In which the writer performs at a wedding (sort of)

Another recent highlight was, as you might have guessed by the headline, performing at a friend’s wedding.

Now, this wasn’t a big formal thing, nor was it a real gig. The couple wanted their friends to put on little skits and the like, and I knew this was just my chance to pull out the ol’ hip scarf and foot undies and embarrass someone. Preferably not me.

Factors working in favour of this momentous event actually taking place included working with Nadira Jamal’s Rock the Routine and taking Cihangir’s workshops last weekend. What I wanted to do was to get my husband to play the doumbek and do a short improvised drum solo, and then go around and get everyone up to dance. I thought if we kept it short and sweet, there would be less time to screw up, and it would be obvious that we were amateurs doing something out of love for the couple.

It also helped that Cihangir mentioned during one of the workshops that the audience doesn’t notice much of the dancing anyway for the first bit of a dance, as they’re looking at you, checking out your costume, and so on. So I thought a stately, showy entrance would get me halfway there, and that already allayed some of the nerves.

The key was getting something sparkly to wear. I didn’t think the full bellydancer getup would be appropriate, especially given that I wasn’t doing a proper performance. But a friend and I went to the Saidi boutique here in Berlin, and after an hour or so of dedicated attention managed to find a gorgeous saidi dress, black with silver vertical stripes, and a light peach, translucent hip scarf to match. I may also have picked up a saidi cane on the way out. The golden goddess saidi dress I also fell in love with stayed in the store, hopefully for a future visit. As you can imagine, trying on the sparkly stuff was tough, grueling work. But I’m just that kind of person.

As the day approached, my love and I did some drum and dance improvising, and I reviewed Nadira Jamal’s notes for the drum solo.

Factors working against this performance? The fact that our son gave us about three hours of sleep the night before the celebration.

But the show must go on. As it happens, I wound up doing my best moves in the bathroom, as I grossly underestimated how slowly the evening’s festivities would progress. I wanted to be ready — with full makeup and warmed up — in time for our appearance. However, we were last on the program, and the precise nature of the performances was meant to be a surprise. Effectively, this meant that I spent about an hour hiding in the bathroom, stretching and practicing a variety of combos. Let me tell you, there’s nothing to combat stage fright quite like the prospect of escaping the smell of a public loo.

The dance itself was incredibly fun to do, if ultimately a bit messy. (There’s no video, and my memory is a bit blank of what I actually did, so the details cannot be reconstructed…) I had the DJ follow it up with Alabina’s Lolole which, since it has the same melody as “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” seemed like it would be an approachable, arabic-sounding but still hummable tune to start dancing too. Then I went around and started pulling people from their chairs and onto the dance floor.

The results? It was fun, I have a saidi dress and cane that are patiently waiting to be brought out again, I overcame a fear of mine, and all sorts of people asked me where I took classes. Somewhere, out there, there are photos. My husband and I proved to ourselves that we could still do zany things despite being kept up by a baby most of the night.

And from now on, no celebration is safe. I have a hip scarf and I’m not afraid to use it.


Doumbek follies continue: it’s time to take off the wedding ring

I recently started working with Carmine Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop, a super basic and gentle introduction to the doumbek. As I wrote in the earlier post, I don’t think it makes sense to try and learn all these rhythms in a day: for beginners as rhythmically-challenged as myself, that’s a hopeless proposition!

Cross training the ring fingers!

Although I only popped the video in for the second time yesterday, the Doumbek Workshop has been with me constantly in the intervening time. Part of this is due to the brilliant idea to write down the rhythms on the inside cover of the CD. I was a fan of this from the start, and I’m even more enthusiastic now. Because, while I began working with the video by learning the maqsum and baladi basic forms, as I practiced on my own I noticed that the saidi basic form has beats on all the same accents. Pretty soon, without even getting further in the video itself, I was switching back and forth between the three rhythms, speeding them up, slowing them down, and so on.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that for the first time, I really am starting to identify rhythms in the Middle Eastern music I listen to. Not all of them, and not all of the time, but every now and then my ear will tune in and pick one out. And once I do, dancing to it becomes even more natural. This is precisely what I hoped for, and I don’t think it would have happened just watching bellydance rhythm instructionals. 

My husband, who is musically gifted, hearing me practice, picked up both the doumbek and the rhythms in a moment flat, and started filling them in. He hasn’t even watched the video, but he doesn’t need to! We’ve now had a few lovely sessions of him drumming, both Middle Eastern and other beats, and me improvising some bellydance moves to it. Needless to say, I am thrilled. I, who have never really performed in public, now get to practice improv drum solos with my own live musician!

I returned to video practice by running the maqsum, baladi, and saidi segments, the last of which felt like a repeat due to my intervening practice, although I hadn’t actually watched it yet. And then came the time, the time for… the dreaded ka.

