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Gems of the Middle East: Belly Dance Favorites from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece
Three cassettes by Mary Ellen Donald and Mimi Spencer and three books by Mary Ellen Donald

A Music and Book Review by Izora

Cassettes: 

Mary Ellen Donald has outdone herself.  Following the success of her highly acclaimed Middle Eastern Rhythms cassette series, she has produced a series of three 60 minute high fidelity cassettes featuring Mimi Spencer on qanun and voice and herself on doumbec and tambourine – Gems of the Middle East: Belly Dance Favorites From Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece.  Drawing upon her thirty years of musical experience, Mary Ellen has designed these unique tapes to fulfill the needs of dancers and drummers alike.  There is no fluff.  These are the classics with a few additions to spice things up – fifteen pieces per tape.  Never has there been such a concentration of belly dance hits.

The unique feature of the Gems tapes is that they contain many selections for each of the categories of music necessary in a belly dancer routine: entrance, slow, drum solo, tip music, and finale.  With the help of an ordinary two tape cassette deck, you can piece together selections from each of these categories to create an extraordinary number of new exciting routines for your performance.  Routines that are created in this fashion, with the same instruments playing throughout, are smooth and pleasant to the listener’s ear.  They are not jarring to one’s sensibilities as are routines that are a hodgepodge of orchestra, synthesizer, and small acoustic ensembles.  Mary Ellen has thoughtfully noted the timing of each selection to assist you in putting together routines that meet your performance requirements.

The drum solos (one per tape) are reason alone to purchase the Gems.  They are hot, very danceable, laden with rhythm changes, and a perfect length.  The deep resonant sound of the djembe (West African drum) brings to each solo a compelling vibration that you will find hard to resist.  Volume One: Hagada Drum Solo with doumbec, tambourine, and djembe; Volume Two: Sabroso Drum Solo with the same instruments and the addition of the bongos; Volume Three: Libi Drum Solo with doumbec, djembe, and duff – no metallic sound in this one.

On these Gems, Mimi and Mary Ellen, musical partners for over fifteen years, play with fire and soul and truly demonstrate their mastery of their instruments.  Mimi makes the qanun (seventy-seven string zither) sound like a full orchestra.  She sings with passion in Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, and Armenian.  Mary Ellen’s doumbec playing is sharp, clean, and full of playful spices.  Her tambourine playing is simply awesome.  Mary Ellen says, “I went into the production of the Gems tapes with a strong determination to record the tambourine at a high enough volume so that it could bring fullness and add excitement to the music.”

Comments from professional Arab musicians underline the excellence of these recordings.  “This is the best recording of Middle Eastern music that I have ever heard: so balanced and clear,” ‘Abdallah Kdouh, oudist and singer.  “Great.  This is the way the tambourine ought to sound on a recording,” Tony Lammam, drummer and tambourinist.

The beautiful color photo of Mimi and Mary Ellen with gardenias in their hair on the front of each cassette sets the tone for the Gems within.  Every dancer ought to own this series.  Veils off to two great women of music – Mimi Spencer and Mary Ellen Donald.  (See ad for ordering information). 

Books:

Gems of the Middle East - Belly Dance Favorites from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece – A Rhythmical Analysis in three volumes.

In the Gems books, Mary Ellen Donald goes beyond simply continuing her tradition as a pioneering educator in the field of Middle Eastern percussion.  (Note her earlier books on playing finger cymbals, doumbec, tambourine, and tar.)  In the content of these books, she has done something that has never been done before and presents this material in such an exquisite and professional manner that anyone who sees these books is compelled to stop and take note.

In these Gems, for the sake of dancers, drummers, and melodic instrumentalists, Mary Ellen has analyzed the rhythmical structure of each piece that is performed on the corresponding tape.  Many of the classic entrance pieces for a belly dance routine contain ten or more changes in rhythm within the space of four or five minutes.  Mary Ellen contends that knowing these changes enables dancers and musicians to perform with confidence and authority.  Not knowing what’s going on rhythmically in the music could lead to a performance with a gnawing sense of insecurity and certainly would keep one from expressing the full potential of the music.

The following is a partial example of how Mary Ellen presents an analysis: 

Azizah”, Dear One – Egyptian.  Note:  each time the wahidah is played, it is suggested that the tambourine play first four measures with one long shake per measure.

Melody A (meaning the first melody that occurs in the piece) twice: “walking” maqsoum.

Melody B (meaning the second melody that occurs in the piece) twice plus a two-measure tag: malfouf.

Melody C, once: wahidah, that is, eight measures of wahidah followed by a grab, slap or clap, followed by three beats of silence, then two more measures of wahidah.

Melody D, once: “walking” maqsoum.

 All of the rhythms that Mary Ellen refers to in these analyses are presented in depth in her Middle Eastern Rhythms series, four cassettes with accompanying booklets with musical notation.  Within the Gems analyses, there are numerous patterns with musical notation for spices and breaks the way Mary Ellen actually performed them on the tapes, with strokes indicated for doumbec and tambourine.  (Cymbal strokes are also included though they are not played on the recording.)  In a key near the beginning of each book, Mary Ellen indicates concisely how each stroke is played on the three instruments.  For those who don’t know how to read music, her earlier books and companion tapes are recommended.

Volume One of the Gems book contains a twenty-five page autobiographical sketch straight from Mary Ellen’s heart – The Woman Behind the Drum.  She writes as though she were telling her story to you in person, sitting at her dining room table, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, sipping red wine and eating dark chocolate.  She speaks of her blindness, her battles with cancer, her journey from fledgling to master drummer and of how she took a nine-hundred dollar per month rent increase in 1998 not as a crushing blow, but as an impetus to produce the Middle Eastern Rhythms and Gems series.  Mary Ellen’s inspirational story is guaranteed to make you laugh and touch your heart.

The Gems of the Middle East books are 8 ˝” x 11” and are spiral bound with protective laminated plastic covers – a must for serious dancers and musicians.  (See ad for ordering information.)

Izora is a long time dancer and teacher from Fremont, California.  She has studied doumbec, tambourine, tar, and finger cymbals for eight years and has found Mary Ellen Donald’s book and cassettes invaluable – both as a dancer and a musician. 

Habibi Publications
Vol. 17, No. 2
Pages 34-35

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