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26 April 2009

Mystic Rhythms

Today I had a wonderful experience. For the first time in my life I taught a group of people about drumming and rhythm -- Middle Eastern drumming and rhythm.

I have been playing all different kinds of drums since I was about 12 years old, and I've been an educator for the past 20 years, but I've never educated people about drumming. I've been passionate about music my entire life, and I've been a passionate educator for almost half my life, but I never put the two together until now. The reasons go beyond the scope of this post but, suffice it to say, they are worth many psychotherapy sessions.

So this was a big deal. A revelation. A major step forward on my life's journey.

I've really only "thought" about drumming for the past few years. Before, it was just something I connected to on a purely visceral level. I loved pounding those drum heads with my sticks or hands and smashing the
cymbals. I've always enjoyed all kinds of music, but rock music is just in my blood. It's simple to play (most of it), and I find rock drumming to be a wonderful way to blow off steam. I'm not subtle enough for jazz and I'm too lazy for classical, though I listen to both quite often and have played drums in both jazz combos and orchestras. Now, in my 40s, I've found a happy medium -- roots rock, country, and folk -- where I can work on my musicianship but not too hard. I can also work on my understanding of how music connects to the American culture that I've grown-up in and identify with.

But I digress. While simultaneously working on the roots rock drumming, I've had the good fortune to be able to explore drumming within Jewish sacred music. Several years ago my family joined a wonderful reconstructionist congregation. It is wonderful for many reasons but, for me, the most amazing aspect has been its' openness to spirituality -- especially through music -- facilitated primarily by Hazzan Rachel Hersh-Epstein. Hazzan Rachel encourages hand drumming during Shabbat morning services, and it is appreciated by those who attend, so I've been able to explore this aspect of my rhythmic self in a way that I never have; an aspect as important to my identity as the American one.

A short time after joining th
e congregation, I purchased a dumbek drum, which is the quintessential Middle Eastern drum. For several years I'd been playing West African and Latin hand drums, but never Middle Eastern drums -- which is interesting, because I'm neither West African nor Latino; but I am a Semite. My ancestors are from the Middle East. So, I've been able to work on my dumbek technique for a couple of years now and it's been going pretty well. The connections for me to the mystical and spiritual side of Judaism are quite strong and, because drumming and music are such a part of my self, the opportunity to put this all together is allowing me to learn more and, therefore, reach a profound new understanding of who I am, life, the world, and my place in it.

Philosophically, I've been able to arrive at this conclusion: The entire universe is based on rhythms. Patterns are occurrin
g all the time, every day, every second, throughout the universe. Think about it: the 24 hours of the day, repeated over again, constitute a rhythm. The beating of a heart is a rhythm; breathing is a rhythm (remember the heartbeat in "Breathe" by Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon?). The calendar is a rhythm. So, for me, the rhythms of drumming are about achieving an an understanding of time and how it moves. Physicists and mathematicians understand time through by studying atoms and constructing equations; members of the clergy -- good ones -- understand time through ancient texts and practices; non-drummer composers understand time through notes and time signatures and keys set out on sheets of paper; drummers understand time through the patterns they play on their drums, in various tones, at various tempos.

Importantly, drums and non-melodic percussion instruments, unlike most other instruments, are highly primitive. As such, they require little to no formal instruction in order for one to begin playing immediately. Similarly, drums are communal. Because anyone can drum, anyone can participate in drumming. That is very appealing to anyone interested in the empowering nature of democracy (which, I assume, is pretty much everyone). In other words: "I don't need to watch you play the drums. I can do it myself, thank you very much!"

So, all of this has been a beautiful discovery for me and, today, I was able to take it further. Even though I've been noodling around on the dumbek for a co
uple of years and listening to some Middle-Eastern rhythms, I never really took the time to study those rhythms or understand them. Which is why I volunteered to teach this session in Mid-Eastern drumming. It was an opportunity to learn and make deeper connections -- connection with my drumming, with my self, and with my People. My wonderful 11 year-old son participated in the session, which was really cool.

I'm still moving through an intermediate phase of spiritual self-discovery and I'm beginning to take away some heavy lessons in addition to the main philosphical conclusion. In this regard, for now, what I'd like to say is this: If you are a musician, or an artist of some kind, but have pursued as your life's work another profession or occupation, do not cut yourself off from your art. If you do, you will be unhappy. It will be as if your soul has been surgically removed. Your ability to make art is a large part of who you are and it will draw you nearer to everything and everyone if you integrate it meaningfully into your life.

