[Here are some notes I wrote for a class on Middle Eastern Drumming. This page is Copyright 1997 -- Jeff Senn, however it may be duplicated for non-profit educational purposes.]

Other Links: Rhythm Page, Drum Page, My Homepage

Playing a Middle Eastern Percussion Instrument

 Historically the most common percussion instrument of the Middle East is probably the "Tar". A Tar is a frame drum similar to the Bodhran or many Native American drums. These frame drums are easy to make, and transport -- which is important if you are a nomad. A version of this drum with cymbals is called a Riq. The Riq (what we often call a tambourine) at many points in history was the "glory" instrument – more prestigious than any other percussion instrument in the band. In the modern day, the goblet shaped hand drum often called a Dumbek or Darabuka (sometimes "tabla") has become the drum of choice among many Middle Eastern percussionists.

 A dumbek is generally played by holding the drum in your lap under your left (or non-dominant hand) arm and striking with the fingers of both hands. (If you’re not right handed, you can just reverse everything.) Generally speaking the heavy down beats in Middle Eastern rhythms are all played on the right (dominant) hand and the other hand is used for fill beats and other accents – they tend not to flow from hand to hand as some many African or Cuban rhythms do.

 Many drum traditions have vocal sounds to represent strikes of the drum – here are the ones generally used to teach on the dumbek:

 Dum – Right handed center strike, low clear tone
Tek -- Right handed edge strike, high tone
Ka -- Left handed edge strike, high tone

Also there are some accents used:

Slap – Dum with a slightly opened hand that sounds less clear
Grab – Dum that is muffled by not rebounding the hand immediately
Pop – Ka that is particularly accented, especially loud or by changing the tune of the drum head with the other hand

 On the rhythm sheet I have used the initial characters to indicate the strike – capital letters represent accented beats. "Tek" and "Ka" should sound the same -- practice until this is true. You should be able to accent strokes on either hand; "Tek" and "Ka" are simply suggested hand patterns.

 To best learn a rhythm you have to both hear it and count it: you have to feel how it sounds and know how it counts. To actually play it it’s necessary to hear it – a rhythm has a particular sound. To be able to start to play it without hearing it, it helps to know how the rhythm "counts out". Learning to speak the rhythm in terms of the above sounds will help you remember how to start it.

Practice Tips

 Beginning Rhythms

 These rhythms are basic to many pieces of the folk music of the Middle East from the Maghreb to Persia; their origins are lost in antiquity.

Masmoudi Kebir (8/4)

Masmoudi Kebir (Kebir = "big") is also known as "Warring Masmoudi" (due to its aggressive cadence), it is a common masmoudi played for Middle Eastern Dance, and this 8 beat measure is really the basis for many other rhythms.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   5   +   6   +   7   +   8   +   |
D       D       t k t k t       D   t k t k t   t k t k t       |

Maqsoum (4/4)

Maqsoum (which means, "cut in half") is really a whole class of rhythms that fit in a 4 beat measure. The maqsoum is quite basic to Middle Eastern rhythm; maqsoums, and 8 beat measures formed by concatenating a maqsoum with another 4 beat measure, form a rhythmic basis for much Middle Eastern music. This version is a simple and very basic version.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
D   T       T   D       T       | basic
D   T   t k T   D   t k T   t k |  filled in


Masmoudi Saghir -- Beledi (4/4)

Beledi is a commonly requested dance rhythm -- just about everyone knows it (and many dislike it because it is so common). Unfortunately "Beledi" means different rhythms depending on where you are. "Beledi" really implies a sort of gypsy-ness or non-urbaness (possibly "hick", depending on who you ask). This version, more correctly called Masmoudi Saghir ("Small" Masmoudi) is perhaps the most common "Beledi" rhythm. If you look closely you will see that it is really a Masmoudi "squeezed" into 4/4 time.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
D   D   t k t   D   t k t       |
D   D   t k t   D   t k t   t k | with a "bridge"


