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Zills and Sagat, Use and Maintenance

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What's in a Name?

Zills, aka Zils, aka Finger Cymbals, aka Sagat. Yasmin, a noted dancer, music producer, and authority on sagat playing, uses the word Zills to describe the two-slot finger cymbals popular with Turkish and American dancers, and the term Sagat to describe one-hole finger cymbals played by Egyptian dancers and musicians.

Finger cymbals are purchased in sets of 4 (two pair) and worn with one on each thumb and middle finger, fastened (tightly!) via elastic loops. The cymbals are struck together to produce sound.

Yasmin: "Zills and sagat are two slightly different creatures... Turkish zills generally have thin rims with high domes and usually two slots cut into them. These are for threading thick elastic, to keep the cymbals tightly in place on the fingers. Sagat, with their ancient single-hole construction, are not as stable. They require a solid grip to control them. This grip... also sets the two types of finger cymbals apart. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. Certainly, zills are easier to control and are definitely louder. Sagat, on the other hand, change pitch. [Sagat] will ring clearly for a second, maximum two, and then drop off quickly. A good pair of zills, on the other hand, will ring for three seconds or longer. I have a set of Saroyans that vibrates for over eight."

How to Purchase Zills

Zills that are properly made make a clear tone when struck. Lily Splane recommends:
  • Compare all the zills in a set with each other to prevent disharmonic undertones. Hold the zills up by the elastic, one per hand, and strike them against each other.
  • Beginners should start with two-inch diameter zills and move to 2.5 inch for stage performances.
  • Three-inch or larger are professional hall size.

The most reliable way to get a good quality zill is to purchase zills made by reputable manufacturers. It is possible to purchase a set of stamped zills for five or ten dollars. But, frankly, why not spend a bit more and get a real instrument?

Size

  • The smaller the diameter, the higher the pitch.
  • Saroyan zills for students and dancers range from less than 2 inches to almost 3.5 inches in diameter. The larger zills are very loud and used in outdoor or auditorium performances.
  • Turquoise International carries zills from less than 2 inches to 3 inches in diameter.
  • Yasmin sells Sagat in both small and large models.

Composition

  • The brass zills (lower more mellow tone) sound different from the silver zills (higher, more piercing). Bronze zills are usually larger, heavier zills, also with a lower tone.
  • Saroyan: The German silver alloy cymbals have a higher tone than its brass counterparts because of its nickel and silver content. We also must mention that they wear out easier than the brass and have the tendency to change their tone especially, when they are hit or played hard. Please make a note of it.
  • Some dancers use different metals (but same size zills) to get a dum/tek effect between hands. Two different sets, silver on one hand, brass on the other, is one configuration.
  • Jim Boz uses three hard bronze and one german silver zil, with the silver on the right (dum) hand. Zils are all the same size.
  • Zildjian started business in Turkey in the seventeenth century making bronze cymbals for the famous mehter bands. After World War I, the family moved their business to the US, near Boston where they continue to manufacture cymbals of all sizes for bands and orchestras, including some unique cast zills so loud they will make your ears ring... making them the perfect outdoor zills.
Kay Hardy Campbell, Mehter Music Echoes Down the Centuries, AramcoWorld.com, web.

Saroyan produces their own line of highly-regarded zills.

Frequently Asked Questions, Saroyan.

Turquoise International produces their own line of highly-regarded zills.

Yasmin sells Sagat in various sizes.

Zildjian.com has been making finger cymbals for many years but some dancers on Bhuz.com complain that the quality is not what it used to be.

Zill Maintenance

In order to play zills, you have to attach them to the ends of your fingers, specifically your thumb and your middle finger.

Lots of dancers attach their zills with knots on the bottom or the top. This looks terrible! Sew it on properly and let the zills accentuate your appearance instead of detracting. The goal: Zill elastic that holds the zills on your fingers AND that has a neat appearance.

