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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

A Review Of

Gems Of The Middle East

by Mary Ellen Donald & Mimi Spencer

 

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Summary

This is a collection of well-known songs from the Middle East performed by a pair of San Francisco musicians, Mary Ellen Donald and the late Mimi Spencer. There are a total of three CD's in the series, each of which is sold individually. The songs they selected are predominantly Egyptian, with a small number of songs from other nationalities included. Mary Ellen plays percussion, while Mimi plays qanoun (a Middle Eastern type of zither) and sings.

This review discusses all three, because the comments I would make about one apply equally to all three with respect to what I liked, what I didn't, etc.

Gems of the Middle East Volume 1 Album Cover Gems of the Middle East Volume 2 Album Cover Gems of the Middle East Volume 3 Album Cover

 

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Fact Sheet

Musical Style Primarily Egyptian classical
Instruments Qanoun, drum, riqq (tambourine)
Dance Style Best Suited To... Egyptian Oriental or American Classic
Recommended Dance Skill Level Range from beginner to more experienced
Length of Music Volume 1: 57.7 minutes
Volume 2: 58.4 minutes
Volume 3: 58.3 minutes
Number of Songs Volume 1: 17 songs
Volume 2: 17 songs
Volume 3: 13 songs
Packaging Less informative than I would prefer

 

 

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Description

The primary instruments used on this collection are qanoun (a Middle Eastern zither), riqq (tambourine), and tabla (goblet-shaped drum). The bulk of the music is played by Mary Ellen Donald on percussion and Mimi Spencer on qanoun and vocals. Mary Ellen is assisted on the percussion solos by Aushim Chaudhuri, Terry Holgate, and Susan Goldenstein. The percussion solos all have a full, rich sound due to Mary Ellen's decision to use an ensemble of several percussionists playing together.

Most of the songs on Gems Of The Middle East are classic Egyptian music, with a sampling of songs from other areas. Each album contains nearly an hour of music, so collectively they offer 3 hours of Middle Eastern songs for listening, dancing, or musician practice.

Across the three volumes, as a group, the songs represent the following ethnic origins:

  • 35 of the songs are Arabic (mostly Egyptian and Lebanese, with a couple of Saudi).
  • 1 song is Armenian.
  • 4 of the songs are Greek.
  • 2 of the songs are Turkish.
  • 1 song is Hebrew.
  • 4 songs are improvisations (3 of which are percussion solos).

See the "Songs Included" section below for titles of which songs were chosen for the collection, and which volume each appears on.

Some of the songs in this collection such as "Saba Samir" and "Hebbina" use simple rhythms that beginning-level dancers who have been exposed to Arabic music will find easy to recognize and use. Others, such as "Leilet Hob", are more complex with rhythm changes periodically throughout the song, and are better suited to intermediate or advanced dancers. For the most part, if a song is less than 4 minutes long, it's probably one of the simpler ones that a beginner could figure out how to use. But if the song is 6 minutes or longer, it's probably one of the more complex songs that may be better suited to more experienced dancers. This is admittedly a simplification, but it's a rough guideline you can use if you don't have a teacher to help you work with this music.

I value the fact that each of these albums features a different percussion solo. These are rich-sounding, and they're very danceable. However, it would have been nice if each had also featured a solo qanoun improvisation. I have heard Mimi play taqasim (improvisations) in live shows and enjoyed her musicianship very much, so it was disappointing to find that this set contains only one, which appears on Volume 2. When I'm mixing music for a show, I often like to use a taqsim for one of my slow parts, and in the 3 hours of music offered in this collection there was only a single chiftetelli.

Mary Ellen has taken an interesting direction in offering this music -- each album has a companion book, which is sold separately. The book provides guidelines for dancers and music students alike in understanding the rhythmic structure of each song. The books assume that you have already become familiar with standard Middle Eastern rhythms such as maqsoum and chiftetelli, and it tells you how those rhythms are used in each song. In addition, Mimi has published two song books with sheet music for the songs in this collection. One is for the instrumental numbers, and the other includes lyrics (and translations) for the vocal numbers. I have reviewed these books separately on my web site. See my book reviews page for reviews of all five Gems books.

 

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Songs Included

This review encompasses three different albums, each sold separately but similar in packaging, musical style, and musicianship. This section lists the songs available on each.

 

Volume 1

Song Title

Length

Nationality

Music Clip?

Translation?

