Mary Ellen Donald’s Middle Eastern Rhythms
An instructional audio tape review by Ma’Shuqa Mira Murjan 

Mary Ellen Donald, master Middle Eastern percussionist, has distilled thirty years of drumming into four high fidelity, sixty-minute cassettes.  On Middle Eastern Rhythms for Beginners, Volume I and Volume II, Mary Ellen plays rhythms slowly and more simply.  On Middle Eastern Rhythms for Intermediate and Advanced, Volume I and Volume II, she plays the same rhythms faster and with more complexity.  The series provides instruction that enables dancers and musicians to understand, teach, and perform to 28 different Middle Eastern Rhythms.

Rhythms are played on doumbec and tambourine for dance and percussion practice.  Each of the rhythms is played for between four and five minutes.  All of the major rhythms that one would encounter in an Arabic or Turkish belly dance routine are presented: ayyoub, baladi, malfouf, rumba, bolero, chiftetelli, karsilamma, Sa’idi, maqsoum, masmoudi, and Wwahidah.  North African, Greek, and Romanian rhythms are also presented.

Using a metronome, Mary Ellen provides a regulated tempo that works well for teaching basic dance steps.  Beginning students may find it distracting or even intimidating to learn a basic dance step when the music, although beautiful, is far too fast for them to keep up with and makes it confusing to listen to as they practice a new dance step.  The moderate tempo of the beginning tapes are the perfect speed for teaching dancers new steps and finger cymbal choreography.  Dance teachers can use the tapes as if Mary Ellen is drumming for class.  These tapes are also excellent in educating dancers about the variations of basic rhythms that they will hear in the music.

Mary Ellen provides a rhythmic counting at the beginning of each rhythm section to set the tempo.  Then she plays the rhythm on the doumbec and tambourine.  Mary Ellen plays each rhythm with a variety of embellishments that performers need to know so they can be prepared for performance with a live band.  This is truly the best learning method for preparing the “baby dancer” for a performance to live music, as the tapes provide all of the exciting embellishments that dancers need to learn in order to become an accomplished performer.

Dance professionals, teachers and performers may at first find the slow tempo unchallenging, but the discerning dancer will “hear and listen” to the myriad of rhythmic variations that Mary Ellen creates as she embellishes the basic rhythm pattern with both doumbec and tambourine flourishes.  For example, the basic 2/4 karachi rhythm actually has more than eight different variations.  There are a minimum of eight variations played for each of the rhythms presented, a virtual wealth of sound that will distinguish the expert professional percussionist or dancer.  It really helps dancers understand and learn the various fancy versions of the basic rhythms that musicians play.  This is also the secret to performance at an advanced level, dancing to all of the permutations of the various embellishments that the musicians play.  It is also helpful to study Mary Ellen’s instructional texts, Doumbec Delight, Arabic Tambourine, and Mastering Finger Cymbals, to learn the secret to these embellishments, and the concept of “filling and emptying space” with sound.

The audiotapes are accompanied by musical examples for each rhythm, and are written for doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals.  Visual learners will appreciate this reference as they follow the rhythms and their variations in print while listening to the rhythms being played.  Some of the most difficult to master rhythms heard in music, such as “syncopated spice”, are clarified when you can refer to the rhythmic patterns in print.

The printed instruction sheets serves as a glossary for rhythm strokes played on doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals.  Dancers who have heard teachers refer to the doumbec sounds (doum and tek) when teaching dance will now have a visual reference point, as they learn the details of how sounds important to Arabic drumming are made.  Mary Ellen’s instruction sheets distinguish her lesson tapes from most others on the market, as they provide quick instruction in how to play doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals.  For example, the “doum” as played on the doumbec is explained as “four fingers of the right hand striking the center of the drum.”  With this brief instruction set one could begin to play doumbec and tambourine.  Doumbec Delight, Arabic Tambourine, and Mastering Finger Cymbals also have accompanying audiotapes for additional, in-depth instruction by Mary Ellen.

There are many layers of learning in these tapes, and there are numerous creative ways to use them.  For drummers, the rhythms played by the tambourine can provide a s steady beat for practicing doumbec.  These tapes provide a rare resource to assist tambourine players in learning and perfecting tambourine technique and understanding the interplay between doumbec and tambourine.  Finger cymbal technique can be also enhanced by learning and playing along with the rhythms and embellishments provided.  The beginning/intermediate series may be used by dance teachers in class to introduce the major belly dance rhythms and the coordination of cymbals with dance, and the intermediate and advanced series would be very useful in more advanced dance classes.  Dancers can develop the ability to match movements to the embellishments provided by Mary Ellen, and learn to appreciate the role of the tambourine and its interplay with the doumbec in dance performance.  There are numerous sections in the series which would be useful in a drum solo routine, or a troupe a capella number using finger cymbals, drum, and tambourine.  The tapes are also a pleasure to listen to, evoking a meditative state or “shamanic journey”.

This is not an instructional series that should be run through in a few hours, then never used again.  With study, these tapes can give the dancer a “professional edge” over other performers by unveiling the “secrets” to the complexity of Middle Eastern rhythms, allowing the dancer to perform in even the most challenging musical settings.  The ability to distinguish rhythm patterns, no matter what melody is being played, is an essential skill for any dancer who wished to be able to dance or play percussion with proficiency.  These tapes are an excellent percussion resource for serious dancers, dance teachers and percussionists.

For more information contact Mary Ellen Donald at P.O. Box 7589, San Francisco, CA 94120-7589  (415) 826-DRUM (3786). 

Vol. 15, #6
Pages 19-20
May – June 1999


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