Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Resources for zills and sagat - doing it like the drummers do

Here is my second post about resources I've used for teaching myself zills.  My previous post talked about learning from online videos.  This time, some information about the stuff I've been doing to learn to play Arabic rhythms.  

A while back, I took some drumming workshops with the very talented Tim Garside.  Tim is an incredibly talented musician who plays many different percussion and musical Arabic instruments.  Tim teaches around London, and these classes were on offer at Raqs Sharqi Society events.  He's a great teacher with a mild manner and dry sense of humour.  Alongside the workshops, he gave us a couple of photocopies of handwritten notes on Egyptian rhythms.  This covered all the basics, each with a core rhythm - including Maqsoum, Saaidi, Masmoudi, Malfuf, Zaar and Fellahi - transcribed in simple form, and then followed by one or more additional versions with elaborations. 

I've been learning and practising all these rhythm variations straight off the handouts.  My current technique has followed on from this study and relies on using the same hands to play my zills as I would if I was drumming.  The general rule of this method is for my right hand to play all the "dums" and "taks", and then my left to play the filler "ka"s.  I also differentiate these groups of notes with different sounds.  For dums, I select an open ring sound, and for taks a slight muted tone.  I seem to remember drummer Chas Whitaker, suggesting this to a group of dancers once.  I also add in the left handed ka, again with a softer mute tone.  This interpretation is perhaps where I feel I'm on uncertain territory.  From the you tube videos and recordings so far, there seems to be quite a lot of variation in how the different sounds are expressed.  In their drills, Ansuya and Mahin played a consistent ring across all the notes.  However, I've seen and heard other dancers use more texture in their sounds including Artermis and Sophie Armoza.

I've also been drilling the same rhythms with a dampened zills tone, although trying to maintain some tonal differentiation between dum and tek.  I think the benefits of sticking to the drumming fingering (the term perhaps could better be described as handedness, although I'm not sure) is that my learning would transfer better, if I had the opportunity to learn more drumming.  

Consistent with this approach, I found a short series of YouTube darabuka tutorials from RexSoli.  He additionally covers the split hand technique, for playing faster rhythms like Malfuf (where dums are played with the dominant hand, and taks with the other hand).  This is easy to replicate on zills, and makes some rhythms a lot easier to play.  Here is Rex in action:

The approach of following the drummers' language for rhythms (what Artemis calls "drum speak" - including the dums, taks and kas - makes sense to my brain.  I found this easier than counting variations (e.g. 123- or 1-&-a-2-) or using "RLR" type transcriptions.  The consequences of this approach also means opening up countless resources that transcribe rhythms and their variants.  In fact, there are heaps of free online resources written in this format.  There are far too many to list here, although one favourite I really liked for quantity of information ease of use is the info on the website Khafif.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Zilling in the rain...

In response to my question about playing zills in the rain, I received this reply from "A fellow walking zill practiser who agrees that muffling interferes":
Living on the sixtieth parallel, rain, cold, walking, and zills have challenged me.  Foggy rain, I simply play as I walk.  Soaking rain, I wear a gortex hooded poncho over my warm-weather gear.  I do not know what brands of glove liners you have available, but should you run into the "numbing cold zill effect" then I recommend getting a second pair of zills and sizing the elastic to a pair of wind-breaker, water-proof glove liners to wear under your poncho.  Hope that this helps! 
Wow, I have to say it's really nice to know I'm not alone, and that there are even greater challenges for outdoor zillers than the Scottish weather.  When I started this practise regime about 6 weeks ago we were experiencing an unseasonal cold spell.  Indoors, I had my heating on.  Outdoors, after about 10 minutes my hands would start to feel bitter cold as the metal of the zills plunged with the outside temperature.

I love the idea of a second pair of zills sized to fit over glove liners. Although if I manage to achieve some sort of musical competency before the onset of this year's winter that would also eliminate this sort of hazard. 