Comments

Sabah Samir 2:40 Egyptian Yes No Medium speed. Often used for entrances.
Lailet Hob 6:17 Egyptian Yes No Complex song with several rhythm changes. Great for advanced-level dancers, not recommended for beginners.
Hebbina 3:34 Egyptian Yes Yes Composed by Farid al-Atrache
Al-Henna 3:28 Egyptian No No  
Norits Karoon Yegav 3:50 Armenian Yes No  
Azizah 3:08 Egyptian Yes No Fast. One of my favorites for entrances.
Al-Ataba Ghazzaz 2:02 Egyptian Yes No One of my favorite Arabic songs. Nice for beginners.
Toutah 4:14 Egyptian Yes Instrumental Fast. One of my favorites for finales.
Alf Lailah wa Lailah 6:03 Egyptian Yes Yes An Egyptian classic. Great for experienced dancers, not recommended for beginners.
Hijaz Baladi 1:34 Egyptian No No  
Ya Sitti Ya Khityarah 1:12 Spanish / Lebanese Fusion No No Also known as "Perom Pom Pom"
Ahwak 4:33 Egyptian No No  
Hani 4:47 Egyptian No No  
Hijaz Finale 0:40 Egyptian No No Great for finale
Nibtidi Mneen al-Hikaya 3:21 Egyptian Yes Yes This is the second instrumental segment of Abdel Halim Hafez' original song, which is not the segment usually found on albums under this name. (Most albums with tracks of this song use the first instrumental segment.)
Bint al-Balad 3:16 Egyptian No No  
Hagala Drum Solo 3:04 Mary Ellen's Original No Not applicable  

 

Volume 2

Song Title

Length

Nationality

Music Clip?

Translation?

Comments

Tamrihinna 3:25 Egyptian No No Medium speed. Often used for entrances.
Laili Ya Layali 7:22 Arabic No No  
Cleopatra 8:47 Egyptian Yes Yes Appropriate for either veil work or Egyptian-style dance.
Mazamir 4:08 Egyptian No No  
Spectacular Rhythms Finale 0:40 Arabic No Not applicable Appropriate for finale
Ya Reem Wadi Thaqif 3:23 Saudi Arabian No No  
Tafta Hindi 0:34 Arabic No No Appropriate for finale
Raghizi Apopse I Kardhia 4:00 Greek No No  
Rompi Rompi 2:14 Turkish No Yes Uses 9/8 rhythm
Erev Shel Shoshanim 3:46 Israeli Yes Yes Beautiful for veil work
Ya Dala Dalla 6:53 Lebanese No No  
Akhud Habibi D'Ana Yamma 3:07 Egyptian No No  
Chapkin Chapkin 3:30 Turkish No No  
Sahara City 5:16 Egyptian No No  
Chiftetelli Taqsim 3:03 Egyptian No Not applicable  
Fakkaruni 0:50 Egyptian No No Appropriate for finale
Sabroso Drum Solo 3:11 Mary Ellen's Original No Not applicable  

 

Volume 3

Song Title

Length

Nationality

Music Clip?

Translation?

Comments

Sawwah 8:47 Egyptian No Yes Medium speed. Often used for entrances.
Anta 'Omri 3:52 Egyptian No Yes  
La Guardienne des Cles 2:24 Lebanese No No  
Ya 'Ain Munayyati 3:44 Levantine No No A debke. This song often used for folkloric dancing. Suitable for cane.
Al-'Elbi Ya'shaq Kulli Gameel 3:34 Egyptian No No  
Kapetanaki/Sala Sala 6:40 Greek No No  
Princess Of Cairo 4:00 Egyptian No Not applicable `
Wa D'Ana 5:52 Saudi Arabian No No  
Longa Riyadh 3:24 Egyptian No No  
Andah 'Alaik 7:54 Egyptian No No  
Me Bounatses ke Boforia 2:57 Greek Yes Yes Suitable for either tsifteteli (belly dance) or the syrtos line dance.
Mavi Mavi 3:00 Turkish No No  
Libi Drum Solo 2:10 Mary Ellen's Original No Not applicable  

 

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Is It Right for You?

You Will Probably Enjoy This Music If...

