Gilded Serpent presents...

Zills: “Voice” of Bellydance

2 zil collage

2 CDs of Finger Cymbal Instruction:
-Mastering Finger Cymbals By Mary Ellen Donald
-Raqset al Sajat, An interactive CD

A Review by Bonita
posted October 9, 2009

I have reviewed two zill CDs in a "compare and contrast" format at the request of our tough task mistress, Gilded Serpent Editor, Lynette. Please note, that on the newly implemented “zill rating system", what may be two or three zills to me, might be four zills to you, because you and your students may be more interested in Tribal, Turkish, American Cabaret styles, etc.  A special thanks to the artists and producers who made these CDs possible, and may they individually and collectively preserve and re vitalize an aspect of the dance, playing finger cymbals, that, sadly, has been withering on the vine in the community of late.

Ling CDRaqset al Sajat, An Interactive Instructional CD

 I am not a tribal dancer, but it seems to me that this zill CD is specifically tailored to our tribal community and has some mesmerizing, hypnotic cuts perfectly suited to the sinuous, magnetic style of Tribal at its best! There are references and examples of fascinating Afghan and Indian rhythms, such as “Dadreh” of which I (as a trained Egyptian style Bellydancer) have never heard before.

The CD includes basic Egyptian rhythms mostly found on other zill training CDs of this genre but does not include Turkish 9/8 for those students who are interested in learning the Karsilamas rhythm. 

In a truly international appealing CD,  the instruction book is translated into into English, French, Italian, and Spanish.

  Additionally, a French song as well as two other musical pieces that are included on the CD with only instrumentation, sans zill playing,  in order to test the student’s ability to learn improvisation, inserting the finger cymbal patterns she has learned into the music.  Although the CD book is not very comprehensive, the CD clearly explains the rhythms in a succinct, easy to follow manner for any beginning student.

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3 zill rating

MaryEllenMastering Finger Cymbals by Mary Ellen Donald

 Mary Ellen is recognized in our community as a master percussionist teacher and this set is an excellent tool for those wishing to understand music theory as well as zill playing at a beginner through advanced level.  The set of two CDs, including extensive drills and an accompanying text book, is truly an intensive course on the zills.  It stands alone as one of the most comprehensive, specific works on zill playing (with drills) that I have ever seen.  If this level of detail is what you are seeking, all competitors are left in the dust! This work is for serious students only, but teachers can use it to supplement lessons.  The set was originally published in 1976, when our society was, perhaps, not so concerned about compacting everything to tiny sizes and formats, as well as slick, living-color, cleverly marketed products.  Today this happens even with ideas and teaching while core truths, sadly, are lost or buried. 

However, Mary Ellen’s work is a traditional rock steady classic that does not rush in haste over musical theory or specific zill drills.  The book is the equivalent of a text book that would be provided to a student learning any musical instrument at the beginner’s level. 

 Over 10 years ago, I used this series (with its cassette tape format) as a belly dance student in Germany to get a jump-start on my zills.  At that time, there were simply not many teachers offering zill instruction in Frankfurt.  It was effective for me to get some initial grounding and background, but I really didn’t learn to play (even at a basic level) until I studied with a real live teacher in the States.  If you are strong on music theory, already a musician, in a remote situation, or without access to a good zill teacher, than this series would be invaluable to you.

 For some students, this series may be too intimidating and might discourage them.  Also, it would have been nice to see an update in the back pages where recording artists from the ’70s are given as practice reference.  Although George Abdo has made the transfer to CDs that are available, sadly, many of the other fabulous recording artists of the time, did not make the leap from vinyl record albums to the modern CD format.

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3.5 zill rating

Compare and Contrast Summary:

For serious students who want to delve into music theory and extremely meticulous detail, there is no better reference book and zill drill compilation than the Mary Ellen MacDonald Series.

For students with a tribal focus who are beginners at playing finger cymbals, “Raqset al Sajat” is a solid choice.  The CD will also serve adequately for beginning-level students who require an initial overview, providing a safe beginning–perhaps for those students who want to “wet their feet” cautiously in the tumultuous waters of the zill-playing ocean.

See bio for the author of this review, Bonita Oteri.


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