A shortcut with a neat appearance is: thread elastic hairbands through the zill slots! No sewing!

Maintaining the Shine on Zills

Saroyan recommends: To prevent discoloration, occasionally polish with Turtle Wax© or Brasso© Metal Polish and hand buff with a soft cloth.

Retuning the Zills

Some experts suggest that when zills go out of tune, retune them by placing them in the oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes; place them right on the rack, then slide off onto a towel to cool. Retuning (retempering) them will not work if the zills were not properly tuned in the first place.

Zill Covers

If you are practicing where others can hear you, you will need to muffle your zills. One "muffler" per pair should be sufficient - if one zill is muffled the other cannot clang. Crocheted zill mufflers are sold by a lot of vendors. If you don't crochet, you can make your own with baby socks ( 0-6 mo) and a little narrow elastic.
Maura Enright, Several Ways to put Elastic in Zills, BabaYagaMusic, Web.

Michelle, How to Sew Elastic in Your Zills, Farfesha.com, Web.

How to Play Zills

Finger cymbals are used by dancers to accompany themselves while dancing, with or without music, and when used with expertise add a wonderful dimension to a dance performance. They require knowledge of middle-eastern music rhythms (so that the dancer knows what to emphasize during dancing and zilling), fluency with musical flourishes used to fill in the rhythms, and an understanding of the music she is performing to so that she plays the right rhythm at the right time.

Artemis recommends that dancers position the zill elastic across their cuticles, tightly. "Zills should be worn very tight and they will usually change the color of your fingertips during the time you are playing them."

You Are Not the Drum - unless there IS no drum

It is essential to know drum rhythms but YOU will not be playing them, at least not all the time. You will be adding a layer of delight with your zilling, not pretending you are another drum.

Mary Ellen Donald, as quoted by Bedia in a 1989 Middle Eastern Dancer magazine: "If you know the different rhythms, what to listen for, what to expect, and if you know how to execute steps and zills, then as these rhythms change in the accompaniment, you can change the rhythm. It's much more exciting for the audience to see and hear the alignment of rhythm, drummer and body than when a dancer repeats steps and constantly plays cymbals RLR even while the music is going from masmoudi to beledi to chifte-telli, back out to ayyub and maybe back to a fast maqsum... There is high energy generated by multi-changes in rhythm. You just can't intuitively know these changes, you really have to be trained."

Lily Splane: "Finger cymbals as instruments are traditionally an accompaniment to the drums and other pecussion, not necessarily a beat-for-beat imitation of the drum."

Ibrahim Turmen, in 1981 Southern Dancer magazine: "There's nothing more frustrating than to watch a dancer play his/her zils continuously and incorrectly throughout the whole performance. [But they] should be used generously in dances such as the 9/8 Karsilama, Ghawazee and other lively rhythmic dances. Adding zils to already peppy music can make even the deadest audience wild and crazy!"

Because zills are not usually the primary percussion instrument, zill notation usually consists of R (Dominant hand, which for most folks is the Right hand) and L (Non-dominant hand, which for most folks is the Left hand). Common zill patterns are described as singles, doubles, triples and rolls. This, again, is because zills are usually used as decorative flourishes for the rhythm.

If there IS no drumming, then playing drum patterns on the zills can be a show-saver, with dominant hand playing the Dum and the Tek or Ka distributed between the two hands as most convenient.

Many teachers teach that strong beats are played with the dominant hand (right in case of righties, left in case of lefties). Karim Nagi proposes a more ambidextrous approach: Dominant hand should match dominant foot. Step with right foot, play with right hand. Step with left foot, play with left hand. So a typical roll, often played R-L-R, R-L-R, might be played R-L-R, L-R-L if the dominant foot changes.

I have some notes from a zill workshop by Travis Jarrell which illustrate the contrast between drum beats and zill playing. (A 'D' represents a strong beat, the DUM of the drum.)