Carmine demonstrates how not to do the ka.

My first doumbek classes were in a world drumming course, so half the students had djembes, and half had doumbeks. We learned our first rhythms holding the drums between our legs, which effectively also meant that I learned to do the ka with a few fingers of my left hand, pretty much like the tek. And that was fine, except I could also see that most doumbek players don’t do it that way. Carmine teaches a version in which the ring finger of the left hand produces the sound.

Now this is hard. I was very glad that when he introduced the ka, and most of the students in the drum circle could do it right away, he pointed out that they were repeat students and that getting any kind of ka sound on the first try was a triumph. He gives quite a few tips for placement of the hand and arm, and how relaxed they should be, that do increase my ka batting average. To my surprise, however, learning the dancey ayub rhythm actually helped me get the sound more frequently. Even though once Carmine sped that one up, I got lost again. Well, now I know what my homework is!

Working with Carmine Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop

Take enough bellydance classes, listen to enough Middle Eastern music, and eventually you have to come to terms with a simple fact: you’re going to have to learn to recognize and dance to the rhythms.


Now, I’m guessing that for most people this is not a hardship. Then again, most people can clap in time with a crowd, whereas I was always the person who clapped exactly halfway between the beats. I’ve had people explain some bellydance rhythms in class, but that’s just way too little exposure to really learn. I’ve played around with the rhythm lessons on videos like Jenna and Raquy’s The Heartbeat of Bellydance: Rhythms & Belly Dance Combinations for Drum Solos, but although that kind of program is valuable for learning how to dance to rhythms once you know them, for me it was still too little.

Eventually I recognized that if I really wanted to improve my sense of rhythm, I’d just have to ahead and learn how to drum. And frankly, the doumbek is a pretty sexy musical instrument. Did I mention I’m also pretty unmusical? So an instrument where I wouldn’t have to worry about melodic pitch really appealed to me.
This is by way of introduction to Carmine T. Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop, a DVD that starts at the beginning — at the very, very beginning — of learning how to play a doumbek. Which is great, since I think a lot of the material you can find assumes some facility at drumming, and goes at a pretty fast pace. But I’m not the only dancer who has wanted to learn a bit of doumbek, and the fingers we learn to move so gracefully are not always adept at making dums and teks!

Although I have a review copy from Carmine, I think it actually doesn’t make sense to watch the video once and review it. I do have a tiny bit of background: I took a world drumming class this spring, and whether we used doumbeks or djembes, we learned new rhythms very slowly, and were taught to practice them a lot. So I’ll work with the video gradually, and let you all know how it goes.

Some first reactions: 

The first cool thing you’ll notice is not even on the DVD — it’s the inside cover. Open up the cardboard DVD case and you’ll see all the basic rhythms taught in the main workshop. I think this is nothing short of brilliant. Simple, but brilliant. I’m a visual person, and I often need to see a rhythm written down as well as to hear it. However, files included on DVDs tend to be annoying to work with, since I’d have to print them or the like, and just having the rhythm pop up on the screen means that I can’t practice with it. Having a handy, portable guide to the rhythms is wonderful, because I can use it to practice without even putting on the video.

The instruction is a filmed workshop, and Carmine begins with the very basics: how to hold the drum, a relaxed posture, finger positions, and how to hit the drum with the dum and the tek. My previous teacher had us do our teks with more of a closed hand (or maybe I just followed incorrectly!), and following Carmine’s instructions gave me a nicer sound that was easier to achieve. A few basic drills (again, all different from what I’d done before) help students switch between dum and tek — trickier than it sounds at first.

I recognize that look of intense concentration…

The workshop context is actually really nice. This kind of thing can be distracting in dance instructionals, but with drumming, where so much is about getting into a groove with others, it really makes sense. Carmine jokes around with the students which makes the whole thing more fun, and when he corrects them I notice that I was making the same mistake.

The thing that was very different from my class was this: while we were taught to count out rhythms, Carmine teaches them by sound. I worked with the sections for maqsum and baladi to start with. In each, he plays the very bare bones of the rhythm a few times slowly, then has the group join in and repeat. Once they get it, he might embellish the rhythm a few times, regularly returning to the skeleton form. On the one hand, I’m used to counting and missed it a bit. On the other, I liked that this way of teaching taught a focus on the general shape and sound of a rhythm, rather than an abstract count. Some of the workshop members seem to be dancers, and certainly much of the audience of the DVD will be too, so it makes sense to teach a kind of instinctive feeling for how the rhythms sound.

So far, I’m already excited about getting up tomorrow morning and tormenting my neighbours with baby maqsum and baby baladi! Next time: saidi, and my personal nemesis, the dreaded ka.

Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop is also available at