Gilded Serpent presents...
Zil Thrills in the '70s,
Memories from another Viewpoint
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.
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."
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.
(and still is) located in or near Cambria, California, a little
town near San Luis Obispo.
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".
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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"
in her article that "U.S. dancers were not expected to play [cymbals]
well in 1972, if they played them at all".
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
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"
Should dancers play
zils more often?
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?
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
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.
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.
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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