ZILLS - زنگ دستی

Zills or zils (from Turkish zil 'cymbals'), also called finger cymbals, are small metallic cymbals used in belly dancing and similar performances. They are called sājāt (‏صاجات‎) in Arabic and Sanj or Senj (Persian سنج).

All theories about the etymology of the word Sanj, identify it as a Pahlavi word. By some accounts means weight; and it is possible that the original term was Sanjkūb meaning ”striking weights” [against each other]. By some accounts the word is reform version of "Zang" (bell), referring to its belle-shaped plate.

The earliest record of its usage in Persian literature is of Ferdowsi’s masterpiece, Shahname. It referred to Sanj as a military-musical-instrument that was used by the legendary Iranian king, Q-mars. It was a favourite of King Key-Kavus and the Hero Rostam.

About King Key Kavus:

Kavus received them graciously and taught them
New laws and ways. Anon the sound of bells
And cymbals rose with shouts and clarion-blare,
And he departed westward toward Mount Kaf.

About Mazandaran, and what Rustam did:

His elephant-attendants' crowns of gold,
Their golden girdles and their golden torques,
Their golden Sanj (cymbals) and their golden Zang (bells),
Unmatched on earth, his jeweled parasol
Of peacocks' tails, these will we seize, and more,
When we are fighting with our lives at stake."

Hamzehnameh, which draws upon myth, literature and history, refers to Sanj as the instrument of Q-mars: "One morning, to sound the call for battle, Hamza ordered Alexander’s drum, Jamshed’s Sorna, and Gayomarth’s Sanj sounded. According to the Persian mythology, Q-mars (Gayomarth) is the first man created by Ahura Mazda, and the first King of the world."

In other Persian literary works of Safavid era, Sanj was used as a lamentation instrument, especially during the Ashura. Sanj was used in the "Stone beating" symbolic rite, which still is popular in several parts of Iran.

During the Ashura ceremony, normally two pieces of stone are beaten on the sides of the mourner with special movements accompanied by a lamentation song. Apparently as a result of the physical damage caused by stones on the body, wood sticks gradually replaced stone. Lately instead of stone beating other terms such as Karbzani or Karebzani, playing Sanj and ratchets are used. In Mazandaran and regions such as Qomesh, south of Alborz Mountain, the term Kareb and in Gilan the term Karb is customary. In Aran district of Kashan, sanj is used. This ceremony requires performers with considerable physical strength and is popular in Lahijan and Aran of Kashan, as well as Semnan and Sabzevar.

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 A Musician!

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 -

D . D . D . D . .

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."