Patterns of Rhythm From Families of Drums 

Interview from World Beat 1993
by Hal Aigner

Mary Ellen

Among the qualities defining the World Beat movement is the fundamental presence of the teacher-student relationship.  Across cultures, percussion learned best is percussion learned from techniques  that are handed down.  Native Pennsylvanian Mary Ellen , entered the ranks of Bay percussionists in 1969 with a focus on Middle Eastern idioms.  Her stature as a performer was thereafter included in the 1979 San Francisco opening ceremonies of the King Tut exhibition, the 1982 Palace of Fine Arts “Arabian Splendor” show, which she produced, and the 1990 World Drum Festival.  But her growing presence in the World Beat community is equally due to a succession of small, fortuitous events that nudged her in the direction of offering classes. 

WBR: Given that you were raised in a culture that’s short on percussion, how did you wend your way to the art? 

DONALD: I grew up in a row house in Upper Darby, a big suburb of 100,000 people in those days, contiguous to Philadelphia.  I started piano at about eight, though my family didn’t even own one.  My teacher lived about two blocks away.  She was an elderly lady who taught in her home.  She had students who didn’t have pianos practice in her home, five days a week.  I worked for her to get lessons, housecleaning and all kinds of chores.  I studied classical piano for about eight years.  From junior high school to Dickinson College, I was in choruses.  My junior year of college I went to Spain, just for the adventure.  I got there and took flamenco guitar for the whole year.  My teacher again was an elderly woman.  She taught in a basement, under the surface.  I had to go down subways and whole flights of stairs to get to this cubby hole where she taught.

Later I came to the Bay Area and completed a master's degree in psychiatric social work.  After that, I tired of academic work.  I said, “I need something that’s more in my body, that’s sensuous, that’s expressive of the female in me.”  I said, “I want some kind of dance.”  What fell into my lap was belly dancing.  One day, my husband at that time heard a co-worker describe a belly dance class in such exciting detail that he called me and said, “I think this is what you want.”  After my first class, I was sold on it.  The music was very passionate; the exotic costumes, the incense, everything. 

WBR: Who was the teacher? 

DONALD: Her name was Jamila Salimpour, one of the foremost performers and teachers in the United States.  After several months of study, Jamila noticed that I played the finger cymbals that accompany the dance much more easily than most of the students.  She said, “Look, you have a good sense of rhythm; I’d like you to learn the drum – the doumbec – that accompanies this dance because we need drummers from within the dancers.”  I said, “Yes” and her husband, a Persian drummer, gave me lessons.

Shortly after that I studied dance with a man named Bert Balladine, who has since become an international belly dancing star.  He was teaching weekly classes in Sausalito.  I found out that Vince Delgado was teaching a drum class an hour before the dance class.  His wife at that time, Mimi Spencer, also studied belly dance.  So Mimi and I would study drums together.  Then we would stay over for Bert’s class.  I studied for one solid year with Vince, which was quite helpful.

: So how did you make the jump from there to teaching?

: One day I was practicing and a knock came to the door.  It was a young girl who was studying at College of Marin.  She said, “I hear you playing the drum that accompanies belly dancing.  I’m a belly dancer.  Will you teach me how to play the drum?  I said “Yes” and that “Yes” changed my life.  I had to organize my material, had to really assess what I knew, so I’d have something to teach her.  When the word got out to Bert, he encouraged his dancers to study with me.  Three or four came.  Then two or three men because they wanted to accompany their girlfriends or their wives.  That’s how I started.

After a few months, I decided that it was laborious for my students to copy everything from the blackboard.  I said, “I better put together a few sheets of paper with these rhythms, these techniques, something I could just copy off and that would be it.”  But every time I tried to finalize something, I kept saying, “No, I don’t know enough yet.”  So I’d listen to more recorded music to figure out what I was hearing.  Eventually, I said to myself, “Why don’t you just go ahead and write the book?” Because nothing had ever been written on how to play Middle Eastern percussion.  Nobody had done that.  So I decided to do it.

Around that time I did a lecture/demonstration on playing finger cymbals at a cabaret show.  Afterwards, one lady asked me if I could teach her to play finger cymbals.  I said “Yes” again.  Then it occurred to me that I might as well write two books at that same time.  That was in late 1974 and 1975. I worked all year on those two books, researching, listening to recordings, listening to good Middle Eastern drummers, trying to put it together and come up with terminology for the techniques.

In 1976, I published both books, Doumbec Delight and Mastering Finger Cymbals.  A month later I came out with companion cassettes for the books.  So I brought the books and cassettes out to the public.  I started advertising in national belly dance publications – there was a big network of belly dancers around the country then.  There were conventions all over, seminars, workshops.  And nobody was out there teaching the rhythms, the music.  Everybody was teaching dance.

