Playing Finger Cymbals is an essential skill for belly dancers, and I’ve got some fun facts to share about Scarlet Lux’s favourite instrument.
If you haven’t already checked out shira.net as a resource for all things Belly Dance, you should! Shira’s experience and knowledge on many topics is available for readers on her site, and if you follow her on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll know that she is celebrating this February as Finger Cymbal Appreciation Month! As a huge fan and regular player of this instrument myself, I thought I would dedicate a blog post to this essential Belly Dance skill. Thanks for the inspiration, Shira!
Finger cymbals are called Zil or Ziller in Turkey, Sagat or Sanouj in Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries, Kymbalon in Greece, and Mouka in Morocco. Small, hand held cymbals have been found in many cultures around the world for thousands of years – Tingsha is what Tibetans call their hand held cymbals, and Taal or Manjira is what they are called in India.
Over the centuries, hand held cymbals around the world have been made from wood, bone, ivory, shell, and copper. These days, metal finger cymbals are made of brass or bronze alloy, often coated in other metals to provide a certain look. You can see ancient bronze finger cymbals on display at The Louvre, The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, and The British Museum, and that familiar cymbal shape can be seen on the fingers of today’s dancers and musicians.
Playing cymbals is something that many cultures share, but each culture does it a bit differently, depending on the music and dance involved.
In India, the manjira are often attached to a long cord, and the dancers will swing the cymbals back and forth, using them to strike several other metal cymbals that are attached to their clothing or body with straps. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, large hand held cymbals called kas were used in the military marching bands, and they are still used in Turkish military bands today. In Morocco, you can see Gnawa musicians playing large hand held cymbals called qarakab which are attached in pairs and produce a metallic clashing sound when struck. Moroccan Shikhat dancers play the mouka on their fingers to completely different music, and on different occasions.
When it comes to Belly Dance, we use elastics to wear a set of 4 cymbals on the hands – one on each thumb and one on each middle finger. The thumb and middle finger are brought together to create the sound, and sometimes we use the cymbals on one hand to strike the cymbals on the other hand. There are many techniques, and we change the way we play depending on the music we are playing to, and the dance we are doing.
Here are some useful Finger Cymbal tips for dancers & musicians:
1. Finger cymbals are not a prop! They are a musical instrument, and an essential part of the belly dance skill set. Not all dancers choose to use them, but learning to play while dancing can improve your sense of coordination and rhythm immensely, as well as giving you a new appreciation for the music and rhythms that you dance to. You should try them out, even if you decide not to use them in performance.
2. Finger cymbals should not be played continuously, especially when dancing with a live band. The cymbals are part of the musical experience, but they do not need to take over the music itself. Use your cymbals to accentuate the music in the right places, or accompany your movement with flair and precision. There is no need to clang away with never-ending singles while the drummer is trying to showcase his or her skills too! Get creative with rhythms that change and vary, and allow room for your audience to breathe between phrases.
3. Finger cymbals have different tones and resonance depending on their shape, size, and the material used to make them. The density of the metal used in each set of cymbals will have an effect on their sound, so don’t just choose a set of cymbals based on whether they match your costume! Choose a set of cymbals that compliments the music you will be dancing to, and the venue you will be dancing in. Small rooms mean smaller, lighter sounding cymbals, and big rooms or outdoor venues may call for something with a bit more size and sound. Playing a small, bell-like set of cymbals goes well with the lighter sounds of a kanoun or oud, and larger, more earthy sounding cymbals match well with mizmar and heavy drums. Remember that when you play cymbals either to recorded or live music, you are accompanying the band. Choose your instrument wisely!
Did You Know: The family owned Zildjian company is the oldest maker of cymbals in the world! They have been around since the Ottoman Empire – in business and making cymbals since 1623.
4. Finger cymbals can be played in several ways. “Clack-a-clack” is usually what we hear when the player of the cymbals doesn’t use tonal playing in their technique – this could be a conscious choice, depending on how they are accompanying the music. “Clang-a-clang” can be grating to sensitive ears when the rhythm is being drowned out by a constant open ring, although light-sounding cymbals aren’t as bad. Skilled finger cymbal players use 3-4 different striking techniques to create a variety of sounds in each rhythmic phrase. Basic finger cymbal patterns use 2 strikes – open and closed. Soloists tend to use tonal playing more often than troupes, because the clarity of the changing strikes can get lost in a large group, especially if they aren’t all playing the same cymbals. Get yourself an experienced and skilled finger cymbal teacher to learn more about tonal cymbal playing!
5. Quality matters. Finger cymbals can be found for various prices from many vendors, but cheap cymbals will almost always result in a not-so-great sound. If you are serious about playing your cymbals beautifully, get yourself an instrument-quality set from skilled makers such as Saroyan, Zildjian, or Turquoise International. Don’t get a set of tin clackers from the airport on your way home from that Mediterranean cruise, or a spray-painted fantasy set from your local bookstore – it’s worth it to spend a bit more on a set of great cymbals that will last a lifetime!