Mariyah performs a drum solo

Review of Belly Dance Drum Solos with Mariyah and Faisal Zedan

Belly Dance Drum Solos: Concepts for Dancers and Drummers is an intermediate/advanced level instructional DVD put out by dhavir productions. It also happens to be very, very good. It is rich in material, innovative in its pedagogy, and will give the intermediate or advanced student tons to work with.

But let’s get one little thing out of the way. If you are a beginner dancer who does not have a lot of moves in your repertoire, or if you are the kind of person who likes to have a teacher explain every little thing before you feel comfortable following along (nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate learning style), your enjoyment of this DVD will be limited. You might still get value out of watching it, but it will be harder for you to use it actively.

Belly Dance Drum Solos is aimed at students who already know a few steps (a screen at the beginning invites you to modify the moves according to your own ability), and who, more importantly, are comfortable doing a bit of follow-along and interpretation. If you are familiar with the bellydance scene at all, you know that the dance is taught in different ways depending on region and teacher. Typically, “Western” students tend to like choreographies and step-by-step instructions, whereas Middle Eastern teaching is often done by example, or “follow the bouncing butt,” and works more with improvisation. But here’s the neat thing: this DVD does both: some sections are designed for you to follow along as best you can, but the DVD also includes a full choreography that is broken down step by step. It’s the best of both worlds.

After a brief written introduction to the DVD, we have a brief warm up routine (primarily for dancers, but drummers are also invited to use it) led by Mariyah. This is not a full, thorough warm up, but rather an exercise in centering yourself using breath. Mariyah talks about how staying centered and connected to your breath is what helps you have energy for an entire drum solo (which I didn’t know), and the movements are indeed delightful. My one criticism here is that the instructions are only written on the screen, which makes it difficult to follow them during the frequent forward bends. Faisal Zedan follows with a brief discussion of the importance of posture and warming up for drummers.

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The following section introduces a number of rhythms and movements that can be done to them. Included are masmoudi sagheer, maqsoum, saidi, falahi, malfouf, and ayoub. Each rhythm is shown first in notation, and then performed while Mariyah demonstrates the kinds of moves and move combinations she might do to them. The rhythms are not introduced slowly the way rhythm DVDs for dancers usually do — rather, the focus is on how they sound in an actual drum solo and how to move to them. On the one hand, I had trouble recognizing the rhythms at full speed, even though I know many of these in their slower, class versions. At the same time, I appreciated the exercise in reacting to real music, and loved seeing how Mariyah explored and varied both basic and more advanced bellydance moves. This is, I suspect, the part of the DVD I will return to most often.

In the section on “The Beat, Tempo, and Changing Rhythms”, Faisal plays two alternating rhythms while Mariyah claps along to the underlying beat. It’s an exercise in listening, and it’s one that I’m glad to have, because finding the beat is a real challenge for me. The next level would be to play close attention to the rhythms themselves, but simply holding the beat was enough for me on the first go.

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Another favourite section is “Putting the Sounds of the Drum into Movement,” a kind of bookend to the rhythms section. Here, Faisal plays the “Doum” repeatedly, and Mariyah shows the sort of big, dramatic movements she would use for it. Same for Tek, Suk, and Tuq. In what follows, Faisal plays longer riffs, and Mariyah dances to them. In all of these, I simply followed along with what Mariyah was doing. It was generally pretty easy to tell what she was doing, and what I liked about not having instructions was that I could focus on different aspects of her dance — the main accents, embellishment with the head or hands, ways of moving the upper body — and try to follow along with that aspect of the dance. The “follow me” kind of pedagogy is perfect for this kind of exercise, because it’s all about getting these moves and reactions into your body in an instinctual way, not about training you that there are one or two patterns to do when you hear a saidi. It’s training in improvisation, and the more you pay attention to the details of how Mariyah interprets the music, the more you can get out of it.

As if all this weren’t cool enough, yet another section follows, this one on the structure of solos. Faisal and Mariyah demonstrate how dancer and drummer communicate at various points in the drum solo, and again, you get multiple examples of: Introductions, Phrases over a rhythm, Free or arhythmic phrases (typically in the middle of a solo), and Endings.

