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Starting a Middle Eastern Music Band

Fight Blahs with a Band

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Ibrahim Farrah's Certainty Principle: Be there.

In an article entitled Fight Tape Blahs! Form a Band in a 1989 edition of Middle Eastern Dancer magazine, Mary Ellen Donald advises dancers to cure the dance blahs by, yes, forming a band.

She advises setting standards of conduct from the beginning. Musicians must commit to:

  • Performing to meet the dancers's needs;
  • Attending rehearsals as standard procedure;
  • Making tapes of their music for dancers to practice to;
  • Choosing and supporting a musical director.

Ms. Donald encourages beginning bands to concentrate on percussion alone, since that would be easier to cultivate while providing musical energy for performances. She suggested a combination of drum, tambourine, finger cymbals, and a plucked instrument, the tar.

When the time comes to add melody, she recommends you seek out folks who play violin, guitar, flute, or keyboard. Violin is the only Western instrument that is capable of producing the quarter-tones distinctive to ME music.

For folkloric music, Ms Donald recommends flute, obo or violin. For cabaret, violin, guitar, accordion or keyboard.

Organizing a Percussion-Only Band

Matt Stonehouse of Fingers of Fury encourages bands to plan around a full spectrum of sound. "... when only darbukas are used in an ensemble, so much is missing. We need to think about dynamics, texture, colour and contrast."
  • Bass frequency drums: Davul (Turkey), Tabl (Lebanon), and Tupan (Balkans).
  • Frame drums: played in many parts of the world and come with all sorts of variations such as snares (Bendir), tambourine (Riq) and chains (Daf). Daholla (bass darbuka). He recommends the Riq as a relatively simple step up from zills for a dancer.
  • For the higher, brighter sounds, the darbuka.
  • Zills on top of this.

Organizing a Percussive Set

Mary Ellen, writing again in Middle Eastern Dancer magazine:
  • Ten or twelve minutes of percussion is a good first half of a dance set.
  • Folkloric routines are compatible with the following rhythms:
    1. Masmoudi
    2. Baladi
    3. Saidi
    4. Fallahi
    5. Malfuf
  • For cabaret, she recommends:
    1. Masmoudi
    2. Baladi
    3. Chiftelelli
    4. Bolero
    5. Ayyub
  • Change dynamics in sound by adding and subtracting instruments once or twice during a set. The musical director will decide about the changes and coordinate cues with the dancers.

Playing for Dancers

Mas'ud al-Sha'ir:

  1. Learn the basic rhythms... Baladi is the most commonly known rhythm... but it gets real old, real fast. By knowing the basic rhythms... your dancers will appreciate your drumming more and will, in the end, seek you out to play for them.
  2. Watch the dancers and try to learn their signals. The dancers will let you know when they want to speed up or slow down, when they want to change rhythms, and when they need a break.
  3. If you start a rhythm, stick with it for at least sixteen measures. This allows the dancers to fully develop their routine before they have to switch to a new one. For this same reason, it is also a good idea to keep all of your variations to a multiple of four measures.
  4. When playing within a group of drummers, at least two-thirds of the drummers, and preferably more, should play the base rhythm, while the other drummers provide the accents for the dancers. If less than two-thirds play the foundation rhythm, the basic rhythm gets lost with the end result being the dancers unable to follow, and thus dance to, the rhythm.

One-Night Stand: Ozel on jump-starting a Western band into Middle-Eastern Music

Ozel's famous book, The Belly Dancer In You, published in 1976, devotes a few pages to the complex problem of obtaining live MED music from a Western band.

Her advice is to know your routine thoroughly -- "Then you can deal with the orchestra. The idea is: MELODY." And to this end she supplies a complete dance set written out on six pages of staff paper, including guitar chords, and ending with a Karshilama.

The practicality of incorporating a karshilama into a set by a Western music band is questionable, since in her chapter on zill playing she states that the 9/8 tempo is difficult for American musicians to play simply because they have never heard it before. "When I have a Karshilama song, I always have to practice for hours with the band so they can get the hang of it." There is also no notation of what rhythms the musicians should be playing with the songs (other than the Karshilama). My guess is that Ozel got the band as close as possible to the right melodies and then provided the rhythm with very strong zill playing.

Your Competition: a CD Player

Aisha Ali in Habibi Magazine, 2004:

"If dance is the visual representation of music, the most significant change in the way we dance today, as opposed to forty years ago, has evolved through our music. During the sixties most ethnic supper clubs had live music. With call-response between musicians and dancers, one's performance could vary between exhilarating or disastrous, and without it, the dance could be monotonous; but it was always personal. At the time, the music might be from a mediocre family band or a virtuoso direct from the Middle East. Many of the musicians then were Armenians, Turks or Greeks. The small selection of Middle Eastern LPs available had sound quality too poor to use for performances. Now there are fewer nightclubs, and many professional dancers perform at restaurants without stages or lighting and without live music; still, they enjoy something that is equally valuable, the chance to dance to music of their own choice.

"Today, a lot of musicians are drawn to synthesized sounds and remixed fusion, and a new generation of dancers finds that sound exciting; however, we now have the opportunity to dance to any instrumentation from any era whether it be raqs sharqi or raqs shaabi - reproduced in high quality sound."

Golden Rules For Ensemble Playing

And now, a little humor mixed with a lot of hard experience.

  1. Everyone should play the same piece.
  2. Stop at every repeat sign and discuss in detail whether to take the repeat or not. The audience will love this a lot!
  3. If you play a wrong note, give a nasty look to one of your partners.
  4. Keep your fingering chart handy. You can always catch up with the others.
  5. Carefully tune your instrument before playing. That way you can play out of tune all night with a clear conscience.
  6. Take your time turning pages.
  7. The right note at the wrong time is a wrong note (and vice versa).
  8. If everyone gets lost except you, follow those who get lost.
  9. Strive to get the maximum NPS (note per second). That way you gain the admiration of the incompetent.
  10. Markings for slurs, dynamics and ornaments should not be observed. They are only there to embellish the score.
  11. If a passage is difficult, slow down. If it's easy, speed it up. Everything will work itself out in the end.
  12. If you are completely lost, stop everyone and say, "I think we should tune".
  13. Happy are those who have not perfect pitch, for the kingdom of music is theirs.
  14. If the ensemble has to stop because of you, explain in detail why you got lost. Everyone will be very interested.
  15. A true interpretation is realized when there remains not one note of the original.
  16. When everyone else has finished playing, you should not play any notes you have left.
  17. A wrong note played timidly is a wrong note. A wrong note played with authority is an interpretation.
by J.W. Swing

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Last updated on 2016.05.14
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