Arabic Tambourine

A Comprehensive Course in Techniques and Performance for the Tambourine, Tar and Mazhar
by Mary Ellen Donald 

Why does the professional performer or dance instructor need to study Mary Ellen Donald’s Arabic Tambourine text?  For these reasons and more: her book presents the rhythms heard in Egyptian video tape performances.  Professional performers (musicians, dance troupes and dancers) and dance instructors need the knowledge base of rhythms and the cultural background of the music to enhance their professional skills and abilities.  Can you recall watching a show where the performer (musician or dancer) missed the “breaks” in the music, or danced right through them?  Or a dancer who has danced only to the iqat (rhythmic mode) and who perhaps may not have known the maqamat (melodic mode) may differ from the iqat?

Understanding and knowledge of the rhythmic patterns improves the quality of a dance performance and can also be useful to the playing of the sagats (finger cymbals) in a complimentary manner.  An exciting new horizon is expanded when you realize that all of the rhythms are directly transferable to other percussive instruments (e.g., the doumbec and finger cymbals).  In the San Francisco nightclubs of the past, the dancers were expected to “sit in” with the band between dance sets and play the tambourine.  The dancers enhanced their versatility and employability with their ability to provide accompaniment on tambourine, drum and tar.

The tambourine itself is a charming instrument.  Such a tiny instrument produces a myriad of sounds: the wood sound, skin sound like a drum, and the variable sound of the cymbals.  Mary Ellen’s tambourine solos always astound audiences with their challenging vitality and versatility of rhythmic patterns and sound.  In the Middle East the tambourine is considered a virtuoso instrument.

Let me describe to you the organization, teaching methodology and contents of Mary Ellen Donald’s Arabic Tambourine book.  According to Dr. Jihad Racy, ethnomusicologist, “The value of the book lies partly in its encompassing nature.  The student is taught old traditional patterns derived from folk, urban and ethnic sources; as well as Western-derived patterns that have become part of the Arab rhythmic vocabulary.”  A serious student can learn from the self-paced lesson plans.  Cassette tapes accompany the lesson plans and provide examples of each rhythm pattern several times.  Mary Ellen’s teaching methodology takes into account the varying students’ needs (aural or visual learning capability) and musical knowledge (experience reading music or playing an instrument).  This book contains a standard feature of her other books on drum and cymbals technique and begins with basic music theory, and contains musical notation for sight-reading of the rhythm patterns.  There is a very helpful section on the selection and purchase of your tambourine, tar, and mazhar; with special tips for care during playing and storage of your instruments.  Next, she teaches the technique of holding and playing (doum, slap, takk sounds, and muting, rolls and shake) the instrument.

Rhythms are introduced in the book with their proper names and information on their cultural background, when they are played in performances, and the feeling (melodic versus hypnotic, etcetera) given to the rhythms.  For each rhythm the pattern of instruction is as follows: 1) open rhythm pattern to clearly illustrate the pattern.  2) Basic pattern as you would normally hear it.  #) Exercises.  4) Embellishments and fill-ins.  5) Special variations and exciting “spices.”  6) Tips for creating your own variations.  7) A rhythmic review of all of the preceding patterns and variations.  The book consists of twenty-eight rhythmic patterns, syncopated spices, breaks, and drum solo patterns (hagala).

Most helpful to instructors using the material in their classes are the appendices.  Appendix A is a listing of all rhythms;  Appendix B, a glossary of terms with definitions and examples; Appendix C, a list of records that illustrate high-quality performances; and Appendix D, instructions for re-skinning the tambourine.  The book contains many helpful and clear illustrations of the instruments.

This is an extremely valuable reference book for the professional performer, dance instructor, and serious student.  I recommend it very highly as a self-taught course in tambourine, tar and mazhar, as well as Arabic rhythms.  It is the next best thing to taking a course from Mary Ellen in person.

Test your Arabic I.Q.: What is the name of the special rhythm used for the Arabic wedding procession?  Are Samaii Thaul and Samai Darij the names of Turkish singers or rhythms?  Are Saidi and Saudi different rhythms or just different spellings for the same rhythm?  Are Muhajjar and Dawr Hindi ancient Indian gods of music or are they rhythms?  What rhythms are used in the popular song “Lailet Hob”?  Do you know the difference between durub and azan; and how they are useful in teaching dance or developing choreography?

All of the answers and much more useful information can be found in the Arabic Tambourine: A Comprehensive Course in Techniques and Performance for the Tambourine, Tar and Mazhar by Mary Ellen Donald.

“Mary Ellen Donald’s book is the result of years of careful observation and contact with recognized percussionists.  It is also the fruit of a long teaching and performing career.  Written in a superbly amiable and easy-to-grasp style, the book is indeed an important source for the study of the daff and a uniquely valuable work for students and performers of Arab music.” A. Jihad Racy, Ph.D., Music Department, UCLA.

Arabic Tambourine may be bought from:
Mary Ellen Books
P.O. Box 7589
San Francisco, CA  94120-7589 

by Ma’Shuqa Mira Murjan
Los Gatos, California 

Or purchase online:

Excerpt from:
Habibi Publications
P.O. Box 90936
Santa Barbara, CA  93190-0936


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