Honestly, it’s like these people sat down and thought to themselves, “what is every possible way we can teach how to dance to a drum solo?” and then gave you exercises for every single level. Single sound? Check. Riff? Check. Rhythm? Check. Section of the dance? You got it. And never just one exercise for each — multiple ones, so you get lots of ideas and practice. You could also just watch these and analyze, or note down moves or combos you like for your own practice.

Okay, so at this point we’re about 53 minutes into the program, your intrepid, out-of-shape reviewer is tired and sweaty, and feeling pretty satisfied with the whole thing. But — lo and behold, a choreography!

And this is what I mean about different learning styles. If the first half of the DVD encourages you to follow intuitively, analytically, improvisationally, now you get a classic choreo instruction. Mariyah shows you each section slowly and describes every single step, then she runs you through it again slowly and with guidance. Then you practice it twice at full speed following her, and another two times following her in costume (which looks a little different). Every single little section is chaptered and easy to repeat. She does no movement instruction per se, but if you are intermediate you should be able to follow along, at least at half speed. Full speed may take a bit more practice. Here is my second and last criticism: this section is not mirrored, and at one point it became quite challenging for me to follow Mariyah’s left with mine.

Because of the way my brain works, choreo tends to be something I like less than technique instruction. In this case, however, I felt the choreography was a real addition, a completion of the previous teaching, if you will. I treated it not as a dance I would personally perform, but as a series of combos that were mini-lessons in how to respond to rhythms. So I noticed that she’ll sometimes do three moves, and vary on the fourth, or the way she’ll move the movements from the lower body to upper and then back down again. Mariyah’s instruction also helped me figure out some moves which I wasn’t able to discern precisely from the previous sections. After you are done all the individual segments, there is a clip of Mariyah dancing the whole thing in costume. Your intrepid reviewer was, alas, too tired at this point to try and dance along.

The choreography is the kind that’s jam packed and complex, but lest you think that’s the only kind of drum solo there is, the last section of the DVD — about twenty minutes long — offers you five entire improv performances. I watched these while stretching, and while I was a bit tired, I could already see how different they were from the choreographed drum solo. Movements were simpler, you could see Mariyah and Faisal watching and interpreting each other’s intentions. Not only did it have the magic of improvisation, but after all the previous exercises, you could analyse these performances, see what choices each of them was making, see the little moments where things didn’t quite fit, and so on. I know some dancers go directly to the performances on a DVD, and this will be a special treat for them. Five. Five.

The production value of Belly Dance Drum Solos is very high: quality filming, in a bright, modern studio. Mariyah’s costumes make it easy to see her movements even on a small screen. The chaptering is heroic — every single little thing is chaptered, so you can repeat a section at the press of a button, and every section and most sub-sections can be reached through the menu.

Belly Dance Drum Solo DVD disc

Mariyah is, incidentally, an absolutely lovely dancer. Graceful, energetic, musical. She has great technique, but it looks like it comes out of her spontaneously, not out of a desire to show off what she can do. There is a robotic kind of festival choreography we are all familiar with, and which I tend to find rather depressing, but Mariyah’s dancing just makes me happy and hopeful about the art form. For a DVD like this, where so much of the learning happens by watching and imitating, it was really essential that the teacher be a beautiful dancer, and not merely a competent one, because you look to her for style, spirit, interpretation, not just to copy a bunch of moves.

All in all, Belly Dance Drum Solos is an excellent program for dancers who are past the beginner stage and ready to be active in their dance education. It is just under 1 hour and 52 minutes long, but it feels like much more than that because of all the different segments and exercises. I did it all in one go, but you can take the different sections on their own and study or practice with them — certainly the choreography would be worth working with in a more dedicated way to get it up to speed. I think it would also be a fantastic tool for teachers or troupes, since you have built in demonstrations and variations that you could analyse and discuss.

You can get the DVD or a streaming rental at dhavir productions, which also provided me with a review copy.

Belly Dance Drum Solos DVD cover

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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.

DOUM!

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 http://www.carmine.com/.