  • You are particularly fond of Egyptian music.
  • You prefer to work with classic, well-known songs by composers such as Farid Al-Atrache and Mohammed Abdel Wahab instead of modern-day al jeel pop hits.
  • You like the sound of the kanoun.
  • You want to become familiar with representative songs that Arab bands are likely to know and play for you.
  • You prefer music played on traditional acoustic instruments (kanoun, riqq, dumbek) rather than modern-day electronic instruments (keyboard, electric bass, etc.)
  • You like the simple instrumentation of a takht (small ensemble) more than the sound of a 40-piece orchestra.
  • You're looking for study aids to help you really understand the musical and rhythmic structure of widely-used Egyptian songs. (Together with the companion books, this music collection is valuable for this purpose.)

This Music Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • The music you choose for your performances consists primarily of modern-day pop music.
  • You respond best to music with an intensely folkloric sound, such as old folk songs played on mizmar or rebaba accompanied by tabla baladi. Although the qanoun, riqq, and tabla used on these albums are traditional acoustic instruments, and therefore suitable for folkloric dance styles, the majority of the songs chosen for the Gems collection are famous 20th-century classics rather than traditional folkloric songs.
  • You prefer the 20th-century urban Egyptian sound played by a 40-piece orchestra over the sound of a takht (small ensemble).
  • You don't care for Egyptian music. Although this collection contains some songs from other places, there aren't very many of them.
  • It doesn't contain qanoun taqasim (improvised solos played on qanoun)

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

What I Liked:

  • There's a lot to like about Gems Of The Middle East, including:
  • It uses well-known traditional songs from throughout the Middle East. This choice of music makes it quite useful for a student who wants to become more familiar with the best-known Middle Eastern melodies.
  • For each song, the label identifies the song title and how long the track is. This is very helpful when choosing music from this collection for performances.
  • The production quality is excellent.
  • The musicians are skilled, so the songs are played well. Mimi's voice has a pleasant quality and works well for the vocals on this type of music.
  • A large number of songs are about 3 1/2 minutes long, which is a convenient length for dancers who want to mix and match diverse songs to put a performance together. Other musicians record longer tracks of 4-5 minutes, which must often be cut in order to make a performance fit within the allotted time slot.
  • There's also an assortment of songs which are between 6 and 7 minutes in length. For the most part, these are classics that include multiple rhythm changes within the same song, and they contain enough variety within a single song to work well for performances at seminar shows and festivals whose sponsors put a 7-minute limit on solo slots.
  • Each volume has a great percussion solo.
  • I've always liked music played on the qanoun. I find the sound of that instrument very appealing.
  • Across all three albums, the choice of instruments and musical style is similar. This enables a dancer preparing a performance to assemble songs from across all three, and still end up with a consistent show in which all the songs sound like they belong together.

What I Didn't Like:

  • The paper labels inside the cases don't identify which country the songs are from. This limits the value of this collection as a learning tool for students. (I later learned from Mary Ellen that the companion books do contain this information. But it would have been nice have it included with the music.)
  • Out of all the music on these three albums, there was only one qanoun taqsim (the "Chiftetelli Taqsim" track on Volume 2.)

 

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Conclusion

This is the music that I steer my beginning belly dance students to. I like the fact that the CD's contain many songs from the repertoire that the students will hear again and again as they pursue their dance journeys, and I find the simple instrumentation (qanoun + percussion) to be accessible to newer dancers.

 

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Disclosures

I have taken percussion workshops and private lessons from Mary Ellen Donald, and I found them to be very valuable. I use the music from Gems of the Middle East when I teach my classes, and therefore I buy it wholesale from her and resell to my students.

After our first telephone conversation, Mary Ellen sent me copies of selected books and CD's to review. I purchased all three of the Gems set at the normal price before this occurred, and decided what to put in my review before receiving these complimentary copies of her other material.

I have taken a couple of workshops on introduction to Middle Eastern music from Mimi Spencer, and found her to be very knowledgeable. However, I've never really had a chance to get to know her.

 

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To Buy It

Gems of the Middle East Volume 1 Album Cover

Gems of the Middle East Volume 2 Album Cover

Gems of the Middle East Volume 3 Album Cover

Artist: Mary Ellen Donald & Mimi Spencer
Album Title: Gems of the Middle East Volumes 1, 2, & 3

Mary Ellen Books
P.O. Box 411562
San Francisco, CA 94141-1562
U.S.A.

Telephone: (+1) (510) 654-DRUM
or (+1) (510) 654-3786
Email: me@maryellendonald.com

Web Site: www.maryellendonald.com

 

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