Kalamatiano (Greek):
. . . D . D .
L R L R - R -

Karshilama
D . D . D . D . .
R RLR RLR RLR L R

Tomzaro (Armenian Karshilama)
D . . . D . D . .
R - L - R - R L -

The Building Blocks

The baseline: know the rhythms and be familiar with standard flourishes.

Single, double (alternating), triple (gallop) and roll patterns, played in groups, are the building blocks for your zill playing.

  1. Single strikes are accent and pickup beats.
  2. Doubles (alternating hands) are frequently used on the tek-ka sound
  3. A triple - aka as a Gallop - (three beats and a rest per drum beat) is often used on the dum (or low pitched) sound.

For instance: a 4/4 baladi, played straight, has the basic building blocks of Single, Double, and Triple.

count: 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
drums: D . D . t k t . D . t k t . t k
zills: R . R . R L R . R . R L R . R L

However, the zilling would rarely be so straightforward. Extra rolls and flourishes might be added in some places and entire beats left silent in others: it depends on the music and the skill of the zillist.

Triples are usually played as 3 sounds followed by a rest when played in a measure with 2 or 4 beats. They can also be played three per beat, but sparingly. Some folks chant "giddyup" while they learn to play triplets; one strike per syllable followed by a syllable-long rest.

There is some controversy about the practice of using nonsense phrases to reinforce rhythm patterns.

  • Chiftatelli: John went to the sea; caught. three. fish.
  • Ayub: BUY some shoes, and BUY more shoes, and . .
  • Beladi: Dum Dum Coffee shop Dum Coffee shop Coffee
The jingles aid retention but do not train the dancers to think in the traditional drum language of dum and tec, which means that they will not be able to communicate easily with other dancers and with musicians.

The Sounds

Artemis, among others, describes three zill sounds, but not everyone agrees on how to achieve them.
  1. Ring: produced by striking cymbals together quickly and evenly with no dampening by fingers.
  2. Click: tap the rings of the cymbals together for quiet music and taksims without rhythm... or rest a finger on one zill.
  3. Clack:Dull the sound by lightly resting one or more fingers on the zill.
MiddleEasternDance.net describes four basic sounds:
  1. Ringing (R): A high pitched resonating sound made in one of two ways. The first is by snapping the zills together head on and pulling them apart quickly. The pulling apart quickly being the key to a good ring. Your other fingers should not be touching the zills otherwise they will deaden the sound. The other way is to strike them at an angle so that the rims strike against each other but they never make full surface contact.
  2. Dull Ringing (D): This is a duller tone than just plain ringing. This is the sound made when you snap the zills together head on but do not immediately pull them apart. It can also be made by stabilizing the top zill by putting the pointer and ring finger on the zill. This allows the bottom zill to still produce a ringing tone while the top is deadened. Both methods can produce a dull ringing.
  3. Clanking (C): This is a dull flat tone which is created by stabilizing the top zill (middle finger) using the ring finger and pointer finger to hold the back of the zill on either side of the middle finger. The zills are then snapped together but not pulled back immediately. There should be a moment before you pull the zills apart so that the bottom also cannot resonate. This causes both halves to clank together.
  4. Tapping (T): This is another dull, flat tone. This sound is made by turning the zills on your thumbs to the side so when you snap them together you will hit the side or rim of the bottom zill tap the inside of the top zill.

Lily Splane describes an additional sound, the Zing, an advanced technique that involves brushing the top cymbal across the bottom cymbal. She uses it with one hand only to achieve rapid speed.

Serena Wilson described five zill sounds:

  1. Ring: strike zills evenly face-to-face and release quickly;
  2. Clack: Same as a Ring but with index and ring fingers against the zills;
  3. Tingle: with the zills at an angle to each other, briefly strike the outer rims to each other for a tingling sound.
  4. Click: Same as a Clack but with the thumb zill softened by holding it against the base of the index (second) finger for a light clicking sound.
  5. Trill: Rake the edges of one pair of zills over the edges of another for a trilling sound.

