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A Review of

Gems of the Middle East, Volumes 1, 2, 3
A Rhythmical Analysis

by Mary Ellen Donald




Mary Ellen Donald has designed this series of books to serve as a study aid for dancers and musicians in learning the rhythmic structures of Middle Eastern songs that are widely used for Oriental dance.

These books are designed to serve as companions to the 3-volume music series titled Gems of the Middle East.

Gems: A Rhythmical Analysis Book Cover Volume 1 Gems: A Rhythmical Analysis Book Cover Volume 2 Gems: A Rhythmical Analysis Book Cover Volume 3



Fact Sheet


Gems of the Middle East: A Rhythmical Analysis


Mary Ellen Donald






Music education






Mary Ellen Donald has released a 3-volume set of books sold individually which serve as valuable educational resources on Middle Eastern music for both musicians and dancers. These serve as companions to a collection of musical recordings called Gems of the Middle East that Mimi Spencer made with Mary Ellen Donald. The recordings are reviewed elsewhere on this web site and consist of a 3-volume set which can also be individually purchased. Each of the three books in the Rhythmical Analysis series corresponds to the songs that appear on the matching Gems of the Middle East musical albums.

For all the songs that appeared on the Gems of the Middle East music collection, Rhythmical Analysis takes a close look at the rhythms required to play percussion for them. The primary audience for the book would be drumming students learning to play along with classic Middle Eastern songs. A secondary audience would be dancers who would like to better understand the rhythms in these classic songs so they can select appropriate dance moves or finger cymbal accompaniment.

For each song, Mary Ellen provides an analysis of how to play it from a percussionist's perspective. She breaks each song up into its distinct melodic components, identifies how many times each melody is repeated and when on the Gems arrangement of this song, and which rhythm is appropriate to play for each melody. She also provides the English-language translation of the song's title (but not the lyrics).

Although Mary Ellen's analysis is intended for people who want to play percussion instruments (which could include a dancer's finger cymbals), I find it very helpful as a tool in creating choreography. When I create a new piece of choreography, I listen to the song many times, and write down when & how many times each melody section is repeated. Once I understand how the song is structured I can then look at how to correspondingly structure the dance. Knowing the song structure helps me decide how and when to include repetition in my choreography. In this book, Mary Ellen has done this initial analysis for me. I can skip right from selecting a song to working on dance moves to use with it.

Here is an excerpt from one of the analyses:

Note: each time the wahida is played, it is suggested that the tambourine play the first four measures with one long shake per measure.

Melody A, twice: "walking" maqsoum

Melody B, twice plus a two-measure tag: malfouf

Melody C, once: wahidah, this is, eight measures of wahidah followed by a grab, slap, or clap, followed by three beats of silence, then three more measures of wahidah

Melody D, once: "walking" maqsoum

Melody B, once plus a two-measure tag: malfouf

Melody C, once: wahidah, this is, eight measures of wahidah followed by a grab, slap, or clap, followed by three beats of silence, then two more measures of wahidah

Melody E, once: with breaks (this is followed by musical notation indicating the rhythm to play for the break)

Whenever Mary Ellen provides musical notation for a break, she includes instructions on technique to use on each of three percussion instruments: tabla (doumbec), tambourine, and finger cymbals. For example, for tambourine players, her instructions for each note indicate whether to use a doum, a tec, a left, a slap, a hit, a shake, a long shake, a rim, or a finger roll.

In addition to the analysis of the songs, Volume 1 also contains:

  • Comments about how the book is structured.
  • A key that explains the stroke notation that Mary Ellen uses when showing the technique to use for breaks.
  • A 24-page autobiography of Mary Ellen Donald, which is certain to fascinate anyone who has ever dealt with her - she is a remarkable individual!



