Gems of the Middle East: Belly Dance Favorites from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey & Greece
reviewed by Sharina

I know this appears under Music Reviews, but this remarkable series could also have been placed under Book Reviews since master percussionist Mary Ellen Donald has not only given us 3 wonderful CDs but has also provided us with 3 very comprehensive books of rhythmical analysis as well!

The 3 CDs feature the late Mimi Spencer on qanun (she also provides beautiful vocals in several languages), with Mary Ellen Donald demonstrating her 35 years of experience on doumbec and tambourine. The music was originally published on cassettes, but was remastered into CDs, which makes it SO much easier for the listener to navigate and choose some of the different selections to put together into a full routine. And Mary Ellen has made it so easy for us to “mix and match” selections because she has provided a little bit of everything, from entrances to exits, with drum solos and tempo changes throughout! Most of the pieces are short (3-4 minutes) so there is no problem choosing several selections to make countless combinations from these 3 CDs. What a wealth of musical selections all in one package!

Volume I and II have 17 selections each and Volume III has 10 pieces (including a 13 minute medley) for a total play time of approximately 60 minutes on each CD. The music on the CDs range from old favorites such as Lailet Hob, Rampi Rampi, Erev Shel Shoshanim and Princess of Cairo to incredible new drum solos (one per CD). The percussion is so clear that you’d think she was sitting right next to you playing her tambourine and you can feel every beat of the doumbek! This set of CDs is a “must have” for any dancer because there is such a concentration of belly dance classics that can be used over and over again in different combinations that we would never again have to dance to the “same old routine”! But it is also recommended for anyone who just enjoys listening to some beautiful renditions of Middle Eastern music at its best. You’ll want to listen to them often!

But then … there are the accompanying books! Mary Ellen tells us in the preface that during her early years of teaching drumming technique and rhythms (with no connection to melodies), she realized how helpful it would be for her students to analyze musical selections rhythmically and she decided to provide them to her students. And now they’re provided to us! It’s Mary Ellen’s feeling that dancers must know the rhythmical structures in order to have a powerful and exciting performance. And for those of us who need a visual reminder to help us remember the rhythms, these books are perfect!

Each book starts out with a Key for Strokes including doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals (which are not played on the CDs, but the cymbal strokes have been included in the book to add to its usefulness). The book then proceeds to analyze the rhythm in each song presented on the CD, including musical notation, the keystrokes and a narrative. The melodies of each song are clearly broken down into Melody A and Melody B and the rhythms are labeled in terms such as “walking” maqsoum and “fast” chifte-telli. There are also helpful notations such as: “On the recording when the drum plays malfouf, the tambourine plays Karachi”. So much information for each song! And there’s a book of rhythmic analysis accompanying each CD, so we can easily flip through the books to whichever songs we have decided to use in our routine to make sure we don’t miss any of the rhythm changes! So while these books are good for the beginner dancer to help her identify rhythms that she doesn’t recognize, the helpful notations would also assist a more advanced dancer or percussionist as well.

One of the highlights of Volume I is a detailed autobiography of the author. Mary Ellen Donald tells her story with a combination of humor and honesty that makes you feel like she’s a close personal friend by the end of the chapter.

These books are very easy to follow and are recommended for any musician or dancer, from beginner to advanced, who is serious about learning the rhythm of music … which should be all of us! Do not pass up this chance to learn from Mary Ellen Donald!

This review appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Zaghareet Magazine

Zaghareet Magazine

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