find this cover story to be peculiar.
First, because you are likely to find, neatly
tucked within this serious prose, sections
that may make you chuckle, maybe even
laugh (I hope so!). second, because
you will not find the plethora of superlatives
that usually dwell here. Is that because
I am not deserving of any of them? No,
I am not that modest. It is simply because
I would feel embarrassed to call myself “the
best,” “the greatest,” or “the most popular.”
“Well, then,” you ask, “why not write it in
the third person and ask someone else to claim
its authorship?” no, people would see
through that. “Then why not ask a capable
journalist to interview you and write up your
story?” Because I really want to present
myself in my own way – informally – personally,
as though we were chatting over tea.
So here goes.
First, I would like to give my commercials
and then I promise not to insert any hidden
plugs throughout the rest of the article.
I have written books on playing the drum and
cymbals, produced numerous cassettes, and
co-produced the popular album, Encore Bert
Baladi. Yes, I would like you to
buy all of them. Yes, I would like you
to invite me to teach workshops and for you
to attend all the seminars and shows that
I sponsor. That’s all. Thank you.
Now, I would like to introduce myself as I
often do to a new group of people. “I
don’t see very well so I can’t see puzzled
looks on your faces or your hands raised to
ask questions. But I can hear very well.”
For those of you who have been curious and
never asked, I am legally blind with a condition
called choreo retinitis, a blind spot
in the center of each retina. I have
peripheral vision, which really allows me
to see quite a bit, but not in detail and
not with proper depth perception. So,
sometimes you will be surprised by how much
I can see, and other times by how little I
can see. Just remember to tell me when
we come to steps going down, please.
So how did all this Middle Eastern music start
for me? It certainly did not happen
in a vacuum. Music had been important
to me for many years before this – singing
in choirs and choruses, studying piano for
eight years, folk guitar for one year, and
flamenco guitar for one year in Spain.
(Sorry to say that I have lost all my repertoire
on the piano and guitar, so please do not
ask me to “play a little.”) As I was
struggling with putting shimmies on top of
dance steps that were already difficult to
execute in Bert Balladine’s class, I found
that I was a whiz on cymbals. (Please
excuse this use of a superlative.) Playing
the drum was a natural outgrowth of my ability
on the cymbals. But not that
natural. I was helped along greatly
by a year of study with the illustrious percussionist,
Vince Delgado. Being an intense person,
(as I am often dubbed by my husband, Ed),
I practiced diligently, and so progressed
fairly rapidly. That was happening around
In 1972, when my son John was born, I put
my drum in the closet and forgot about it
as I got involved in being a mother.
My pathway back to the drum is a real tearjerker,
so get ready. I had continued my dance
classes with Bert mainly out of my fascination
with the sensuous movements and the exhilarating
music. But by the autumn of 1974, living
on one modest salary proved to be too much
to handle, and we entered the economic disaster
zone. I could not pay for my classes.
So I requested an exchange with Bert; I would
provide a drum accompaniment for some classes
in order to get other classes free.
That meant I had to start practicing on that
drum. One day as I was doing so, a knock
came at the door of our cottage in Marin.
It was a young college student who introduced
herself as a bellydance student, and said
that she wondered if I could teach her how
to play the drum. I said I would like
to do that. My decision was reinforced
by Bert, as he kept encouraging me to teach
dancers, saying that many of them wanted to
learn drumming, but felt intimidated by the
I will not bore you with the myriad of details
that line my evolutionary path from psychiatric
social worker/part-time drum instructor to
full-fledged professional performer/instructor
of Middle Eastern percussion. Mimeographed
lessons became books. Our cottage in
Marin became a house in San Francisco, and
my classes of five students became thirty-five.
Anyway, I am sure that you know my history
better than I do if you have been keeping
up with the bellydance publications over the
Honors have come my way from time to time,
and I would like to share them briefly with
you. I was selected to play, along with
oud player George Mundy, the music for the
grand opening of the King Tut Exhibit in San
Francisco, an event attended by Egypt’s ambassador
to the United States and many other dignitaries.
Anthony Cirone, nationally acclaimed composer,
author, and percussionist with the San Francisco
Symphony, composed the Cairo Suite,
a concerto for finger cymbals, tambourine,
and drum and small orchestra, and dedicated
it to me. A nine-piece orchestra with
Western percussion instruments and I performed
this dramatic piece with accompanying dance
interpretation by the Aswan Dancers at the
national convention of the Percussive Art
Society. I think my tambourine solo
was the most captivating for these Western
percussionists. The tambourine in the
West has lagged far behind its sophisticated
counterpart in the Middle East. Terri
Tepper of the Chicago area wrote a much-talked-about
book, The New Entrepreneurs, about
women who run their own businesses out of
their homes. Of the forty-two women
featured, I was selected as one. We
do not just tell smashing success stories,
but also of our frustrations and failures.
