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Cover Story 

Mary Ellen
Habibi 1982
San Francisco, California


You might find this cover story to be peculiar.  First, because you are likely to find, neatly tucked within this serious prose, sections that may make you chuckle, maybe even laugh (I hope so!).  second, because you will not find the plethora of superlatives that usually dwell here.  Is that because I am not deserving of any of them?  No, I am not that modest.  It is simply because I would feel embarrassed to call myself “the best,” “the greatest,” or “the most popular.”  “Well, then,” you ask, “why not write it in the third person and ask someone else to claim its authorship?”  no, people would see through that.  “Then why not ask a capable journalist to interview you and write up your story?”  Because I really want to present myself in my own way – informally – personally, as though we were chatting over tea.  So here goes.

First, I would like to give my commercials and then I promise not to insert any hidden plugs throughout the rest of the article.  I have written books on playing the drum and cymbals, produced numerous cassettes, and co-produced the popular album, Encore Bert Baladi.  Yes, I would like you to buy all of them.  Yes, I would like you to invite me to teach workshops and for you to attend all the seminars and shows that I sponsor.  That’s all.  Thank you.

Now, I would like to introduce myself as I often do to a new group of people.  “I don’t  see very well so I can’t see puzzled looks on your faces or your hands raised to ask questions.  But I can hear very well.”  For those of you who have been curious and never asked, I am legally blind with a condition called choreo retinitis, a blind spot in the center of each retina.  I have peripheral vision, which really allows me to see quite a bit, but not in detail and not with proper depth perception.  So, sometimes you will be surprised by how much I can see, and other times by how little I can see.  Just remember to tell me when we come to steps going down, please.

So how did all this Middle Eastern music start for me?  It certainly did not happen in a vacuum.  Music had been important to me for many years before this – singing in choirs and choruses, studying piano for eight years, folk guitar for one year, and flamenco guitar for one year in Spain.  (Sorry to say that I have lost all my repertoire on the piano and guitar, so please do not ask me to “play a little.”)  As I was struggling with putting shimmies on top of dance steps that were already difficult to execute in Bert Balladine’s class, I found that I was a whiz on cymbals.  (Please excuse this use of a superlative.)  Playing the drum was a natural outgrowth of my ability on the cymbals.  But not that natural.  I was helped along greatly by a year of study with the illustrious percussionist, Vince Delgado.  Being an intense person, (as I am often dubbed by my husband, Ed), I practiced diligently, and so progressed fairly rapidly.  That was happening around 1971.

In 1972, when my son John was born, I put my drum in the closet and forgot about it as I got involved in being a mother.  My pathway back to the drum is a real tearjerker, so get ready.  I had continued my dance classes with Bert mainly out of my fascination with the sensuous movements and the exhilarating music.  But by the autumn of 1974, living on one modest salary proved to be too much to handle, and we entered the economic disaster zone.  I could not pay for my classes.  So I requested an exchange with Bert; I would provide a drum accompaniment for some classes in order to get other classes free.  That meant I had to start practicing on that drum.  One day as I was doing so, a knock came at the door of our cottage in Marin.  It was a young college student who introduced herself as a bellydance student, and said that she wondered if I could teach her how to play the drum.  I said I would like to do that.  My decision was reinforced by Bert, as he kept encouraging me to teach dancers, saying that many of them wanted to learn drumming, but felt intimidated by the male drummers.

I will not bore you with the myriad of details that line my evolutionary path from psychiatric social worker/part-time drum instructor to full-fledged professional performer/instructor of Middle Eastern percussion.  Mimeographed lessons became books.  Our cottage in Marin became a house in San Francisco, and my classes of five students became thirty-five.  Anyway, I am sure that you know my history better than I do if you have been keeping up with the bellydance publications over the last years.

Honors have come my way from time to time, and I would like to share them briefly with you.  I was selected to play, along with oud player George Mundy, the music for the grand opening of the King Tut Exhibit in San Francisco, an event attended by Egypt’s ambassador to the United States and many other dignitaries.  Anthony Cirone, nationally acclaimed composer, author, and percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony, composed the Cairo Suite, a concerto for finger cymbals, tambourine, and drum and small orchestra, and dedicated it to me.  A nine-piece orchestra with Western percussion instruments and I performed this dramatic piece with accompanying dance interpretation by the Aswan Dancers at the national convention of the Percussive Art Society.  I think my tambourine solo was the most captivating for these Western percussionists.  The tambourine in the West has lagged far behind its sophisticated counterpart in the Middle East.  Terri Tepper of the Chicago area wrote a much-talked-about book, The New Entrepreneurs, about women who run their own businesses out of their homes.  Of the forty-two women featured, I was selected as one.  We do not just tell smashing success stories, but also of our frustrations and failures.  Finally, I have recently been honored by being asked to join the faculty of San Francisco State University and teach Middle Eastern percussion.  That came as a welcome endorsement of my efforts in this field.

