Finger cymbals, also known as Zills (from the Turkish Zilleri), Sagat/Sajat or Sunouj (Arabic), or Zang (Persian) are instruments used by musicians and dancers, particularly with Turkish, Ghawazee, American Cabaret (AmCab) and American/Improvised Tribal (ATS/ITS) styles of dance. Played well, they can add a layer of shimmering, ringing, percussive sound to match or embellish the rhythms as a musical accompaniment. Played badly, they create a clashing wall of sound which might still be useful for driving out demons, ex-boyfriends or other undesirables.
I started playing with finger cymbals almost from my first lesson. Not that I was really learning to play them, and I would still not say that I can truly dance and play finger cymbals well, but then I was always one for trying to run before I could walk. They are a fun prop for class when you feel like making some joyful
noise, but some people really dislike the sound or having to try to
coordinate another layer of movement, or both.
Finger cymbals for Middle Eastern music and dance usually come in sets of four, two for each hand. They are different to Tingsha bells, which are a pair of thick cymbals joined by a cord often used in Buddhist prayer and rituals, and often available in shops selling ethnic/world gifts and clothes. They are also not to be confused with finger cymbals sold by music shops, which often
sell only one pair.
Finger cymbals come in a range of sizes, the most common having a diameter of
about 5 cm (2 in), although some are quite tiny and others fairly large. Take a look on YouTube at Egyptian percussionist and dancer Karim Nagi and his masterful playing with large finger cymbals. They may be (sand) cast or pressed from various metal alloys. Makers commonly use brass rather than the
bronze used for larger cymbals, but they may also use other alloys such as 'German silver'. Finger cymbals vary in appearance and may be shiny, dull, plain or
engraved. Some may be plated or have some other surface finish in order to give a silvery colour or a brighter surface. The shape may vary, from almost flat with a very low dome in the centre, to a high dome and/or a raised rim. They may have a single, central hole for the elastic, or two slots. The different sizes, shapes, production methods and alloys will produce
sounds that differ in pitch (the musical 'note'), tone, volume and resonance. The 'German silver' alloy cymbals often have a higher tone than their brass counterparts because of the different weight and nickel and silver content.
performing with an orchestra will need larger cymbals with more volume,
whereas a cabaret dancer may want a more delicate sound.
American Tribal Style dancers typically use larger cymbals with a more
mellow or deeper tone. Dancers may select the cymbals for a particular piece according to their pitch, so that it suits the maqam of the piece of music. Or they may use sets of cymbals which produce different pitches for their right and left hands so that they can replicate and play with doum and tak sounds.
I was under the impression that zill and sagat were interchangeable names for finger cymbals, just in different languages, but I've learned from a Facebook discussion group that in general, sagat have one hole and zills, two slots. I'd also previously been told that the one-hole cymbals weren't 'professional' quality (implying the two-slot cymbals are) but I have a heap of cheap and nasty two-slot cymbals which I use for class practice, and have since learned that the one-hole cymbals can be high quality. However, the one-hole sagat tend not to have the prolonged ring of the two-slot zills and the playing technique differs a little, as they can be harder to control, especially if they have a loop of round, rather than flat, elastic. I've been given a set of sagat, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they ring and sound, but I find I cup my hands slightly more when playing them to keep them from wobbling so much on my fingers.
The cymbals are worn on the thumb and middle finger of each hand, just
below the base of the finger nails. They need to fit snugly so that they
don't slip around or come off . (As my friend Rose put it recently,
there are two settings; cutting off the circulation or flying off the
fingers!) This can feel very strange; so strange that it interrupts your
normal physical feedback while you are dancing, so that at first you
feel as though you can either move your fingers, or your body, or feet,
but no two at the same time. The different sounds, patterns and drills
are for another post, but it's important to get used to moving around
while wearing and playing, even if at first you only do isolation and
movement drills while wearing the finger cymbals but not playing them.
What did we do before we had elastic?
However they used to be secured, the usual method now is to have a short length of elastic threaded through the hole or slots. White gets dirty very quickly, so I use black for preference, although the teacher of one of the workshops I've been to likes gold lurex elastic, as it's appropriately shiny and less obvious than black. I liked the idea, but I couldn't find any to buy, so experimented with some off a gift box. I found it a bit prickly and irritating.
In fact, the teacher of every workshop I've been to has their own favourite type of elastic and way of fastening and adjusting it; knotting it, sewing it, using safety pins, using metal or plastic adjusters (the same as used on bras and suspenders). I played with the latter a bit. One of the problems with this is finding an adjuster which is the right
size for the elastic. Another problem is that it's a fiddle to get the
elastic in because of the tight fit, and despite this, it seems to
slip. I used these for one performance and as I was putting
them on just before going on, the elastic came pinging right out of one of the
fasteners, and there wasn't the time or the light to get it back in
again. I just had time to take them off and leave them on the sound desk
before going on. Luckily the dance wasn't about them, they were just to be an accompaniment. After the same happened at a party recently, I've decided to stick with the little brass safety pins, which allow quick adjustment for different sized fingers and thumbs and a bit of tightening as the elastic loosens as it ages.
