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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Zil Thrills in the '70s,
Memories from another Viewpoint
January 7, 2001
by Najia El-Mouzayen

I read with nostalgia, the recent article titled "Peter Fels, Master Cymbal Maker". The article, for which I would like to offer a second point of view, was published here in Gilded Serpent. It was primarily about Peter Fels, a California sculptor, and metal artisan, who made several sets of lovely finger cymbals for me among others back in the sensuous seventies and about the secret of obtaining his coveted zils. I was a professional dancer and dance studio owner during the same range of time that Yasmela, the author of the article, mentions. Peter Fels' cymbals were very popular among us California dancers and they were exquisitely expensive for those times, but not as exclusive as Yasmela was led to believe.

Yasmela reminisced in her article, "You couldn't just ask her [Jamila] 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."

My experience with Bert was the opposite, however; the cymbals were hardly a secret. I ordered my first set by obtaining Peter's address from my initial instructor, studio mate, and sometimes dance partner, Bert Balladine, and he gave out the information freely, just as he shared all of his dance sources.

Customized Finger Cymbals

Peter was (and still is) located in or near Cambria, California, a little town near San Luis Obispo.

For most of us dancers, it was part of the mystique of his product that he was an artist, a sculptor, and an artisan and that he led "The Artist's Life".

He not only individualized his cymbals; he also incorporated whatever special decorative design requests the dancer might have. For example, I asked him to create one of my sets with butterflies incised into them, and he complied, with the admonition that he never made the same design twice so that there would be four different butterfly shapes. I have included a close up photo of one of his "Fel's butterflies" on a bronze cymbal for you to see.

I played rhythms with my three bronze sets from Peter on thousands of gigs over a twenty-year career as a professional dancer, and still use them on special occasions. All three are made in differing sizes, styles, and designs. People always admired them and wanted to know about them so that when I opened my dance studio in Albany, California in 1973 (where both Bert Balladine and I taught) the "Peter's Proverbial Poop Sheet" was always posted on the back bulletin board in the dressing room. Peter regularly sent us his "Poop Sheet", and our more dedicated and self-indulgent students ordered his cymbals. They cost more than double the cost of cymbals made by our local artisans whose hand crafted cymbals, though gorgeous, were offered only in heat tempered half-hard brass rather than bronze. I still play some of those old brass creations daily in my teaching, though the artisans who made them no longer produce zils.

Perhaps those sixties artists may have morphed themselves into stock traders on Wall Street or marijuana farmers in Mendocino, At any rate, none stayed with the craft as long as Peter Fels.

The Turkish Word?

The slang term, "zils" is a shortened version of the brand name "Zildjian" (an Armenian family name) rather than a Turkish word meaning "cymbals" as Yasmela stated in her article.

The Zildjian Company makes large cymbals for trap drummers and for percussionists in symphony orchestras and is recognized worldwide for its quality musical cymbals of all types and sizes, including finger cymbals. Zils, or Zildjians, has become synonymous with "sagat" (finger cymbals in Arabic) for many years.

"Showboating" with Loud Syncopation

I agree with Yasmela that the playing of finger cymbals does seem to be a dying art in America. I believe this pathetic state of the art happened because many of our American teachers learned to play them in a style that is actually counter-productive to authentic Middle Eastern music. In the seventies, in and about San Francisco, our Middle Eastern musicians used to complain bitterly about the cymbal playing of some well-known local cabaret dancers.

Their apparent crime was attempting to "showboat" with their finger cymbals while dancing on stage by using syncopated patterns and trying to "out-do" the band with the shear loudness of their finger cymbal playing. Though I believed that some of them were quite good at it, it was annoying to the musicians and the Middle Easterners who attempted to hear the song lyrics filter through it. One musician exclaimed to me in horror of one of those dancers, "She plays sagat [finger cymbals] the size of my head!"

By the way, most Egyptian dancers do not play finger cymbals while on stage unless they are dancing Beledi style. Famous Egyptian dancers hire a percussionist to play sagat. Egyptian musicians (often wearing tuxedos) play them with great artistry and are only matched by the suise and water vendors on the streets. On the other hand, Turkish dancers buzz on the cymbals nearly non-stop, and Lebanese dancers use them intermittently. We were all confused, in those days, about the amount of zilling which was appropriate since few instructors had ever bothered to travel in the Middle East to find out first hand what the differences were.

"If they played them at all"

Yasmela stated in her article that "U.S. dancers were not expected to play [cymbals] well in 1972, if they played them at all".

To the contrary, it was my observation that nobody could obtain a professional gig back then unless she played her cymbals with easy speed, on the beat, matching the rhythms and the accents in the music (Unless she sported amazing hooters, then all bets were off, and she did not have to know how to dance, either!)

The craze in Egyptian styling in which the dancer rarely plays finger cymbals did not begin in the U.S. until the early or mid 1980s and many dancers began to refrain from the use of cymbals in quest of that style, I among them. However, I began teaching much earlier than that in 1972, when the playing of cymbals was a major part of each lesson. Bert, Amina Goodyear, many other local teachers taught the playing of finger cymbals extensively, and me, too. About then, Mary Ellen Donald taught excellent zil playing in my studio, "The Dancing Girl Studio" in Albany, California. In addition, I learned to play cymbals more musically by taking dumbek lessons with Vince Delgado when he taught drum lessons in my studio. I quickly copied the dancer who was his wife at the time, Mimi Spencer, who came to the lessons sans drum but with her cymbals flying. It was only then, long before I went to Egypt for the first time, that I began to understand the important differences between a musical approach to cymbal playing, rather than numerically coded rhythm patterns such as "3-3-7" or "roll-roll-singles", "right-left-right" etc.

Should dancers play zils more often?

The playing of cymbals is a necessary skill for the dancer to learn but to use sparingly. "Zilling" is an important way for the dancer to study and to learn to identify and express the ever-changing rhythms of Middle Eastern music. Since cymbals are percussive instruments, too much "zilling" tends to skew the dance toward the percussion in a heavy-handed way causing the more lyrical and melodic parts to be ignored. It is obnoxious to have to listen to non-stop zilling that over-rides the delicacy and nuance of, for instance, an Oum Kalthoum song such as "Inta Omri" or other Arabic classics.

Are musicians ever loyal to dancers?

Finally, I would like to comment upon Yasmela's statement that; "Musicians have different loyalties, and certainly none to dancers." I have found just the opposite to be the fact! Most musicians are loyal and supportive to dancers who understand musical form, respond well to their music, and who treat them with respect.

Many of my own private gigs were a direct referral or recommendation by musicians who had already been hired. Only when dancers sport an "attitude", are loyalty and support withdrawn from them. Throughout my entire career in dance, Greek and Arabic musicians helped me look good as a performer. They generously supplemented my comparatively meager knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and music, especially the playing of finger cymbals. We flew and drove to gigs both inside and outside of California, ate at Denny's and truck stops, slogged through snow, toting our paraphernalia, and had memorable and exciting adventures.


Yasmela's article about Peter Fels' hand-forged cymbals felt like a time-warp trip for me back to the era when the teachers' and fellow dancers resources were, more often than not, kept as closely guarded secrets.

It was a time when simple information was doled out by the thimble, and fantasy by the truckload. Berkeley in the sixties and seventies was a true wonderland for many of us.

Much of my own enjoyment of that time was simply in the adventure of making discoveries and the sharing of them.

Go to the next article: Yasmeen and the North Beach of Yore
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