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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 5
Cymbals & The Music
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column. This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

Many of you are teachers who really care about sharing accurate information with your students.  I would like to heartily encourage you to continue seeking and sharing clarity in a field that is often shrouded in mystery.  As I listen to your questions and comments in my travels, I have discovered an area of confusion that I would like to clear up with this article. I’ll use the format of an ongoing dialogue with an imaginary bellydance instructor. 

If you find from reading this that your information has been incorrect, I suggest that you let your students know about your latest discoveries and help them not to make the same mistakes.  In the long run my guess is that your students will respect you for this honest approach rather than abandon you because you don’t know all there is to know about Middle Eastern dance and music.  Ask my students.  They’ve learned all kinds of new things step by step along with me, as I have corrected and refined my knowledge about percussion and rhythms.

“What cymbal patterns fit the 4/4 rhythm?”

Before I can answer your question I’d like to clarify something about the term 4/4 rhythm. 

There is no specific rhythm that is called the 4/4 rhythm.  4/4 refers to the way that you can count the passage of time. 

That is, over and over again as the music is playing, you can count four beats – one and two and three and four and.  In 4/4 music the repetitive pattern that you hear should fit within those four counts.  The 4/4 is called the time signature or the meter.  But that’s not the rhythm.  As I say at the beginning of each workshop, “Rhythm is the patterned arrangement of sound and silent.”  The skeleton of a rhythm consists of the pattern that its accents form, a pattern that is repetitive.

So the 4/4 tells you how to count.  The rhythm tells you where to put your accents and the musical director tells you how fast this all goes. 

Most of the music that you dance to is in some form of 4/4 time.  Baladi and bolero are in 4/4 time and so is the lesser known fast chifte telli.  Slow chifte telli and masmoudi take up eight beats so you can picture them as taking up two measures of 4/4 time or count from one to eight beats and picture them as in 8/4 time.

“I can recognize the accents of most of those rhythms that you mentioned but as I listen to lots of music that I know is in 4/4 time (because I can count four beats evenly throughout it), I can’t identify any repetitive rhythmical pattern.  That’s why I call that music just 4/4 rhythm.”

I would be surprised to find that your bellydance music doesn’t have a repetitive pattern of accents.  You just have to have a better idea of what you are listening for.  Sometimes a bass instrument marks the accents regularly and the drum plays unrepeated frills on top of that.  In that case the accents of the bass give you the rhythm.  Other times the drum is enunciating the rhythm with many embellishments surrounding the accents so it’s hard to pick out the pattern.  Many times fast chifte telli is the rhythm in question.  I know you recognize the slow chifte telli.  Just hum it over and over and speed it up until it goes twice as fast as you are used to.  See if that fits some of your music.

The first step is always that of identifying what the repetitive accent pattern is.  Labeling it is another concern. 

If, after asking Middle Eastern rhythm experts and musicians, you don’t learn of a commonly used label for your pattern, then make up a name for the sake of clear communication with your students and associates.  Of course, tell them that it is your own label so they won’t find themselves in the embarrassing position of entering a life or death struggle with someone who dares to call that rhythm by another name.

By my insisting that you should be able to find a repetitive accent pattern that is the rhythm, I don’t mean to say that these accents are rigidly played through every measure of the music.  Often the percussionist will play what I call a “fill-in” for one or two measures at a time and then returns to the rhythm.  I trust that such ‘fill-ins’ are thrown in with taste, enhancing the drama of the music and not so overused that no one can recognize the main rhythm anymore.  For those of you who are not familiar with my terminology, a ‘fill-in’ refers to any arrangement of sounds that can be played to fit into the number of beats required by not necessarily retaining the accents of the original rhythm. 

Of course drum solos afford ample room for ‘fill-in’ explosions.  Besides looking out for ‘fill-ins’, you might keep in mind that the percussionist might change rhythms several times within a single piece. 

These changes might be dictated by the music or at times come about because the percussionist wishes to introduce a new flavor into the music.  So your task is that of careful listening so that you can recognize a repetitive rhythmical pattern of accents and then realize when this pattern has given way to another repetitive pattern.

“Thanks.  Now I understand that there is no such animal as a plain old 4/4 rhythm.  But still I want to know what patterns to play on my cymbals once I figure out the accent patterns.  I don’t want to play incorrectly so I want you to advise me on what to play.”

At the risk of having fewer seminars to teach, I’ll say that you have done the hardest job once you’ve identified the accent pattern. 

Use your own imagination. 

Sometimes try to match the percussionist’s accents with your own cymbal accents with little fillers in between and other times play ‘fill-ins’ using a combination of what I call basic and alternating strokes.  Now that you have correct information, create your own patterns and encourage your students to do the same.

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Ready for more?
9-9-05 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 4, For Whom Do You Dance? by Mary Ellen Donald,
Who do you dance for – your audience or yourself?

7-18-05 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 3, Community Warfare by Mary Ellen Donald
Time and again I hear dancers deplore the fact that in many parts of the country there are warring camps among dancers; that is, groups that openly oppose each other and that try to keep all useful information and all jobs to themselves.

8-1-05 Tips on Dancing to Live Music (a Musician’s Perspective) by Frank Lazzaro
Many dancers find performing to live music intimidating, but with a little preparation, good communication, and a positive attitude, you can make it the most exciting part of your dance performance.

12-27-00 Peter Fels, Master Cymbal Maker by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela
Peter made the most exquisite finger cymbals. Each one was a work of art.

2-17-01 Zil Thrills in the '70s, Memories from another Viewpoint by Najia Marlyz
My experience with Bert was the opposite, however; the cymbals were hardly a secret.

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