Finally, I have recently been honored by being
asked to join the faculty of San Francisco
State University and teach Middle Eastern
percussion. That came as a welcome endorsement
of my efforts in this field.
Putting honors aside, I would like to share
with you some very thrilling experiences that
still shine in my memory. An event came
in the Fall of 1977, in Washington, D.C.,
when I sat with a five-piece Egyptian band
in a Patrima production. The contemporary
sound of violin, organ, nay, and dynamic drums
brought Cairo breath-takingly close.
From then on, my musical preference and drumming
style made a dramatic shift from Turkey to
Egypt. Also in connection with that
event, I discovered the subtlety and excitement
of the tambourine, as I had the opportunity
to study with the band’s tambourinist,
Sayed Anany. Let me digress a bit from
my tale of thrills to talk about this fascinating
instrument. It is so much smaller than
the drum, this easier to take anywhere you
go. It looks cute and easy to play.
But, in many ways it is harder to play than
the drum, particularly if you play the professional
tambourines imported from Cairo with the heavy,
rich-sounding cymbals, your left forearm and
wrist have to be strong to hold it.
My students ask hopefully when they will overcome
the ache and cramps that plague the left hand
after continuous playing. From the hand
of experience, I answer, “Probably never.”
Nevertheless, we love the tambourine.
It is the spice of the band; I must confess,
too, that it is a show-off’s delight.
Now to continue. When I went to Chicago
to work for Charmaine, I performed my usual
series of solos on cymbals, tambourine, and
drum, to an audience of mainly strangers.
I had no idea how responsive they would be.
At the end of my performance they kept on
clapping. Not seeing well, it took quite
a time for it to dawn on me that I was receiving
a standing ovation. Tears came to my eyes
with the emotion I felt with that realization.
They told me then and they tell me now that
when I perform those solos a kind of magic
takes over. I usually acknowledge their compliments
graciously and try to remind myself that a
Source much greater than my individual ego
allows this music to play through me to touch
Atlanta brought another thrill my way – that
of playing with my eighteen-piece band, guided
from long distance with cassettes and music
scores, and nurtured locally so aptly by Kalila.
When I heard all those drums, tambourines,
and cymbals sounding around me, I felt like
a very proud mother.
With this abbreviated list of memories, I
don’t mean to slight any of my friends.
I have been warmly received and wonderfully
treated all over this country, and feel very
grateful for that. If asked to name
my favorite part of the country to visit,
I would have to say the Northeast, Boston
and New York. There I get to play with
a different Middle Eastern band each night
– a kind of busman’s holiday. There
I do for fun what is supposed to be my work.
I would like to close by talking about two
ongoing thrills that are very important to
me – one of them is working with my own band
in the San Francisco area. Besides myself,
the core of the band is Yoko Abe on violin,
and Michael Gruber on nay, mijwiz, and mizmar.
What a joy to be able to play most of the
music that has turned me on for years!
Yoko is an accomplished classical violinist
who took up Middle Eastern violin several
years ago. She transcribes all of the music
for the group – no small task. Yoko
and I share more than just our pursuit of
musical excellence. We feel the music
and we love it? Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian
singer, drives us both nuts! Speaking
about nuts, that brings me to Michael.
Don’t get me wrong, I always tease him.
I mean that he is nuts about Middle Eastern
music. He plays some of the hardest
instruments. If you have ever tried
to make a sound on the nay, you know what
I mean. And if that is not enough, Michael
makes his own instruments. He is quiet,
but when he gets on that mizmar or mijwiz,
watch out; there is no stopping him. The crowd
loves it. Indeed, Michael, Yoko, and
I form a very happy triumvirate.
My other ongoing thrill comes from teaching.
I enjoy being part of that process of refining
a point until a student really grasps it and
takes off with it. I particularly like
teaching people to read music who vehemently
claim their musical ignorance. Paradoxically,
in teaching, I learn. I also must admit
that in teaching I show off a bit – and that
And now, if I were formally interviewing myself,
I would probably ask, “What, Mary Ellen, are
your challenges for the future?” And
I would reply succinctly: (1) to gain greater
recognition for my band within the Arab community
(the Arabian Splendor Show) should take care
of that; (2) to strengthen my drum technique,
hopefully studying with the great Syrian drummer
Elias Khoury will do the trick; and (3) to
learn to speak the Egyptian dialect fluently
(easier said than done!) Thanks for
letting me share my story with you.
6, No. 12, 1982