And then – I like to chuckle about this – I was declared to be an “expert” in Middle Eastern percussion, because of having written the books.  As an “expert,” I got invited to teach workshops everywhere, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle.  Belly dancers organized these workshops, because they wanted to learn their music.  I got to perform in each city with the Middle Eastern musicians the dancers had connections with.  The dancers would usually produce a show in conjunction with a workshop, so there would be a band I would play with.  The bands’ drummers would usually be fascinated that I played finger cymbals and drums fairly decently and would take me aside to teach me new strokes, new riffs.

So it was after the books that I really added to my understanding of percussion.  Since then I’ve incorporated all that I’ve learned into updates of my books. In my latest publication, Arabic Tambourine, I was able to benefit from everything I’ve learned from percussionists since 1976; rhythms used in the Arab musical world, learned right from Egyptian and Syrian drummers and tambourinists. 

WBR: With such a wide variety of teachers, what styles of Middle Eastern percussion are you presenting? 

DONALD: The Middle East is essentially divided into three cultures: Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. There are a lot of similarities in those three cultures, though the languages are different.  They all have quarter tones in their music, tones that come between the half-steps in our western scales.  If you look at a piano, quarter tones are the notes between the black and white keys, the notes in the cracks.  We don’t have them in our music scale.  But all three Middle Eastern cultures do.  In addition, Turkish music is very particular about dividing a tone into nine parts and tuning to the exact ninth of a tone.  So a very subtle ear is necessary. 

In my specialty, Arabic music, there are three further subdivisions corresponding to geographic regions.  One region is North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya.  There, 6/8 rhythms and 3/4 rhythms are dominant.  They have some short 2/4 rhythms, but they emphasize 6 and 3.  Then they overlay those two and a very exciting polyrhythmical texture comes out of that.

The second area is called the Arabian peninsula, or as we know it now, the Persian Gulf.  The rhythm from that area has an almost Latin sound to it.  It has a 3/3/2 pattern.  They call that music “khaligi.”  It is sometimes very fast, very lively music, and it’s typical of the Gulf area.

Finally, the area of my heaviest specialty is Egypt/Levant.  “Levant” refers to several countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine.  Egypt shares that same music.  The key Levant rhythm is called the “baladi” rhythm when it’s played slow and heavy.  When it’s speeded up, it’s called “maqsoum.”  Then, in Egypt, that same pattern gets speeded up even one more notch and is called “fallahi.”  Fallahi is very popular in upper Egypt.  There is also a “malfouf” rhythm, which has a 3/3/2 pattern, that’s very much in use in the Levant area.

WBR: Where along the way did you begin to realize that you were going to be very good at percussion?

: There wasn’t a particular point that I had this sense that I was really going to be good at percussion.  Little by little, it just happened.  I now play five instruments: finger cymbals, which are called “zagat” in Arabic, tambourine, which is called “def” or in Egypt is called “riq,” the doumbec, the tar, and the giant tambourine, which is called the “mazhar.”  What I’ve done that I think is unique is that I’ve taken these instruments and, when I do my solos, I do things that are probably not done in the Middle East.  I’m playing all the techniques, all the rhythms; doing a five-minute solo, Middle Eastern audiences are surprised and very pleased by that because I’m taking  all the Arabic percussion and putting it in a form that’s unique.

WBR: And how has the teaching progressed? 

DONALD: I was able to get the word out about my classes and establish a student body that’s now steadily over 100.  Over the years, the nature of my student body has changed completely.  At first, my students were all dancers, and their husbands and boyfriends.  That persisted for many years.  Over the last several years, belly dancers have become the minority.  People are turning to drumming for other reasons.  Arabs are coming to learn their own music.  Others come because they’re musicians who just want to increase their rhythmical skill.  People from various religious practices are also coming.  I have a number of students who are of various Sufi orders.  Then I have people from the pagan community and the witchcraft community. 

The average age of my students is probably 38 or 40.  About three-quarters of my students are women.  Many say that they always wanted to study the drum, but were told as kids that “girls aren’t supposed to study drum.”  So they put that off and now they’re coming to, 35 or 40 years old, saying to me, “Now I am going to learn the instrument that I’ve loved all my life and denied it to myself because of the society and culture.”

: What’s the current Bay Area landscape like for Middle Eastern music?

: There are several places where good Arabic music is played live ...

Excerpted from World Beat Report, Vol. 1, No. 6, April 1993


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