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Opening the ďReturningĒ Ritual/Concert Produced by Jennifer Berezan 2001, Photographer: Irene Young
Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 11
Rhythmical Truths
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.

Revised for Gilded Serpent April 8, 2006

Iím happy to report that in my travels Iím finding that more and more of you involved in bellydance are concerned about improving your rhythmical expertise.† In response to this growing interest, Iíd like to answer several questions about rhythm that have been posed to me on various occasions.† For example, you might not be able to figure out the rhythm that is being used in a specific piece.

1.Is it alright for me to dance and play cymbals to baladi accents when a masmoudi rhythm is being played?

I would suggest that you not do that.† Hereís why.†

  • By dancing and playing baladi to a masmoudi rhythm you lose a perfect opportunity to introduce variety into your performance.† As Iíve stated at length in an earlier article, you have to remember that you are performing for an audience.† Not that the audience dictates exactly what you do, but certainly you should develop a relationship with that audience.† Recall some situation in which you were in the audience.† Remember how long your attention span was.† I might interject that my oudist friend, George Mundy, has made very elaborate tests to conclude that two minutes of any one type of sound or look is as long as the average person in the audience can be interested.† If you are fortunate enough to be dancing to music that includes a masmoudi as well as a baladi rhythm, then make the most of it.† They each possess very different qualities.† The baladi has five quick accents within four beats and the masmoudi has three heavy accents within eight beats.†Change dramatically with the music and your audience will love it.
  • If you donít change your dancing and cymbals in such a way, then you will certainly offend those in the audience who know anything about rhythm.† Even those who canít articulate the difference between rhythms will sense that you didnít do justice to the music.
  • If you are dancing with musicians and play baladi straight through the masmoudi section, then youíll probably irritate them and not get the kind of cooperation you need.† One of the best ways to establish a good working relationship with musicians is to demonstrate real knowledge and respect for your musical and rhythmical changes.† (And you know how hard such good working relationships are to come by.)

In my books and in person, I make the point that there are two basic kinds of rhythmical variations Ė embellishments and fill-ins.† When you play an embellishment on your cymbals, you play the accents of the rhythm in question and include some fancy things between the accents.† When you play a fill-in, you simply fill in the amount of beats that the Middle Eastern rhythm would have taken up Ė such as four beats for baladi Ė without retaining the accents of that rhythm.† For example, a baladi embellishment might be the fairly standard way of playing it Ė R, R, rl, R, R, rl, R, rl.† A fill-in might be four basic patterns of R, rl, or four groups of alternating strokes, rlrl.† No matter what the rhythm you are dancing to, you might want to throw in some fill-ins just for variety Ė that is, play in a way that does not pick up the accents of the rhythm.† So for some particular dramatic effect, you might play alternating strokes for several baladi measures and continue doing so during a few masmoudi measures.† Also, if you are very sure of your rhythmical ability and intentionally wish to create a counterpointal effect with the drummer, then for some section of your dancing and cymbal playing, you might want to play the accents of one rhythm while the drummer is playing the accents of another.† Generally, I would discourage your mixing up the accents of various Middle Eastern rhythms, however.

2.†As a drummer Iím listening to a lot of Arabic music and hear some baladi rhythms plus lots of other rhythms which I canít identify.† I do know that they are 4/4 rhythms so is it alright for me to play baladi straight through all of them?

A painting of Jalaladdin from his Vol 2 LP cover.
No, you shouldnít do that.† By doing so you would greatly detract from the effect desired by the composer of the piece.† If you wish to play baladi throughout an entire piece of music, then choose one of the millions of pieces which call for that.† (Iíd like to add that you can introduce variety within a piece originally written for baladi by making your own special arrangement such as reworking† the melody so it fits into 6/8 or 2/4 Ė Jalaladdin Takesh did this with Ah Ya Zein in his Volume II album.)

Fortunately many Arabic pieces have a wealth of rhythmical changes written in.† To play such pieces well, you have to listen to them over and over again.† Note where each new rhythm begins and ends.† Listen to a section until you can figure out on what counts the doum accents come.† Then play those doum accents where they seem to fall and invent some light strokes to do on the tak.† Getting the doums correctly located is crucial.† Donít worry about what each of the new rhythms is called.† After consulting with various Middle Eastern musicians throughout the country, Iíve concluded that there is very little consensus about what a particular rhythm should be called.† Among the dancers and musicians with whom you generally perform, try to establish some labels for these rhythms just so you can understand each otherís requests.† An example of one such rhythm is 4/4: D, T, L, T, D, L, T, tl, with all eighth notes (capitalized) equally accented.† (On cymbals: R, L, R, L, R, L, R, rl).† An example of a song that has definite rhythmical changes written in is El Ataba (a nice rendition to be found on the George Elias album), shifting back and forth between a 3-3-2 pattern and baladi.

By the way, when Iím talking about playing the drum to match the rhythms you hear on a recording, Iím talking about practice sessions only.† I donít recommend playing drum along with taped music during a performance.† Usually there is adequate or fancy drumming on a recording.† If you play along with that drumming with your own embellishments and fill-ins, my prediction is that the end result will be junky.† So if you wish to spice up a performance, and you, the drummer, are the only musician along with a handful of tapes, here are some ideas for doing so with taste.

  • One dancer dances a three-part number to a tape and then you and she do a drum and shimmy solo afterwards for a finale.
  • One dancer performs a three-part number in which the first part is done to the tape, and then you take over on drum for slow taqsim and fast finale.
  • One dancer or group of dancers perform a short number just to tape.
  • A strong dancer performs a short five-part routine to just your drumming, including a brisk drum solo.† A strong dancer can call forth your finest drumming just as you, with sensitive drumming, can call forth her finest dancing.

MaryEllen playing in one of Bert's classes in the 1970s

I would add that if you could be joined by someone on tambourine, your sound would be even richer and more exciting.† For those of you who havenít yet discovered the treasures of tambourining, Iíd like to point out that you can produce a wide range of effects on the tambourine and very nicely reflect different moods and degrees of intensity.† If you are carrying the live music by yourself with the drum, then it probably would be a good idea to have several drums with you, each with different tones, so you can have another way of creating variety.

3.†Some pieces can be interpreted very nicely with any one of several rhythms.† Would a dancer be thrown off if I as a drummer chose to use one rhythm for a song and she was used to another rhythm with it?

You are right about the fact that there are pieces for which a variety of rhythms would be appropriate.† For example, Bry Demet Ya Semen can be interpreted by bolero, slow baladi, fast chifte-telli, or a 3-3-2 rhythm.† In general I donít think that a dancer would be thrown off by your choosing a rhythmical interpretation different from what she was used to, of course assuming your rhythm fits the music.† I say that because a good strong dancer can adapt her movements and cymbals very easily, and a weaker dancer wouldnít know the difference so would go on doing what she had planned to anyway.† If you plan to do some radically different rhythm to a particular piece, it might be nice to discuss it with the dancer.

My answers above boil down to some basic principles.† Respect the beauty and intricacy of the music and rhythms whenever you dance, play cymbals, or drum.† If you do, both you and your audience will have an enriching experience

Iíd like to thank George Dabaie and Jihad Racy for helping me to clarify some of my above points on Middle Eastern rhythms.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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