Patterns of Rhythm From Families of Drums
from World Beat 1993
WBR: Given that you were raised in a culture that’s short on percussion, how did you wend your way to the art?
I grew up in a row house in Upper Darby, a
big suburb of 100,000 people in those days,
contiguous to Philadelphia. I started
piano at about eight, though my family didn’t
even own one. My teacher lived about
two blocks away. She was an elderly
lady who taught in her home. She had
students who didn’t have pianos practice in
her home, five days a week. I worked
for her to get lessons, housecleaning and
all kinds of chores. I studied classical
piano for about eight years. From junior
high school to Dickinson College, I was in
choruses. My junior year of college
I went to Spain, just for the adventure.
I got there and took flamenco guitar for the
whole year. My teacher again was an
elderly woman. She taught in a basement,
under the surface. I had to go down
subways and whole flights of stairs to get
to this cubby hole where she taught.
WBR: Who was the teacher?
Her name was Jamila Salimpour, one of the
foremost performers and teachers in the United
States. After several months of study,
Jamila noticed that I played the finger cymbals
that accompany the dance much more easily
than most of the students. She said,
“Look, you have a good sense of rhythm; I’d
like you to learn the drum – the doumbec –
that accompanies this dance because we need
drummers from within the dancers.” I
said, “Yes” and her husband, a Persian drummer,
gave me lessons.
that time I did a lecture/demonstration on
playing finger cymbals at a cabaret show.
Afterwards, one lady asked me if I could teach
her to play finger cymbals. I said “Yes”
again. Then it occurred to me that I
might as well write two books at that same
time. That was in late 1974 and 1975.
I worked all year on those two books, researching,
listening to recordings, listening to good
Middle Eastern drummers, trying to put it
together and come up with terminology for
WBR: With such a wide variety of teachers, what styles of Middle Eastern percussion are you presenting?
The Middle East is essentially divided into
three cultures: Arabic, Turkish, and Persian.
There are a lot of similarities in those three
cultures, though the languages are different.
They all have quarter tones in their music,
tones that come between the half-steps in
our western scales. If you look at a
piano, quarter tones are the notes between
the black and white keys, the notes in the
cracks. We don’t have them in our music
scale. But all three Middle Eastern
cultures do. In addition, Turkish music
is very particular about dividing a tone into
nine parts and tuning to the exact ninth of
a tone. So a very subtle ear is necessary.
Where along the way did you begin to realize
that you were going to be very good at percussion?
WBR: And how has the teaching progressed?
I was able to get the word out about my classes
and establish a student body that’s now steadily
over 100. Over the years, the nature
of my student body has changed completely.
At first, my students were all dancers, and
their husbands and boyfriends. That
persisted for many years. Over the last
several years, belly dancers have become the
minority. People are turning to drumming
for other reasons. Arabs are coming
to learn their own music. Others come
because they’re musicians who just want to
increase their rhythmical skill. People
from various religious practices are also
coming. I have a number of students
who are of various Sufi orders. Then
I have people from the pagan community and
the witchcraft community.
Excerpted from World Beat Report, Vol. 1, No. 6, April 1993
Copyright 2009 Mary Ellen Donald - All