Middle Eastern Music Questions?
We have the Answers!!

 Books and Recordings by
Mary Ellen Donald and Mimi Spencer

By Sa’diyya

If you have any questions regarding Middle Eastern music, I highly recommend the following books and recordings produced by two very knowledgeable American women. These books are for musicians as well as dancers. They are all easily understandable by even the least musical person. 

The Gems of the Middle East Series includes three  spiral–bound books and their own companion CD with Donald on percussion and Spencer on qanun and voice. This series breaks down 44 “belly dance favorites” into their rhythmical structures. Some of the songs are Lailet Hob, Azziza, Hagala drum solo, Rampi Rampi, Sawah and Anta Omri. The books describe in great detail how to play the musical selections on the doumbec, tambourine and with finger cymbals. There are helpful hints for how to read musical notation, and resources for additional instruction are listed. Volume I of this series offers a colorful autobiography of Mary Ellen Donald at the back of the book. She is a very interesting person who has beat many odds in her life, and the autobiography is an inspirational reading.

Along with The Gems of the Middle East Series, you can purchase The Gems Songbook and Gems Instrumental Pieces, both by Mimi Spencer, another fascinating woman consumed with a passion for Middle Eastern music. You can read her impressive biography at the back of each of these books. Both books are accompaniments to The Gems of the Middle East Series because they make references to the songs from the three volumes and the three companion CD’s. The Gems Songbook explains the history of the songs, including the country of origin, the time they were composed and the composer. It also tells the maqam or musical scale used, the basic rhythm used, sources for recordings of the songs, the words in Arabic script, and a transliteration and translation of each song. The vocal arrangements are also contained within the musical notation of each song. Gems Instrumental Pieces basically provides the same information, but without any vocal arrangements or translation of the words since these are instrumental songs. Both of these books list the maqam scales, basic rhythm patterns and have helpful glossaries to better explain eastern and western musical notation.

The next two books are Sardika’s Tunes and A Near Eastern Music Primer both by Mimi Spencer. Sardika’s Tunes is a slightly less detailed version of The Gems Songbook and Gems Instrumental Pieces with different selections. The melodies within Sardika’s Tunes are all arranged and transcribed by Mimi Spencer. This book also contains a glossary describing many Middle Eastern musical instruments, among other musical terms. If you still have questions about maqams, musical notation, styling, transliteration and pronunciation and Middle Eastern musical terms, turn to A Near Eastern Music Primer because there are detailed notes about these subjects. This book also contains musical notation, history and translations of seven popular songs that are written for instruments and/or voice with no quarter tones.

The Middle Eastern Rhythms Series, Intermediate/Advanced, by Mary Ellen Donald is a must-have for any level of dancer or musician. It is a concise and clear explanation of thirty-three rhythms from across the Middle East. This series includes two CD’s to listen to each rhythm, and descriptions for playing each rhythm on the doumbec, tambourine and with finger cymbals. This booklet goes into much more detail about each individual rhythm than any of the above-mentioned books. The Gems of the Middle East Series does include some rhythms, but it is advisable to read Middle Eastern Rhythms Series before learning about whole compositions that contain several rhythmic changes.

For a musician who studies Middle Eastern music, it is obvious why these books and recordings are an advisable source. It must be said that these are great tools for dancers as well, because knowing about the music we dance to helps us connect to the music better and makes us look more knowledgeable as ambassadors of Middle Eastern culture. I am inclined to be a musical person, but it doesn’t come easy to me like it does to some people. These books were very helpful and the information was presented in a very clear way. I highly recommend them to both the casual fan of Middle Eastern music and to the professional musician or dancer interested in broadening their horizons! 

Reprinted with permission from The Chronicles. . . A Dancer’s Oasis, Volume 1, Issue 4.


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