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Understanding Middle Eastern Rhythm
by Frank Lazzaro

Rhythm is the heart and soul of life. Likewise, the rhythm of the tabla, or Middle-Eastern drum, is the heart and soul of belly dance. The rhythms of the tabla inspire the dance, so to understand these rhythms is to fully blossom as a dancer.

The tabla, more commonly known in the U.S. as the dumbek, is one of the most ancient drums, having evolved from earlier frame drums of Macedonia and Greece. The rhythms of the tabla are as diverse as the dancers they move. While many of the Middle-Eastern rhythms have their roots in Egypt, other variable rhythms stem from Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, and Persia (Iran). Fortunately, most of these rhythms fall into one of several basic classifications.

Middle-Eastern rhythms are classified according to the number of beats in a musical phrase known as a “measure”, i.e. 2-beat, 4-beat, 6-beat, 9-beat etc.

While it is not necessary to read music in order to understand drum rhythms, a familiarity with the basic underlying beat is important for a dancer to properly interpret the music.

The most common 2-beat rhythms (counted 1 + 2 +) are Ayub and Mahlfuf. These rhythms are characterized by a quick, driving beat and are often played as dancers enter or exit the stage, as part of a drum solo, or as a means to intensify the music at any point. Ayub and Mahlfuf are played throughout the Middle East, but like most Middle-Eastern rhythms, their names and spellings may vary depending upon locale.

Four-beat rhythms (counted 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +) are the most popular, and by far, the most familiar to Western ears. The simple Maqsum is the basis for many rhythms and is especially important in modern and folk Egyptian music. When listening to Middle Eastern music, one will often hear the distinctive “Dum Tek - Tek Dum - Tek” of the Maqsum. This rhythm is common and widespread - it is found in music throughout the Middle East. Balady, which is a more folksy version of the basic Middle Eastern "maqsum", is characterized by the familiar two DUMs that lead the phrase. The word "baladi" means "of the country," denoting it as a folk rhythm. Another rhythm from upper Egypt is Saidi, which is characterized by the 2 middle Dums in the phrase. Also known as Ghawazee, this rhythm is associated with the Tahtib (a man's ritual "stick dance") and with the modern cane dance. Of the slower 4-beat rhythms, the most popular for belly dance is the Bolero, with its Latin-tinged gypsy feel.

Persian Shish Hast and Moroccan represent 6-beat rhythms (counted 1 2 3 4 5 6).

Persian Shish Hast is characterized by a slower, lilting beat as opposed to Moroccan, with its faster, rolling beat.

There are also slower, trance-like "Sufi" rhythms, suitable for slow belly dance routines and favored by American Tribal style troupes.

Eight-beat rhythms (counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) are played primarily for slow dance routines. Examples include Chiftetelli and Masmoudi. Chiftetelli, of Turkish origin, is marked by a pause or a “rest” after the seventh beat. This intermittent rhythm is often associated with a taqsim, or melodic improvisation by a lead instrument, and lends itself well to artistic embellishment by the drummer and the dancer. Masmoudi translates to "eight" in Arabic, and Masmoudi kebir ("big"), as the rhythm is formally known, is marked by strong syncopation and two leading bass beats.

The Karsilamah (counted 1+2+3+123) is the most common 9-beat rhythm. This lively rhythm, heard in popular dance songs such as "Rompi Rompi," may provide a challenge for dancers who perform with zills (finger cymbals).

Because zills are percussion instruments, zill rhythms correspond with each of the drum rhythms. So one of the best ways for dancers to learn these rhythms is to play the various beats on zills while listening to a music CD, a video, or a live drummer.

Many instructional CDs, online resources, and teaching materials are available for this purpose. If possible, dancers should take a drumming class or work closely with a live drummer to polish and perfect their percussion skills. An accomplished zill player can engage in playful and musical interactions with a drummer during the drum solo section.

Drum solos, typically performed as musical improvisations, resonate basic rhythms that are blended and laced with variations and embellishments.

When dancers are familiar with the basic rhythms, the drum solos become more tangible and predictable, giving dancers the chance to both lead and follow.

“Call and response” is one such interaction whereby the drummer plays a phrase and the dancer repeats or replays the phrase back to the drummer on zills. These drummer/dancer interactions can be magical and can add tremendous excitement to a presentation or performance. A rhythm-savvy dancer will also be able to request a rhythm by name when dancing to a live drummer or a live band.

Dancers need to learn and understand Middle Eastern rhythms if they wish to excel as performers. These are but a few of the traditional rhythms played for Middle Eastern dance. The rhythms will vary and the styles will differ, depending on the origins of the music. All of the rhythms are open to expression and interpretation, as is the dance. The drumming and dance are inseparable. Without one, the other could not exist.

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