mary Ellen Donald - Middle Eastern Music Performer and Teacher

Cover Story 

Mary Ellen Donald 

From The Caravan 1997
San Francisco, California
by Sudan

Mary Ellen has been involved in Middle Eastern music as a dance student and a musician since the late 1960ís.  Her interest in Middle Eastern music and culture began when she found belly dancing a creative outlet from her role as a professional clinical social worker, wife, and mother.  Encouraged by her husband, she began taking dance lessons with Jamila Salimpour, who was teaching in San Francisco and directing a troupe of dancers and musicians called Bal Anat.  Many well known San Francisco area professional dancers and teachers were once members of this fabulous troupe.  Jamila needed a percussionist for the troupe, and she recruited Mary Ellen in that role.  Later, Mary Ellen studied drum with Vince Delgado and various Arab drummers, and currently studies tambourine and drum with Tony Lammam.  So began Mary Ellenís musical odyssey.  The drum and Middle Eastern rhythms have led her on a continuous adventure that has evolved for almost thirty years.

Mary Ellenís artistic evolution is still unfolding through the cycle of creative people who are drawn to her and an ever flowing array of opportunities that present themselves to her.  Mary Ellenís openness for adventure and her courageous spirit direct the artistic evolution.  She combines the wise savvy of a seasoned veteran coupled with a youthful vitality and enthusiasm for new challenges.  Mary Ellen has a remarkable highly developed sensitivity to music that may be partially attributed to her being legally blind.

Having studied piano and guitar in her early years, Mary Ellen easily took to the doumbec and other percussion instruments used in Middle Eastern music.  She fell in love with the sensual and spiritual quality of this music.  Her early inspiration came from listening to the Egyptian singers Warda and Abdel Halim Hafex.

Mary Ellen has written, produced and published several books and tapes on Middle Eastern music.  She is known by many as the ďGuru of finger cymbal playing.Ē  Since the 1970ís she has performed in numerous concerts and productions, performed on many albums with American and Middle Eastern musicians including Magda Helmy, Gallal Kutub, Yusel Mostafa, and Light Rain.  She is also on the soundtrack of several episodes of ABC-TV series, the Young Indiana Jones.

In 1978, Mary Ellen and Bert Balladine organized the first annual week-long workshop for belly dancers from all over the country.  Mary Ellen taught percussion instruments and finger cymbals, Bert taught belly dance, and they sponsored prominent dancers to share their skills.  These pioneer productions served as a model for many of the current events and festivals that characterize todayís belly dance showcases.

Mary Ellen continues to be in high demand as a musician, teacher, and organizer of events.  She now focuses her production skills on two recitals and two drumming marathons each year.

Mary Ellenís life is an inspirational beacon.  She is guided by a Buddhist principle that the essential elements of a good life are: Silence, Singing, Drumming, and Dancing.  She conducts her life by weaving a balance of the elements into her day as she follows the direction that her life path flows. 

Excerpt from The Caravan, Vol. 13, #6, May/June 1997


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