Putting honors aside, I would like to share with you some very thrilling experiences that still shine in my memory.  An event came in the Fall of 1977, in Washington, D.C., when I sat with a five-piece Egyptian band in a Patrima production.  The contemporary sound of violin, organ, nay, and dynamic drums brought Cairo breath-takingly  close.  From then on, my musical preference and drumming style made a dramatic shift from Turkey to Egypt.  Also in connection with that event, I discovered the subtlety and excitement of the tambourine, as I had the opportunity to study  with the band’s tambourinist, Sayed Anany.  Let me digress a bit from my tale of thrills to talk about this fascinating instrument.  It is so much smaller than the drum, this easier to take anywhere you go.  It looks cute and easy to play.  But, in many ways it is harder to play than the drum, particularly if you play the professional tambourines imported from Cairo with the heavy, rich-sounding cymbals, your left forearm and wrist have to be strong to hold it.  My students ask hopefully when they will overcome the ache and cramps that plague the left hand after continuous playing.  From the hand of experience, I answer, “Probably never.”  Nevertheless, we love the tambourine.  It is the spice of the band; I must confess, too, that it is a show-off’s delight.

Now to continue.  When I went to Chicago to work for Charmaine, I performed my usual series of solos on cymbals, tambourine, and drum, to an audience of mainly strangers.  I had no idea how responsive they would be.  At the end of my performance they kept on clapping.  Not seeing well, it took quite a time for it to dawn on me that I was receiving a standing ovation. Tears came to my eyes with the emotion I felt with that realization.  They told me then and they tell me now that when I perform those solos a kind of magic takes over. I usually acknowledge their compliments graciously and try to remind myself that a Source much greater than my individual ego allows this music to play through me to touch them.

Atlanta brought another thrill my way – that of playing with my eighteen-piece band, guided from long distance with cassettes and music scores, and nurtured locally so aptly by Kalila.  When I heard all those drums, tambourines, and cymbals sounding around me, I felt like a very proud mother.

With this abbreviated list of memories, I don’t mean to slight any of my friends.  I have been warmly received and wonderfully treated all over this country, and feel very grateful for that.  If asked to name my favorite part of the country to visit, I would have to say the Northeast, Boston and New York.  There I get to play with a different Middle Eastern band each night – a kind of busman’s holiday.  There I do for fun what is supposed to be my work.

I would like to close by talking about two ongoing thrills that are very important to me – one of them is working with my own band in the San Francisco area.  Besides myself, the core of the band is Yoko Abe on violin, and Michael Gruber on nay, mijwiz, and mizmar.  What a joy to be able to play most of the music that has turned me on for years!  Yoko is an accomplished classical violinist who took up Middle Eastern violin several years ago. She transcribes all of the music for the group – no small task.  Yoko and I share more than just our pursuit of musical excellence.  We feel the music and we love it?  Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer, drives us both nuts!  Speaking about nuts, that brings me to Michael.  Don’t get me wrong, I always tease him.  I mean that he is nuts about Middle Eastern music.  He plays some of the hardest instruments.  If you have ever tried to make a sound on the nay, you know what I mean.  And if that is not enough, Michael makes his own instruments.  He is quiet, but when he gets on that mizmar or mijwiz, watch out; there is no stopping him. The crowd loves it.  Indeed, Michael, Yoko, and I form a very happy triumvirate.

My other ongoing thrill comes from teaching.  I enjoy being part of that process of refining a point until a student really grasps it and takes off with it.  I particularly like teaching people to read music who vehemently claim their musical ignorance.  Paradoxically, in teaching, I learn.  I also must admit that in teaching I show off a bit – and that is fun.

And now, if I were formally interviewing myself, I would probably ask, “What, Mary Ellen, are your challenges for the future?”  And I would reply succinctly: (1) to gain greater recognition for my band within the Arab community (the Arabian Splendor Show) should take care of that; (2) to strengthen my drum technique, hopefully studying with the great Syrian drummer Elias Khoury will do the trick; and (3) to learn to speak the Egyptian dialect fluently (easier said than done!)  Thanks for letting me share my story with you. 

Habibi, Vol. 6, No. 12, 1982

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