Middle Eastern Rhythms Series by Mary Ellen Donald

reviewed by Sharina 

It’s hard to believe that there’s anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Mary Ellen Donald, but just in case there is, this national treasure is an acclaimed author, instructor and performer in Middle Eastern Percussion.  After years of teaching, she developed the Middle Eastern Rhythms Series to teach the different rhythms for those playing the doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals ... or for those who just want to know more about rhythms in dancing!   

The Middle Eastern Rhythms Series has two different levels: Beginners and Intermediate/Advanced.  The Beginners series (Volume I and Volume II) teaches twenty-six Arabic, North African, Turkish and Greek Rhythms.  Middle Eastern Rhythms for Intermediate/Advanced (Volume I and Volume II) teaches the same rhythms (plus a few extras) but they are played faster and with more variations.   

Each course, whether Beginner or Intermediate/Advanced contains 2 CDs (originally produced on cassettes, but remastered and reissued on CDs) as well as a booklet of musical examples for each rhythms (for those of us that need a visual reminder).  The booklets provide a key for strokes on the doumbec, tambourine and finger cymbals (e.g., “R – Right – Right hand cymbals struck together”) as well as musical examples for each rhythm written for each of the 3 instruments.  This is a really great idea because for many of us it’s so much clearer if we can look at written music while we’re listening to a particular rhythm! 

On Beginner Volume I we hear: Ayyoub, Baladi, Malfouf, Rhumba, Saudi, Bolero, Chiftetelli, Karsilamas, Karachi, Sa’idi, Nawwari, Walking Maqsoum and Masmoudi.  Volume II gives us: 6/8 Rhythm, Sha’bia “Heart”, Sha’bia “Lung”, Tunisian 12/8, Syrto, Jurjuna, akalamatiano, “Syncopated Spice”, Wahidah, “Fast”Chiftetelli, “Mellow” Masmoudi, Sama’i and Fallahi.   

With each new rhythm, Mary Ellen identifies the rhythm for us, counts it out to set the tempo, then proceeds to play it on the doumbec or tambourine.  The tempo is slow enough for a beginner to be able to follow along and then when we get a little bit comfortable with the rhythm, she adds several variations.  So within each rhythm we not only get the basic rhythm, but we get several enhancements as well.  Each rhythm section lasts for about 5 minutes, so there’s enough time to get familiar with a new rhythm before we move on to the next section (or decide to go back and work with it a few more times).  And for those of us who might be working on our finger cymbals and don’t quite trust our ears, the booklet with written music that accompanies this series is really helpful to keep us on track with the rhythm and with which hand to use! 

Therefore, while the Middle Eastern Rhythms Series is an excellent practice medium for the beginning dancer or drummer, it is also helpful to dancers or percussionists who know the basic rhythms but wish to become familiar with some embellishments as well.  Each CD lasts approximately 60 minutes and, of course, one of the great parts about having this series remastered onto CDs instead of the original cassettes is that we don’t have to worry about rewinding or fast-forwarding to that Chiftetelli rhythm that you wanted to work on today.  This is not a course that we breeze through and then put aside; it’s something that we would want to practice with often! 

As the note on the Beginner series states: “When you feel comfortable playing these rhythms at the beginner speed, we encourage you to purchase Middle Eastern Rhythms for Intermediate/Advanced: Tapes I and II, in which the rhythms are played fancier and faster.” 

Moving on to the CDs of the Intermediate/Advanced level, there’s a marked difference in the tempo of each rhythm … instead of the steady, almost hypnotic beat of, e.g., the ayyoub, we hear some wonderful upbeat variations that are very danceable in themselves!  The rhythms are still very easy to follow (especially if we’ve put in our time in the Beginner series) but offer so many more variations it really gives us something to work toward! 

The Intermediate/Advanced series presents the same tempos that we learned before (with a few additional rhythms) but really emphasizes what we can do with some more practice!  For anyone that has trouble recognizing a “fancy” rhythm, this progression from the Beginner to Advanced series is an excellent way to follow along and learn to distinguish these rhythms when we listen to music.  Once again, this part of the series is not only good for beginners who want to advance past basic rhythms, but would also be beneficial to more advanced dancers and drummers who want to enhance their percussion skills. 

Whether you’re new to these basic rhythms or whether you’re an experienced percussionist or dancer who is looking for a valuable resource of rhythms, the Middle Eastern Rhythms Series is for you! The CDs are very clear and easy to follow and the booklets are really helpful in terms of musical notation and visual aids.  Mary Ellen Donald has 35 years of experience in percussion and this is our chance to study with a master! 

This review appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Zaghareet Magazine

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