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  • Lisa Lumina

L2: Percussion Instruments

This is intended as a source of review for students, or as an orientation. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all MENAHT instruments, but it is a good foundation list of instruments for raqs sharki dancers to be able to recognize in their music. For a more comprehensive list of Middle Eastern instruments, go here. As you learn to identify the sounds of each instrument, practice interpreting their textures. Over time, you will develop certain associations, or moves that "feel right for this sound" to you. Look also at the how the musicians play, their faces and their hands, for information about the feeling and ideas about how fast/slow or sharp/smooth you might want to move. Studying taxeem (solo improvisation on a melodic instrument) is also a key skill as you progress in your dancing.

Percussion Instruments form the backbone of the music. Rhythms even impact the emphasis patterns of the melody. Each percussion instrument gives a different feeling.

Tabla/Doumbek/Darbeki/Darbouka is the goblet drum that is pervasive in Middle Eastern music. The Turkish name is Tabla and it has a more pronounced bowl which produces longer reverb, just like Turkish zills, you are also more likely to see tuning pegs on the outside.

Turkish drummers might use either style of drum. The Arabic drum’s head is more smoothly joined with the body and was traditionally made from ceramic. The edges are always rounded and might use synthetic or goatskin heads. It makes a punchier sound than the Turkish version; Arabic drummers don’t really use the Turkish style of drum.

Doholla is a bass doumbek. It is bigger and sounds deeper. Both are played over the knee/under the arm, not between the legs, as an African djembe would be.


Finger Cymbals

In Turkish they're called zills and in Arabic they're called sagat. Both words mean finger cymbals, and until modern manufacturing methods came around both were made with one hole. As we know, the American bellydancers in the 60’s&70’s were heavily influenced by the Turkish style. Now a'days, Many Americans often prefer two holes for the elastic, which keeps the cymbals steadier, and a deeper bell shape lets them ring longer and sound clearer. They are also called Champarat or Jambarat in Iraqi dialect.

At 2min 42 seconds, Aida does a finger cymbal solo to accompany her own dancing.

In Egypt, the generally preferred sound comes from a flatter rim and small, shallow bell, usually with only one hole for elastic. This creates a clattery sound and they have to be played in a different style. Karim Nagi performs with them in this clip, which illustrates the wide range of pitches and sounds a good sagat player can get out of them.

Another type of cymbal found in Egypt is called tourra, these are played by musicians, not dancers, because they are very large which makes dancing with them hard.

There's a myth that Egyptian dancers don't/didn't play finger cymbals, but it is a myth. There are tons of clips of vintage and modern Egyptian dancers playing sagat.


The Riq: Arabic tambourine. The riq was the main rhythm instrument in classical music and it gives the percussion a subtler feel, allowing the artistry of the melody and/or singer to stand out.

There are a lot of frame drums, and their names vary from region to region. I am still sorting out these regional names, so the info for tar and duff is the best I know right now, and is focused on Egypt. Updates to come.

Duff a deep, large frame drum traditionally made with goatskin and often used as a backup drum to the doumbek. Some have thin chains, like a snare drum, inside.

Tar is a thinner frame drum than the duff also with goatskin, also used in Zaar rituals.

The Tabl Beledi found in both Sa’idi music and Lebanese dabke, a very large round drum held by a strap from the shoulder with a large beater in one hand and a switch on the other side. The player will often move amongst the crowed, dancing around and kneeling to highlight particular dancers in the crowed. Because of this mobile ability, they make great hype-members of a band.

For information about string instruments, click here. For info on blown instruments, click here.

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