You Say Zills, I say Sagat
So What’s the Difference?
by Yasmin Henkesh
posted April, 2011
Have you ever picked up a set of Egyptian finger cymbals? They don’t look or sound like the zills we play in the West, do they? They’re bigger and heavier and don’t ring as loud or for as long. And they only have one hole for elastic (instead of two slots) so you have to hold them differently – otherwise they wobble. But Egyptian finger cymbals, or sagat, are made that way for a reason – Middle Eastern audiences prefer the sound they make. They would much rather hear “chink-chink” and “clack-clack” than ringing in their ears.
Nevertheless, many dancers outside the Middle East still think the only difference between zills and sagat is semantics – “two words for the same instrument.” If you’ve played both – correctly – I doubt you would agree.
So what exactly makes them different? The most obvious distinctions are tonal clarity and ring-times. Sagat only ring for a second or two (or clack like wooden castanets) while zills reverberate for four to eight seconds after they are struck. This is partly due to how thick their walls are and the way they are manufactured. Sagat are thicker because they are cast. Zills are hammered or stamped which makes them thinner. Zills are also tempered, a heating process that permits metal to vibrate longer.
In a nutshell, zills weigh less and ring more than sagat.
Sagat are also shaped differently than zills. They have relatively small domes and wide rims that clack when struck together. Zills have thin rims and high domes, along with two holes for threading elastic. This helps anchor them onto the fingers without touching them directly. Otherwise, they won’t ring. This is not the case for sagat. Sagat make noise even when you hold them. This is important because their single-holed design is so unsteady that a special “clam-shell” grip was developed to control them. It entails keeping the thumb sagat stationary (by pushing them into the palms), while the finger sagat do the striking.
So how far back do these differences go? Archeological evidence indicates that hand-held metal discs were played in the Middle East from 1500 BC onward, even though paired hand-held percussive instruments appeared much earlier. Wood and ivory clappers were found that date to Egypt’s pre-dynastic era, circa 3300 BC. Compared to them, cymbals are a recent invention. And what was the shape of these early cymbals? They all had wide rims, one hole and relatively thick walls.
During the Greek era (starting about 500 BC), bronze cymbals spread around the Mediterranean with the worship of Cybele and later Dionysus. By the Roman Empire cymbals had become commonplace; bronze was easier to obtain. The Empire shipped large quantities of northern tin south for smelting with copper from Turkey, Sinai and Cyprus. Cymbals uncovered from this period also resemble sagat. Only during the Middle Ages, with the increased use of brass (copper and zinc) over bronze, did cymbal design began to differentiate according to regional preferences – bell-like tones for the Greeks and Turks, while the Egyptians remained faithful to their ancient clacking sounds.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. Certainly, zills are easier to control and are definitely louder. Sagat, on the other hand, change pitch.
They can even produce a restricted scale, similar to a tabla, and melodies. True, it takes more practice to play sagat; but proficiency in any instrument doesn’t come overnight. The clamshell grip (the secret to their wonderful tonal varieties) enables the fingers to choose which part of the rim to strike. Even hand positions matter. Palms-up versus palms-down can change their sound, along with varying the arm positions. Hands held high above the head, for example, strike cymbals differently than hands stretched out in front, to the side, or down by the hips.
Finger cymbals were introduced to the West in the late 1800s by the Ghawazees, during their performances at the Worlds Fair Expositions. They played sagat continuously – to the point where, to the Europeans and Americans who saw them, the metal discs were simply blurred extensions of their fingers. Even before this mass-market appearance, visitors to Egypt were enthralled (or annoyed) with the sound of their constant chatter by the area’s “dancing girls.” Fortunately for cymbal fanatics like me, Napoleon’s music specialist for the Description De l’Egypte, Guillaume-Andre Villoteau, documented what the Ghawazees were doing in 1798. (I have translated his entire section on cymbals for the Sagat Speak booklet.)
Many of these patterns are still played today. Others have fallen by the wayside. A lucky few were recorded for posterity over a century later. In 2006 the British Museum released a CD, Women of Egypt 1924-1931: Pioneers of Stardom and Fame, with Badia Masabni playing sagat on one of the tracks (Raqs Badi’ah). According to the accompanying booklet the piece was recorded in Egypt in the 1920s at the peak of her dancing career. (Individual tracks are available for download, but anyone interested in Egyptian music history will find the liner notes well worth the extra price for the CD). Her use of syncopation is particularly delightful.
There is also footage of Badia singing and playing sagat with her troupe, thanks to Jalilah and Gilded Serpent. Notice in the clip how she holds the cymbals and uses her fingers to change the sounds they produce; loud or soft, ringing or mute, single strike or doubles.
There is a plethora of sagat players in Egypt’s black and white “Golden Era” films. Tahiya Carioka was the most famous, but there were many other gifted dancers as well – Naima Akef, Beba Aiz-ed-Din and Nabawiya Moustafa, to name a few. Sadly, the soundtracks of these films rarely included the dancers’ actual performances. The music was usually dubbed-in later, during post-production, from a sound studio recording of a musician playing sagat. Nevertheless, you can still make out what the dancers were doing, if you slow down the clips to half-speed. (You can also see if they were right or left handed. Look closely – Tahia Carioka was left-handed.)
There were many gifted sagat players during the 1970s and ‘80s as well. YouTube is full of examples. I have footage in my private collection of Fifi Abdou, Aizza Sharif, Sohair Zaki, Shoo Shoo Amin, Zizi Moustapha, Nelly Fouad, Nadia Hamdi and Ida Nour all playing sagat. They wore them during folkloric tableaux, to imitate Ghawazees (complete with wide stance and big hip movements). They also used sagat to keep people’s attention when they went for tips during their “audience participation” sections.
Sadly, playing finger cymbals is a dying art for Egypt’s dancers. Dandesh is the only one I have seen recently who uses them (See Farida of England’s wonderful DVD of Dandesh with Sayed Lackey, Leila’s sagat player. He began his career playing for Sahar Hamdi, who didn’t play them). Let’s face it: it’s far easier to hire a musician nowadays than to learn how to play them yourself. They’re work! Nevertheless, a musician can’t play them the way a dancer will, to the step or to the melodic phrasing. Instead, he or (rarely) she will stick to the rhythm or the time signature.
Furthermore, a sagat player is only one among many percussionists, and usually low on the orchestral totem pole. A dancer, however, becomes an aural focal point when she plays. Her sagat become stars of the show, not just one of many jingling instruments in the background.
This is why dancers should honor these ancient instruments and perform with them front and center. Finger cymbals offer so much to a performance, such as the ever-important back-beat for a dancer’s flight of fancy, or a personalized live touch to an otherwise sterile recording. When cymbals are played well, audiences usually love them. They generate energy and amplify a dancer’s stage presence. They also imply the dancer has dedicated years of training to her art.
Even though Middle Eastern dance is continually evolving, finger cymbals have been a constant part of its evolution. Consequently, it can be argued that the technique for playing them, along with their accompanying rhythms, have filtered down to us from the dawn of civilization. It would be tragic then to see them follow the path of the dinosaurs. But if we play them forward, we will continue to preserve and transmit this ancient legacy literally in our hands.
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