Thank you, my fellow zills walker, I zaghareet you!  Enjoy the summery zills days while they last!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Dancing to the tune of London 2012

The excitement of the London 2012 Olympics came to Edinburgh today, with the Olympic torch relay.  Here is Scottish ice dancer John Kerr whizzing by, flame in hand. 

Another part of the year of Olympic celebrations, coming to Edinburgh, is Big Dance 2012.  Thousands of events are taking place across the UK, involving all kinds of dance styles and community groups.  And anyone can join in.

The Edinburgh Big Dance event takes place over the weekend Saturday 30th of June and Sunday 1st July.  There's all sorts of different things going on across the city and here are my top picks.

Firstly, my Ballet class at Dance Base are performing the "Ballet of the Trams" at the Grassmarket stage on the Saturday at 2.50pm.  The whole thing is choreographed to the "Trolley Song" from Meet me in St Louis.  And for all sorts of reasons, this all age, all ability group of ballerinas and ballerinos is almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

The second event is something very special indeed.  I can't say much more, but I do know that the event is being led by Elspeth SwishandHips and it is rumoured be taking place in central Edinburgh at lunchtime on Sunday 1st July.  I can't wait!

How are you celebrating the 2012 Olympics where you are?

Friday, 8 June 2012

If you hear me walking down the street...

The finger cymbal playing is coming along, thanks to my new practise regime. 

The zills I recently purchased are of the professional variety.  They are big and loud and the sound will cut through noisy bars and open air fetes.  But loud also has a downside, when practising for any sustained period of time. 

My "studio" at home is the kitchen in my tenement flat, breakfast table pushed to the side.  It's got a laminate floor and I try to tell myself this offers some kind of sound insulation for my poor neighbours.  Well they haven't yet complained... My poor ears, however, are ringing along with my fingers - they are now starting to suffer.

I needed to find a solution to my problem.  What's that I *struggle to* hear other dancers shout? Zill mufflers?  Baby socks?  I say no crochet.  I want to hear what I am doing, to work on the difference between dums and taks, clicks and claps. 

I had to think out of the apartment, and move my practise to the great outdoors.  Well, the streets of Edinburgh to be more precise.  So I've taken to walking home at night, zills in hand, through the old town, up the royal mile, across the meadows.  And it works.  I can practise my drills, rhythms, variations, slowing down, speeding up, tones, trills and tricks.  All the while, I am walking home to a constant beat, thinking about my tea, looking at the Edinburgh skyline, and browsing in shop windows.  And it's the same kind of brain multi-tasking skill, that I can then apply to my dancing. 

I do pass plenty of people every day.  But there are lots of other city noises all around, sometimes so much that even my zills are drowned out.  And no one's really exposed to the sound for more than a moment.  If anyone notices, I have mostly just been politely ignored. 

And the result?  Well, I think it's starting to work... In just a few weeks of practising a little bit every day, my fingers are getting used to playing.  And when I put on some music and start dancing zills in hand, I think I'm finally getting it!

Have you got a great practise trick for learning finger cymbals, zills or sagat?  I would love to hear it. 

In the meantime, here's a shot of that Edinburgh's skyline.  I hope this provides some nice distraction from playing the 200th repetition of Beledi rhythm.

Oh, by the way has anyone any advice for protecting zills from the rain...?

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Resources for zills and sagat - some great online videos

Since getting my new zills at the end of April, I've stepped up the amount of practise I've been doing.  As I don't, unfortunately, have access to a teacher, I have had to find different ways to teach myself.  My learning so far has been through online videos, and from a variety of CD and other rhythm resources.  For anyone who might be in the same position, I thought I would share some of the things that have really helped.  I'll start with the online videos. 

Free videos

YouTube is as good a place to start as any, when looking for some top up online tuition.  A quick search for "zills" plus "lesson", "learn" etc. will throw up a range of clips of varying quality together with a few trailers for video resources that can be purchased.  I found this a good way to cover a few basics and find some interesting play along material too.  Some of the videos that are for sale also look good, although I haven't invested as yet.  Here are 2 teachers that recommend. 