Okay. Enough philosophizing. For what it's worth, here's what I've learned (so far) about Middle Eastern drumming:

Typical Mid-Eastern Percussion Instruments


A tar (Arabic: طار‎) is a single-headed frame drum. The tar comes from North Africa and the Middle East. Depictions of these frame drums date back thousands of years.
The tar is held mainly with one hand, although the playing hand can also play and supports the drum while playing. It has an open tone, and is often either played for accompaniment to other instruments or in tar ensembles.
Frame drums are common throughout the world. There are tar, bendir, bodhran, deff, duff, and many others. Many Native American cultures use the frame drum in ceremony and celebration. These drums seem simple, but are capable of great nuance and sophistication.
Some Frame Drum Players, Demos, and Tunes
Zohar Fresco (Israeli-Turkish) http://www.myspace.com/zoharfresco
Glen Velez (U.S.) http://www.glenvelez.com/

The riq (Arabic: رق‎) (also spelled riqq or rik) is a type of tambourine used as a traditional instrument in Arabic music. Itis an important instrument in both folk and classical music throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It traditionally has a wooden frame (although in the modern era it may also be made of metal), jingles, and a thin, translucent head made of fish or goat skin (or, more recently, a synthetic material). Although in the West the tambourine is generally considered to be a simple rhythm instrument suited for unskilled performers, riq players are capable of great subtlety and virtuosity.
The riq is used in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Sudan, and Syria; in Libya, where it is rare, it is called mriq. It is between 20 and 25 cm in diameter and is now effectively a man's instrument. Descended from the duff (see Daff), like the tar, the riq acquired its name in the 19th century so that it could be differentiated.
Essentially an instrument of music for the connoisseur, the riq, which is also called daff al-zinjari in Iraq, is played in takht ensembles (Egypt, Syria) or shalghi ensembles (Iraq) where it has a particularly clearcut role, going beyond the simple rhythmic requirements of the daff, tar, or mazhar, and exploding in a burst of imaginative freedom to colour the orchestra with gleaming sounds: this is quite unlike the role of the daff. In Sudan, where it seems to have been introduced recently, the riq is also related to worship, as in upper Egypt.
The frame of the riq can be covered on both the inner and outer sides with inlay such as mother-of-pearl, ivory or decorative wood, like apricot or lemon. It has ten pairs of small cymbals (about 4 cm in diameter), mounted in five pairs of slits. The skin of a fish or goat is glued on and tightened over the frame, which is about 6 cm deep. In Egypt the riq is usually 20 cm wide; in Iraq it is slightly larger.
Traditionally, frame drums have been used to support the voices of singers, who manipulate them themselves; but the player of the riq, like that of the doira of Uzbekistan, plays without singing. While the daff and the mazhar are held relatively still, at chest or face height, with the player seated, the riq, because of the use of different tone-colours, may be violently shaken above the head, then roughly lowered to the knee, and played vertically as well as horizontally. The player alternates between striking the membrane and shaking the jingles, and his need for freedom of movement necessitates that he stand up. Students of the instrument are required to master the technical problems imposed by the timbre of the membrane and the jingles, both separately and in combination; aside from developing a virtuoso technique they also need to learn the many rhythmic cycles and the techniques of modifying them through creative invention.
Some Riq Players, Demos, and Tunes
Layne Redmond (Canada) http://www.layneredmond.com/
Dumbek or Darabukka

The goblet drum of the Middle East and North Africa is known by a number of names including dumbek, darabukka (Arabic: دربكة), derbocka, and dumbelek. It is found made from clay, wood, metal, or fiberglass and comes in a number of sizes. All have a single head usually of goatskin, and are traditionally played under the arm. They have become very popular drums in World Music in the West second only to the djembe. There are a wide variety of techniques used to play this drum, that are dependant on the material the drum is made from and the region it comes from. Musical lore says that the instrument is called a dumbek because of the two main sounds of the instrument: the dum, or the deep tone from the centre of the drum and the bek, the tone produced from striking the rim.
Some Dumbek Players, Demos, and Tunes
Levent Yildirim (Turkey) http://www.myspace.com/leventdehollo

Alex Spurkel (U.S.) (demos of basic rhythms),

Examples of Contemporary Music Containing North African and
Middle Eastern Rhythms

U.S. & UK Pop & Jazz

“Desert Rose” by Sting featuring Cheb Mami (Algeria), on Brand New Day (1999)
“His Master’s Heart” by Ara Dinkjian featuring Zohar Fresco, on An Armenian in America (2008)

Israeli Pop & Jazz
“So Far” by Habanot Nechama on Habanot Nechama (2007) (pop)
"Gypsy Soul" by Bustan Abraham on Pictures Through the Painted Window (1994)

Jewish Sacred Music
“Lechay Olamim” by Hazzan Richard Kaplan (U.S.), on Life of the Worlds (2003)

Listen! Watch! Play! Enjoy!

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