By Deborah Justice
Middle Eastern music can offer stimulating melodic and rhythmic spice to the usual dulcimer diet of reels, jigs, and waltzes. I got into it myself back in the late 1990s when my dulcimer and I were recruited by a band of gypsies. Literally. (Okay, to clarify, this was a group of white Philadelphia-area suburbanite musicians working at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.) Forget academic arguments of authenticity – I was hooked on the sound itself. Once I wrapped my head around the exotic, challenging tunes, I couldn’t get enough of them! The music kept taking me further: to studying Middle Eastern politics and music in college, learning Arabic, playing an Egyptian zither and flute, living briefly in Egypt, and finally to my (almost finished) doctoral work in ethnomusicology. As I taught at different dulcimer festivals, I found that many fellow hammerers were interested in expanding their musical horizons, as well.
Middle Eastern Music for the Hammered Dulcimer provides hammered dulcimer players (as well as other instrumentalists) with an introduction to the repertoire and music cultures of the Middle East. To be sure, this forty-eight page book does not even begin to scratch the surface of the many complex music cultures that span the area between Morocco and Iran. That would be the task of a scholarly volume, such as The Garland Encyclopedia of Music, Volume 6. The Middle East. (eds. Danielson, Reynolds, and Marcus. Routledge Press:2001). Rather, Middle Eastern Music for the Hammered Dulcimer is a hammers-on book that aims to provide hammered dulcimer players with a brief overview of Middle Eastern musical aesthetics, modal systems, and rhythms, as well as arrangements of thirty-three tunes.
The opening section of Middle Eastern Music for the Hammered Dulcimer focuses on the relationship between your dulcimer and maqam(mode,) the basis of Arabic musical structure. Some modes use semitones that fall between the notes of Western music (so, tones that would squeeze between the keys of a piano). This nuanced approach gives Middle Eastern music some of its distinctive sound. While the hammered dulcimer is not usually tuned to semitones such as half-flats, these pitches are easy to produce with the aid of an electric tuner. The books side-steps the intricacies of Arabic musical theory and microtonal exactitude, instead providing practical instructional diagrams for the one or two notes you might want to add.
Graphic charts also illustrate how the notes of the maqam scales best fit onto the tuning schema of an American hammered dulcimer. The tones fall within logical patterns, similar to the pattern for a chromatic scale (also illustrated with a diagram). Understanding the pattern of the mode should make it easier to conceptualize the musical movement with the tunes in that mode. To facilitate this connection, the maqamname is listed alongside each tune’s title in the sheet music section.
If melodic variations haven’t challenged you enough on their own, Middle Eastern Music for the Hammered Dulcimer provides a brief section on common Arabic rhythmic patterns. Traditional Arabic music may not have complex harmonic structures, but taking a pass at playing a melody in hijaz with your left hand while accompanying yourself with octaves of maqsum in your right should prove quite stimulating!
The following example, Ah Ya Zayn (Oh, Rose), is a well-known up-tempo folk tune. The tune is in the mode of hijaz based on D. Note: If you’re trying to play this on a 12/11, you will need to tune one of your E’s down to get yourself an E-flat. I would suggest retuning the E on the bottom of the right side of the treble bridge.
I would suggest playing the rhythmic pattern maqsum with Ah Ya Zayn. Since we’re in D hijaz, I would use octaves Ds (the lowest octaves you can, if you’ve got the range on your HD). Alternately, you could play a fifth between D and A (that’s what I’m doing in the recording here). In either case, use your lowest D for beats 1 and 3, and the higher tone for the other beats. When the tonal center of the tune shifts to the G, the accompaniment shifts too. Have a listen:
This is what it sounds like when you put them together:
The North American hammered dulcimer’s layout developed in relation to the music historically played upon it: fiddle tunes, contra tunes, and the like. This has made playing in D, G, A or C major ideal. But, the dulcimer holds many possibilities beyond playing within these boxes. Just like learning a language, learning a different musical genre takes some time, patience, and lots of listening. But, with an electronic tuner and a bit of curiosity, today it is easier than ever to make your American hammered dulcimer musically multilingual!
Deb Justice is currently a doctoral candidate at Indiana University. Her dissertation and published ethnomusicological work outside the dulcimer community addresses music’s role in affecting sacred and social change within American religion. Her Masters thesis, “A Community, not a Tradition:” The Hammered Dulcimer World of the Eastern United States, united her musical and academic passions. (Wesleyan University ’05). As a dulcimer player, Deb began by attending and then teaching at a number of East Coast festivals. She recorded a CD, The Preachers’ Daughters with Rachel Sprinkle. At the moment, Deb lives in Würzburg, Bavaria (Germany) with her husband and tiger-striped cat.