Firstly, Anthea Kawakib, a master ziller from the States.  She has an online course on her YouTube channel with 7 classes, suitable for both students and teachers who want ideas for teaching zills in class.  This short course, felt like an opportunity to follow the classes I never had.  The best thing about them is that from the outset, playing at the same time as dancing and moving about is absolutely essential.  By stop starting the clips and doing the same lessons over and over, there are maybe a few hours worth of free training here. Here is an example of Anthea breaking the technique down into manageable doses, from her second lesson:

The second teacher is Mahin Sciacca, author of the "Daily Bellydance Quickies".  She has posted a huge amount of free online material on belly dance and body conditioning.  This includes over 40 great zills videos, again aimed at familiarization, practise, and getting you moving and playing at the same time.  It helps to already have some experience of zill playing beforehand though, as does having some familiarity with American names for basic Arabic rhythms.  Here is Mahin teaching a combination with zills to Leylet Hob:

Subscription videos

The other set of videos I found useful, were Ansuya's online classes.  Former bellydance superstar Ansuya is famous for performing high energy belly dance, zills always in hand.  Just when I needed it, I came across a tweet from Ansuya granting a 24 hour free trial of Ansuya Online.  This is a subscription service that offers 4 new videos every month, together with the previous few months worth in an archive.  There is a basics class, a workout, a choreography and an "entertainment" section featuring extras type titbits.  I followed I think 3 different zills classes from the archive.  Lessons were 40 minutes long and I found the teaching to be excellent, clear and precise.  Rhythms were broken down into small pieces, built up again, speeded up and combined with moves.  I got a lot out of the learning, which even stuck with me for several days afterwards.

Although I am very grateful for the trial, I found the American belly dance posture and style quite alien to my own Egyptian Dance training.  But I would still recommend this series to an experienced dancer who can't easily access classes/workshop, especially if you're already a fan or interested in learning a variety of different props in addition to zills.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Out with the sagat, in with the zills

I've been trying to learn to dance with sagat for years.  It is a rare an interesting sight to see a dancer on stage who is proficient in playing finger cymbals, and as a former musician this instrument has always had a certain appeal.  I have also been impressed whenever I had a teacher who used her sagat in class to provide instant music to accompany the moves, and I wanted to do that too.

One of my dance specialities is Sha'abi style folk dance from the South of Egypt.  This looks and sounds great when danced live with sagat, as exemplified by the Ghawazee tribes of Upper Egypt.  I even performed my own tribute to the Ghawazee dancers a couple of years back in Sarasvati Tribal's Gaslight Faeries show.

However, I found it difficult to make progress in learning this instrument.  Mine are the heavy one-holed proper Egyptian sagat, imported from Mohammed Ali Street in Cairo.  And although I love the sound, the one-holed design means that although they are fine when played sitting down, when I dance, they wobble.  I have tried every manner of things to stop this happening, different sizes and thickness of elastic, even using bra elastic, but nothing really helped.

I had to find another solution to my finger cymbal problem.  So I turned to a different instrument altogether, the zill...

Finger cymbals are an ancient percussion instrument, still played by dancers in the middle east today.  In Egypt they are called sagat, in Turkey they are called zills and the instrument exists under different names and sometimes slightly different forms all over the middle east and North Africa.  Zills have a higher pitched, more ringing sound than sagat.  The slightly different sound means that they are not entirely authentic to Egyptian dance, however they are a reasonable substitute.  And due to their popularity amongst Stateside bellydancers, good quality zills are easier to find.  The best ones also have 2 parallel slits, which you string with thick flat elastic, and they don't wobble!

I did some research and discovered Saroyan, one of the manufacturers of quality zills popular with US dancers (other brands include Turquoise and Zildjian).  And more importantly, I found a supplier in the UK, Aladdin's cave, who carries this brand.  So here are my new zills, they are professional quality Saroyan Arabesque II.

I'm quite pleased with them so far.  They are heavy and loud and more tuneful sounding than my sagat.  They stay on my fingers too which helps me to hold my hands in a nicer more open position while dancing.  And more importantly, this has given me motivation to start practising more regularly again.

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