Having adjusted your elastics, you may find a noticeable difference between the
loops for the thumb and finger cymbals. On your own set, you might want to mark which is which, although I don't bother. I've seen suggestions involving putting a dot of (bright) nail polish on the elastic on the 'inside' of
the thumb cymbals, or use different colours of thread to sew the thumb
and finger elastics, which is fine if you have some light, not so good in darkened wings. A more tactile solution is to sew a smallish bead to the thumb or finger elastics.
While I was writing this article, I was cleaning zills (removing tarnish and spots of corrosion with a metal cleaner and a soft cloth), checking and replacing elastics ready for the new dance term. It's a good idea to have a safety pins and a set of spare elastics (4 pieces of 12 mm wide x 75 mm long elastic - braided is nicer than corded, if you can find it) in
your 'emergency kit' for workshops and performance, but at a push, you
can use a narrow hair elastic, looping it around a finger or thumb until
it's tight. It works, although being a round elastic, is prone to wobble a bit. A Facebook belly buddy found this blog post
using jersey hair elastics and this seems to be a good solution if you find elastics too uncomfortable, assuming you have or can find jersey hair elastics. It makes me
wonder whether you could improvise some of these by cutting narrow
rounds from the ankle of an old sock, or whether they would be too
large. Maybe worth a go!
The photo shows a dozen sets of finger cymbals.
Top row, my Saroyan zills. Left, my originals, Arabesque II, awaiting a clean and new elastics. If you click on the photo for the large version, you might be able to see that one of the safety pins had corroded, leaving just the spike in the elastic. I found that the hard way as I fished these out of my performance case. The middle set are my 'newest' ones, not used yet, bought a couple of years ago (when Harry Saroyan announced his retirement and triggered a spot of panic buying! Fortunately, Saroyan are still going under new ownership. I can't remember which these are! Small Grecian, perhaps?). The 12mm wide elastic is a snug fit and the trick is to put one corner up through the slot first, and use that to pull the elastic through. I played with using a hair elastic in one of them, just to see how it worked. Right, my Nefertitis with the offending slide adjusters.
On the middle row and bottom left, my latest acquisitions, second hand from another belly dance teacher who has thrown in the towel as far as teaching goes. Middle left, in the middle of cleaning - the brass ones seemed to tarnish and corrode more than the silver-coloured ones next to them, which need new, wider elastics. And middle right, more slide adjusters to be removed. Bottom left, I rather like the two-tone copper and brass. The elastic had totally gone. Bottom row middle, the single hole sagat with their raised rims. Bottom right, 4 assorted sets from my class zills. You can see spots of nail varnish on the elastics of the set on the right, used to differentiate my class zills from those of another teacher during a workshop where lots were needed.
What to look for when buying
The perennial question is,
'As a beginner, should I buy a cheap set or professional quality finger cymbals?'.
The main argument for buying a cheap, basic, first set is to save your money for
finger cymbals to match your preference, once you've danced enough to
know what that is! I would normally encourage a beginner to borrow some in class
until they decide they want their own (hence my sets of 'class' zills). There's nothing
wrong with buying cheap zills if you want some to play with at home. Little boxed sets of pressed zills with a little booklet and a belly bindi
are often given as presents. Most of my class zills are from these. They sound pretty terrible, frankly, but these are perfectly good enough for a bit of fun and to
find out whether you like playing finger cymbals.
Professional quality finger cymbals are generally larger, heavier gauge, and louder. The heavier gauge
is more tiring to play with, so practice to strengthen and 'condition' the hands is a good thing. The louder tone means that mistakes are easier to hear! I found my first 'professional' zills
deafening, compared to the cheap set I had. At 2.5"/6.5 cm, they were also about as large as I would like to go,
considering that I have wide hands with short fingers. (The standard advice is not to get anything larger than slightly smaller than your palm, in which case I should be able to manage 3"/7.5 cm cymbals, but I find finger length makes a big difference.)
You can also find finger cymbals which are a good compromise; reasonable quality, but not as expensive as the 'high end' cymbals, with a much better tone than the cheap sets. In the UK, the best place to find these is through vendors such as Zara's Zouk and Farida Souk. Everything Egyptian no longer seems to sell online, but you can contact them if you know what you want. Bellydance Boutique is now stocking some of the Saroyan zills as well. (This is correct at the time of writing, and no, unfortunately, I don't receive anything for these recommendations!)
buying zills, you will want to check them for size, weight, tone and finish. I
find it annoying when sellers do not have a 'test set' with the
elastics set up, so that you can sound them out. Ask - a good vendor will oblige. Check the finish - some have rough or sharp edges, or surface damage from the casting or engraving which could snag on your costume, though I've never found this a problem with the high end zills. If you are buying online and concerned, just ask the vendor to check for you. The ones linked above will all be happy to help.
Then it's just a matter of learning to play and dance at the same time! Have fun!