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Mary Ellen Donald 

Middle Eastern Percussionist & Trail Blazer

by Khalida

Mary Ellen was born and raised just outside Philadelphia, PA.  When she was 8 years old she fell in love with the piano and was diagnosed with macular degeneration: a serious visual condition that causes gradual loss of central vision.  She discovered the piano in the home of family friends and begged her parents for lessons and they agreed.  Because the family could not afford a piano, Mary Ellen practiced at her teacher’s house 5 days a week.  Later on, when her parents could no longer afford the lessons, Mary Ellen cleaned her teacher’s house so she could continue her studies. 

Her visual handicap did not keep her from being an active child, and in fact, she was very athletic, playing many sports in school.  Thanks to her mother and free materials provided by the Recordings for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind, she was able to pursue her studies.  She graduated valedictorian from high school; she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dickinson College; and she went on to receive her Masters in Psychiatric Social Work in 1969.

In 1969 Mary Ellen started dance lessons with Jamila Salimpour and after a few months of playing the finger cymbals (zills), Jamila noticed Mary Ellen’s rhythmical sense and invited her to learn to play the drum.  After two lessons Mary Ellen got on-the-job training performing with Jamila’s troupe,  Bal Anat, at a local Renaissance Faire. 

In 1971 she started dance lessons with Bert Balladine and when she could no longer afford the classes, made an offer to Bert that he couldn’t refuse: drumming one class a month in exchange for dance lessons the rest of the month.  He was instrumental in launching her into the drumming profession.  While rehearsing at home one day, a neighbor (also a dancer) heard her playing the drum, came by and wanted drum lessons – would Mary Ellen teach her?  Mary Ellen said, “Yes”. 

While trying to teach drumming she realized she needed examples to pass to her students so they could practice and she began to compile exercises and rhythmical examples.  She kept coming up with more and more exercises and examples and finally realized that she was writing a book!!

Around this time her finger cymbal expertise won her a spot playing solo at a belly dance performance.  Shortly after this performance she got a call asking if she could teach the finger cymbals – of course she said, “Yes”.  After a few months it became clear to her that much of the drum book that she was putting together was pertinent to the cymbals as well.  In 1975 she spent most of her time engaged in writing and putting together instructional manuals in Middle Eastern percussion.  She was blazing a new trail, creating from scratch and loving it!  In 1976, Doumbec Delight and Mastering Finger Cymbals were released and she began to receive invitations to teach workshops all over the country. 

From the mid-80’s to the present, Mary Ellen has devoted most of her energy to cultivating and tending to her large Bay Area student body.  During this time she has been a regular performer at Rakkasah West held in the San Francisco area.  Mary Ellen has had 2 major drum instructors over the years: Vince Delgado in the early 70’s and Tony Lammam in the mid-90’s. 

In 1998 she decided to produce another series to help pay her expenses.  The Middle Eastern Rhythms series is the result (reviewed in:  The Chronicles, Volume 1, Issue 3 & 4).  There are four 60-minute CDs featuring 28 rhythms carefully selected by Mary Ellen from her over 30 years of playing Middle Eastern percussion.  Since many people need something visual to help in the learning process, she designed a 4-page booklet to accompany each CD, with musical examples for all the rhythms, showing strokes for doumbec, tambourine and cymbals.  This series is best used for practicing and perfecting your technique on percussion instruments. 

While dancing and drumming with Bert, she became acquainted with Mimi Spencer who was also taking dance and drum lessons at his studio.  Over the years they began to work together and became friends.  They have been playing at the Amira restaurant once a week for 10 years.  Because of their friendship, love of music, and years working together, they have achieved a state of tandemness in their music that shows in their performances.

Three days after the release of the Middle Eastern Rhythms series, Mary Ellen and Mimi Spencer entered the recording studio to begin working on the Gems of the Middle East – a compilation of the pieces they have played together over the years.  Gems has companion books to go with the CDs,  which contain detailed rhythmical analysis for doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals.  Both Gems of the Middle East and Middle Eastern Rhythms are very unique in that they both contain such detailed information.     (Gems Reviewed in The Chronicles, Volume 1, Issue 4).

Over the years, Mary Ellen’s semi-annual recital has turned into a big event and is now both a student recital and a professional concert.  Titled Middle Eastern Treasures, Mary Ellen is producer, emcee, promoter, composer, and performer for an event that is attended by 130-140 people.  Each event has several new pieces composed by Mary Ellen and performed by her and/or her students and can include such diversity as jazz drumming, jazz sax, a didgeridoo and doumbec duet, flamenco or a flautist – of course, there is belly dancing as well!  Mary Ellen uses this event to express all the different facets of her creativity. 

Mary Ellen has always enjoyed singing and started voice lessons in 1993.  She has performed publicly numerous times, with her latest focus being on singing jazz and bringing Middle Eastern percussion to the jazz arena.  She performs at an open-mike club every week and people just love the way she has incorporated finger cymbals and tambourines with jazz.   

Shortly after starting voice lessons, she began studying the oud with Mimi Spencer. Recently she began playing the oud for ensemble classes with her drum students. 

Her son John was born in 1972 and over the years she has developed a deep and close friendship with him.  They consider each other deep friends and enjoy their shared interest in music.  He is studying the tar, doumbec and jazz trumpet.  Mary Ellen feels very blessed to have such a wonderful relationship with her son. 

Mary Ellen’s blindness has never hampered her desire to learn, to perform to do new things.  Her strong determination allows her to take adversity and turn into a success. 

When asked about an event that stands out most in her memory she said that there have been so many rich experiences in her life that it would be difficult to choose just one.  Her life is full, not frantic, and she plays her drums and lives her life with joy in her heart. 

For more details about Mary Ellen, see her 25-page autobiography included in Volume One of Gems of the Middle East.

Reprinted with permission from The Chronicles. . . A Dancer’s Oasis, Volume 2, Issue 1.

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