Songs Included


Volume 1:

Song Title


Saba Samir Egyptian
Lailet Hob Egyptian
Hebbina Lebanese/Egyptian
Al-Henna Egyptian
Norits Karoon Yegav  Armenian
Azizah Egyptian
Al-'Ataba Ghazzaz Egyptian
Toutah Egyptian
Alf Lailah wa Lailah Egyptian
Hijaz Baladi Egyptian
Ya Sitti Ya Khityarah Spanish/Lebanese
Ahwak Egyptian
Hani Egyptian
Hijaz Finale Egyptian
Nibtidi Mneen al-Hikaya Egyptian
Bint al-Balad Egyptian
Hagala Drum Solo Egyptian


Volume 2:

Song Title Nationality
Tamrihinna Egyptian
Mazamir Egyptian
Ya Reem Wadi Thaqif Saudi Arabian
Tafta Hindi Arabic Traditional
Raghizi Apopse I Kardhia Greek
Rampi Rampi Turkish
Erev Shel Shoshanim Hebrew
Ya Dala Dalla Lebanese
Akhud Habibi D'Ana Yamma Egyptian
Chapkin Chapkin Turkish
Sahara City Egyptian
Chifte-telli Taqsim Egyptian
Fakkaruni Finalé Egyptian
Sabroso Drum Solo Mary Ellen's Original


Volume 3:

Song Title Nationality
Sawwah Egyptian
     Anta Omri
     La Guardienne des Cles
     Ya Ain Munayyati
     Al-Elbi Ya'shaq Kulli Gameel
Sala Sala
Princess of Cairo Egyptian
Wa D'Ana Saudi Arabian
Longa Riyadh Egyptian
Andah Alaik Egyptian
Me Bounatses ke Boforia Greek
Mavi Mavi Turkish
Libi Drum Solo Mary Ellen's Original



Are They Right for You?

You Will Probably Enjoy These Books If...

  • You have at least a little knowledge of musical rhythms that are specific to the Middle East.
  • You would like assistance in identifying which rhythms are used in various Middle Eastern songs, particularly Egyptian classics.
  • You can play a percussion instrument, and you'd like to have "sheet music" for drummers to guide you in which rhythms to play with various well-known songs.

These Books Probably Aren't Right for You If...

  • You are not yet familiar with common rhythms such as maqsoum, ayyoub, baladi, etc.
  • You're not interested in the particular songs these books cover.



What I Liked, What I Didn't

What I Liked:

  • The series of books provides easy-to-understand practical advice for drum and riqq (tambourine) students to learn how to play certain songs. It spells out exactly when it is appropriate to play each rhythm, and provides recommendation on which technique to use for the breaks.
  • The decision on which songs to include is excellent. These are well-known classic Middle Eastern songs that are very much part of the repertoire that a well-educated dancer should know. It's not a waste of time to master these songs, because they're widely known and much requested.
  • For dancers, these books provide a useful guide to understanding which finger cymbal rhythms would be most appropriate to use when dancing to these songs.
  • Because these books are a companion to a series of musical recordings featuring Mary Ellen playing percussion, anyone working with the books can listen to the corresponding recording to hear how Mary Ellen applies her own advice to playing these songs.
  • When I create new choreography to one of the songs on the companion music CD's, this series of books saves me time by telling me how many times each melody repeats and when. That makes it easier for me to plan how the choreography will flow.
  • The books are printed on a high quality of paper that is easy to read and durable. The plastic spiral binding makes them lie open easily so a percussion student can use both hands to play instead of struggling to keep the book open.

What I Didn't Like:

  • Above, I pointed out an advantage of the spiral binding. However, as a non-musician, I found it to be a bit inconvenient because I can't tell which book is this one by looking at the spines on my book shelf -- all I see is plastic spiral binding of several books side by side. I have to pull them out to see which book is which. The bulk of the plastic spiral binding is also annoying.




Excellent tool for learning more about Middle Eastern rhythms and how they are used in Middle Eastern songs, particularly with respect to Arabic music.



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. I also use her rhythm CD's in my classes.

After our first telephone conversation, Mary Ellen sent me copies of selected books and CD's to review, including this set of books.


To Buy It

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

Telephone: (+1) (510) 654-DRUM
or (+1) (510) 654-3786

Web Site:


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