Friday, December 12, 2014

Zills, Finger Cymbals and Finger Percussion in Dance: A Personal Journey

Through my somewhat winding journeys through the movement practices of the Near East, I have found that something I keep coming back to is the zills/finger cymbals. ("Zills" in Turkey, "Sagat" in Egypt). I am fascinated by this instrument, and the beauty it lends to a dance performance. This interest partially also comes from my core background in classical Indian Odissi dance, in which we keep rhythm with our feet, which have ghungroos or anklebells tied to them. I enjoy the added dimension of sound they add to the performance.

My first exposure to the zills was actually in 2004, when I first started visual online explorations of Middle Eastern dance. This exposure itself had come through complete coincidence (more on this story later, and the worlds it unfolded). At that time, I had found online, a small video trailer of Ansuya's "Finger Cymbals with Ansuya" dvd in which she broke down the rhythms on the finger cymbals. I was truly fascinated by this concept for a few reasons:

1) Hand cymbals were themselves not a new concept for me. I had grown up in India watching them being used in both Hindu ritualistic ceremonies, also often placed adjacent to the altar sometimes near shrines, as well as used during musical performances, both in a religious and secular context. I had also seen them placed near altars at Buddhist shrines during my family visit to Nepal in 1998, during which my grandmother and I visited several ancient Hindu and Buddhist shrines (Interesting coincidence, completely unrelated: my mother and I both have four-syllable Buddhist names.)

The hand cymbals I have seen in India are called "manjira". The cymbal-player takes one cymbal in each hand, and strikes them together to create the ringing sound. The two cymbals are usually attached by a cord.

Manjiras appear frequently in the iconography of classical Indian dance and the temple sculptures from which much of the dance draws its inspiration. They are almost always represented in the set of instruments that the celestial musicians and dancers are shown as playing, from ancient Jain cave frescoes to stone temple sculptures.

2) One of my fondest memories with my dad is actually singing a Bengali song with him called Dui haate kaale mondira je shodai baje (Translation: "In the two hands of Time, there are the eternal ringing cymbals"). The complex Hindu pantheon has several gods, one of the most fascinating of which is Siva, the dancing god, who is also the keeper of Time and the Destroyer of Worlds, and the bringer of Change. The abovementioned song lyrics are centered around Siva's dance with the manjiras (hand cymbals)-  and the song describes Shiva as playing them in a frenzy, during moments of creation, during the liminal moments of dusk and dawn, and throughout all time.

3) In classical Indian dance, often the Guru, or teacher, the holder of all dancing knowledge, will play the cymbals to guide the rhythmic performance of the student onstage.

4) In other local and regional dance forms from India, such as Rajasthani dance or musical performances, cymbals are also often used. Also, some of the repertoire from the Manipuri Classical Dance of India also uses the double-handed finger cymbals.

The Middle Eastern finger cymbals were fascinating to me for these reasons- seeing such a familiar instrument being played in such a unique and different way (the idea that cymbals could be worn on fingers was such a revelation!).

Several years later, last year, I was introduced to zills as a discipline in the studio, by Chelydra of Dancing Turtle Folk Arts, Hampton Roads. I was visiting my family for a brief holiday after the end of my solo show "Corpus Matris" (2013) at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and during this time, and in the time afforded to me between a photoshoot and some workshops I taught at the studio, I was introduced to my first zills class. It was during this time that I also made my first purchase of a proper student pair of zills. Chelydra taught me two zills pieces from her repertoire- the first was a choreography by the late  Ibrahim "Bobby" Farrah, and another from her own choreographic repertoire. During this time, my grandmother (the same grandmother I had visited Nepal with)- was also visiting the United States, and I practiced them in front of her. I performed a short section of the Ibrahim Farrah piece at a house concert later in the week.

Zilling is beautiful and challenging, and the coordination between zilling and dancing presents a fascinating challenge. I continue to be a student of this beautiful instrument (I am reluctant to call this a "prop"). Some of the wonderful learning experiences I've had have been the Dragonfly Props Intensive 2013, one of the sessions in Anuka's Props Class, and also, Zahira's wonderful workshops, all at the Dragonfly Studio in Toronto. I currently find myself practicing to the beautiful "Benti Shelabbiya" choreographed by Zahira for a recent zills-focused workshop at Dragonfly. I have also found these workshops to be great exposure to new song possibilities for zillographies.

A few pictures from a recent performance. Photo Credit: Robert M. Saxe

I found a different but somewhat kinaesthetically allied skillset- the traditional Turkish Spoon dance, from Silifke region of Turkey (danced with wooden spoons). This is a picture from a piece choreographed by Fethi Karakecili which I was fortunate to learn and perform earlier this year at one of his Dilan Dance Company events:

Journeys into percussion while dancing continues to be a joyful source of inspiration for me. I love Toronto's vibrant cosmopolitan dance landscape, and I am deeply grateful for the wonderful teachers that this city offers. I hope to further and deepen my study with more of them in the upcoming year. 

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