of cymbals in 1973. Peter had a small foundry in Cambria where he constructed object d'art, repaired fenders, and made finger cymbals. Inquiries were answered with "Peter's Proverbial Poop Sheet", a hand-written missive with drawings, dimensions, available metals, the pros and cons of each, cost, and shipping instructions. They weren't cheap, but each one was individually made. He no longer used telephone bells, as they were very soft and warped quickly. Now the purveyor of magical metals, his sagat were made of brass and bronze, chased by hand, and forged into their final shape. "So far as I know, I've never done the same design twice." He guaranteed to straighten your cymbals at no charge but you had to return them before they warped too far. The skull and crossbones next to a drawing of a cracked cymbal said it all. He could even restore the sound to "flat " cymbals. He also made them pre-warped, like my Turkish zills, which gave them a longer life but didn't do much for the sound.

It wasn't like walking in and buying off the shelf. I was dealing with an artist, someone who lived in Cambria. Peter had rules, and time limits and Peter just had his ways. I scraped together the money for one set, and waited. The first set I ordered was traditional style small-domed bronze. When they came, I opened the small heavy padded envelope and there in some wrinkled and well-used tissue were my cymbals. Polished and gleaming a lovely burnished red-brown with wide rims and beautiful hand-stamped designs around the edges, I was thrilled. They were huge! I put the elastic in them and played.

They were magnificent, heavy, and incredibly loud. I was a little clumsy with them at first, but I learned to play them. They were perfect for outdoors, for concerts where the music disappeared on the wind, eddying in and out around the crowd.

Though I still wasn't as good as Jamila, I improved quickly because everyone could hear every mistake, especially the band.

I ordered another set when I was feeling particularly flush.bronze again, this time with a large dome. I was still looking for that particular sound, that deep resonance, that special voice. Again they came and I eagerly unwrapped the little package. These cymbals made a different sound, more like the one I remembered from Jamila's class. By now I was enamored of the cymbals themselves, these little pieces of singing metal. The last set I received was "Peter's Specials for Small Hands." They were exquisite, light brassy colored, small with large domes, covered with tiny designs and my initials worked around the holes in the tops. Perfect for intimate gatherings, they had a delightfully sweet sound. When I returned my other sets for straightening, Peter carved my initials into the peak of the inside of the domes. Around the hole for the elastic he also etched some free form designs, polished them up, and returned them for my pleasure.

I was in love with Peter. I never met him. I loved his perfectionism, his attention to detail, his insistence on quality, his mastery of his craft, his sense of humor and his integrity. It mirrored the qualities I wanted to reflect in my own brief dance upon this earth. To own Peter's cymbals didn't make me a better musician, or a better dancer, but it made me try harder.

And the sincerity of that effort is what people often mistake for expertise. It is the larger reflection of the intimate, a small detail that strikes the perfect chord and makes the dance profound.

Finger cymbals are part and parcel of our craft, our art. I think it is a shame they take a backseat in this age of Egyptian Gloss. As our cabaret dancing moves closer to modern and jazz, demanding feats of prowess worthy of a circus performer, and our folkloric or tribal becomes less demanding and more elaborately costumed, we seem to be leaving finger cymbals behind. It's too bad. Playing cymbals just makes sense for this dance. It's not like they are a passing fancy or fad, they have been dangling on the ends of our fingers since Cybele, since dancers cavorted in the Temples. Rather than be a source of novelty, they should be part of a dancer's basic education, not an option. Play on!

Go to the next article:
Cairo's Costume Disasters by Leyla Lanty.
Go to another review by this author:
Club Galia Grand Opening 
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