Belly Dance

Learning How to Play Finger Cymbals

Finger cymbals

Finger cymbals, also called sagat (or zagat) in Arabic or zills in Turkish, are small circles made of copper-nickel alloy and come in sets of four, two in each hand. The most common rhythms used with sagat or zills during belly dance performances, are Baladi, Karachi (or Karatchi) and Fallahi.

Baladi rhytm:

This rhythm, when played with drums, is usually made up by two sequences of dums and taks. The first sequence is composed by two dum and three taks (dum-dum tk-tk-tk), followed by one dum and three taks (dum tk-tk-tk).

As in zills there are no dum and no tak sounds, let us assume that we are going to play the dums with the right hand and the taks with the left. Therefore, the sound played with the sagat will be:

r r rlr r rlr (where r stands for right, l for left and space means a small pause)

Karatchi rhythm:

This rhythm imitates the sound of horses galloping, therefore it is also called gallop and it sounds like
this: rlr rlr rlr rlr

Fallahi rhythm:

This is the rhythm created by the farmers of Egypt and it is a repetitive sound that, with the finger cymbals, goes like this: rlrlrlrlrlr

The zills can be played in a way that makes them sound dull or resonant. For a more resonant sound, you need to slide the sagat against each other slightly, while striking them together. A dull sound is usually better for a folkloric dance, while a resonant sound is more adapt to a cabaret style.

Tips for using the sagat or zills

When to use them – they are often used at the beginning of a belly dance choreography, as the dancer enters the stage. Whenever you decide to use the zills during your belly dance performance, however, never abuse their use. Sagat should not be used for a long time, otherwise they loose their appeal.

Which type of sagat is best to use – There are various types of finger cymbals, varying in size, colour and material. The size and the material are chosen according to the type of music and dance style, while the colour (silver or gold) depends on your bellydance costume. However, one tip is to prefer the zills that have two slits at the top (where you insert the elastic band) rather than the zills with only one hole at the top. The reason is that the cymbals with two slots are easier to control, once you have inserted the elastic band. Also, which ones to chose depends on what sound you want to obtain. I suggest you experiment with different sizes and materials. You may even want to use more than one size and material at the same time.

What type of elastic band is better to use – the flat and wide type is better than the elastic with a round cross section, as the flat rubber band makes the zills more stable and easier to control while playing them. One thing to remember though, is that zils are hollow inside for a reason, to make the sound resonate better. If you tie the rubber band with a knot inside the concave part, this will change the sound. So, you may want to tie the band at the top instead, outside the zil. If this does not look good, you can sew the two ends of the band together (which is easier if the rubber band is flat). Also, make sure that the band is tight enough so the zils do not move and also the rubber band will loosen over time, so it is ok if it is a little bit tight.

A problem with learning to play sagat is practising, as they are very noisy and you do not want to disturb your neighbours or the people living with you! So, unless you live in an isolated house, on your own, in the middle of nowhere, it is a good idea to muffle your sagat so they are quiet and you can play them for as long as you wish. There are several ways of doing this. You can cut the tip of old socks and use them to cover the zils. You can then use a string of any material to close the bit at the top, by cutting slits around the border and making the string go through the holes. In this way, you can pull the string and tie it and this will make sure that the sock is held in place. Another way, if you are able to, is to crochet your own finger cymbals covers. These is a very pretty and tidy option. What I do instead, and it works for me, is getting some adhesive foamy strip, the thin type that you can buy in DIY shops to put around window panes to stop draft, for example. I then cut 4 small pieces and attach one on each side of the sagat. I do not even need to attach them on both sagat, as attaching them to just one sagat per hand is enough to mute the sound.

Learning how to play

Learning to use finger cymbals is not easy, especially if you also dance while you are playing. You should be patient with yourself and allow time and practice. The cymbals need to be held in place with the thumb and the middle finger of each hand. There are different ways to strike them, depending on the sound you want to obtain. They can be made to slide gently on top of each other, or they can be made to hit each other right on top of one another. Also, the intensity will vary according to if you want the sound to be louder or quieter (in small venues you may want to keep the sound down, while you can play louder in bigger venues). Whatever you do, remember to keep your wrists and fingers relaxed, to avoid repetitive strain.

When learning, start by just practising the rhythms with the cymbals from a stationary position. Over time, you can start walking around the room, or change the position of your arms. When you feel more confident you can move to the music and add hip movements. All gradually, until you feel confident to dance and play at the same time. It is a long process!

There are many DVDs available that teach how to use sagat. You can find some suggestions in the props section of our shop. Click here for our USA Shop or for our UK Shop.

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Valeria is a dance researcher completing a PhD in dance and heritage. Valeria also teaches and performs as a belly dance but also enjoys learning ballet, jazz dance and other dance genres.

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