You are a Musician: Critique and retrain yourself constantly.

Artemis Mourat, a noted expert in Turkish and Romany dance, described four ways to interpret music with zills:
  1. Play them to the rhythm, but use variations, flourishes and variations of intensity.
  2. Play them to the melody IF more than one melody instrument is playing.
  3. Play them to the dance step: do a series of alternate doubles (RLRLRLRLRLRL) to highligh your shimmy rather than a RLR RLR.
  4. Play filler patterns.

Artemis also wrote a brief comparison of Egyptian vs. Vintage Orientale (as influenced by Turkish zill playing) on a Facebook belly dance group:

"Both styles play intricate patterns and both styles play to the rhythm, to the time signature and to the step. But the Turkish style sometimes plays the melodic line and often really fast even if the song is not a fast song. Also the Egyptians shake them to make them play at their fastest speed and we do not...I wanted to clarify that playing the melody is a controversial thing and some musicians will object to this...when I do play the melody it is only during the time when the entire band is playing the melody AND it is only sometimes. I believe that in the Turkish style of playing, we are more a part of the band as a whole and in the Egyptian style we are more a part of the percussion section of the band."

Mary Ellen Donald advised getting feedback on how accurate your zilling is and correct it if necessary. "It is a tedious task to retrain your listening abilities. Concentration is what's called for, and these days we are so pushed around by multi-dimensional stimuli that even the simplest demand for concentration boggles our minds...Unfortunately, I don't think you have much choice about whether or not you want to work on such unexciting aspects of your dancing. Your creditability as a professional dancer or instructor is questioned every time you play cymbals or dance offbeat."

Artemis, Zill Speak training CD.

Artemis, Finger Cymbals: Technique, Serpentine.org, Web.

Mary Ellen Donald, About Cymbals & a Workshop Checklist, GildedSerpent.com, Web.

Mary Ellen Donald, Learning to Play Zills on Beat, GildedSerpent.com, Web.

Maura Enright, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean Dance Rhythm Diagrams and Descriptions, BabaYagaMusic.com, Web.

Jasmin Jahal, Practicing with the Finger Cymbals,JasminJahal.com, Web. Article focuses on method rather than individual rhythms. Author uses Drum notation instead of the usual R-L notation.

Anthea Kawakib, a fabulous zill player, is on a mission to raise the bar for zill playing in the Western world. She posts finger cymbal instruction vids out on her Finger Cymbals Training channel on You Tube.

Anthea Kawakib provides her own music with her zills while dancing!

Anthea Kawakib training video demonstrating singles, doubles, and triples and how to move to them at the same time. She advises the beginning zill player to use the dominant hand on the beat, no matter which foot is leading.

Anthea Kawakib, Zill Patterns and Playing Tips, MiddleEasternDance.net, Web. Professional examples of good zill flourishes and links to brief videos.

Natasya Katsikaris, NearEastDance.com zill textbook.

Med-dance Mail List from 1998 has good tips for beginners.

Karim Nagi, an expert percussionist and drummer, is making a name for himself with his enthusiastic (and unorthodox) ambi-dextrous and multi-tone approach to zill playing.

Serena was one of the most famous American belly dancers of the 20th century. The Manhattan school she established still exists, and her son, Scott Wilson, has gone on to become one of the most famous oud players in the Occidental world.

Lily Splane, Zills on Fire training CD and booklet.

Unknown, Zill Patterns and Playing Tips, MiddelEasternDance.net, Web.

Unknown, Zills, Wikipedia, Web.

Yasmin, Sagat Speak, CD and booklet.

Zeina Zahesha, Zill Drills preview on Youtube, during which she demonstrates, in closeup, making Clack, Tek, and Ring sounds (Clank, Tap, Ring), separately and in combination. Good to watch if you are not sure exactly where to position your zills. And, you get to see her fingertips turn blue!



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