Walking Maqsoum (4/4)

Walking Maqsoum is another rhythm sometimes called Beledi -- especially among Middle Eastern Dancers in the Western U.S. A "walking" rhythm is one that has a even or steady (not very syncopated) beat -- presumably reminiscent of a steady walking footfall.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
D   k   t   k   D   k   t       |
D   k   t   k   D   k   t   t k | with a "bridge"


Ayyub (2/4)

Ayyub is a simple fast rhythm often played for accelerating or energetic sections of Middle Eastern Dance performance. It is a driving rhythm that somehow "wants" to get faster and faster. Ayyub fits well within other rhythms and can be generally useful as an accent -- however played too long, it does get monotonous...

1   +   2   +   |
D     k D   K   |
D   k   t   k   | occasionally alternate with "filled" variation

More Rhythms

Here are a few more complicated rhythms, but ones that are still very commonly used as basic rhythms in music and dance in various parts of the Middle East.


Karsilama [Karsh-la-mah] (9/8)

Karsilama (Turkish for "face-to-face") is a very common 9 beat rhythm -- it is, perhaps, the most common "odd count" rhythm in Middle Eastern music. It is very common in Turkish tunes, and is probably Turkish in origin. It can be played very fast, or very slow, and can be filled in many ways. It is a particularly popular rhythm among Middle Eastern dancers.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   5   +   6   +   7   +   8   +   9   +   |
D               T               D               T       T       T       |
D       k   k   T       k   k   D       k   k   T       T       T       |

Ciftetelli (8/4)

Ciftetelli is probably Greek or maybe Turkish in origin. It is usually played slowly and with a variety of fills. Remember when playing this rhythm that silence is a note! "Cifti" is characterized by strong accents on 1, 3 1/2, 6 and often 5. It has a unique character -- the strong beat on 3 1/2 makes it sound like it "turns around" in the middle and the rest at the end (if not filled in) is a dramatic pause. Here is one version:

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   5   +   6   +   7   +   8   +   |
D   t k t   t   t k D   t       D       D       t               | 
D   t k t   t   t k D   t   t k D       D       t k t k t       |  more filled in -- don't over-do it though!

Serto (4/4)

Serto is a Greek rhythm. It alternates accent on every other measure:

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
D       k   D       k   t   k   |D       k   T       k   t   k   |

Saidi (4/4)

Saidi is a rhythm often used for a cane dance. The beats at 4 (and sometimes 3 1/2) can be varied dramatically or replaced with other percussion (such as hand clapping) to give the rhythm a distinct sound.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
D   k t   k D   D       t       | 
D   k t   k D   D   t k t   t k | 

Rumba (4/4) and Bolero (4/4)

Rumba and Bolero are similar rhythms with different accents. Bolero is often played with a "triplet" in the second half of the first beat. A triplet is 3 beats fit into a 2 beat space. Both rhythms have made there way from North Africa through Spain and Cuba into modern music.

1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |    1   +   2   +   3   +   4   +   |
--------------------------------|    --------------------------------|
D   t k t   K   t   K   D   k   |    D   3tkkT   k   T   k   D   k   |

Constructing Songs

Well, at least the percussion part anyway...


Most Middle Eastern music seems to "phrase" in groups of four measures. The melody forms "sentences" that are usually a multiple of four measures long. Realize, of course, that this is a gross generalization and there are many pieces of music for which this is not true -- that said, most Middle Eastern dancers will find themselves dancing and choreographing in groups of four. This simple realization can help in constructing percussion pieces for choreographed dances as well as dance and melodic improvisation.


One of the most important aspects of a well-balanced piece of music (especially a percussion piece) is its dynamic -- that is, how loudly or softly the piece sounds. I can’t stress this enough: absolutely loud drumming is not impressive -- however, in the variation from loud to soft and fast to slow, is where the real art of making a dramatic piece of percussion is found.

Variation and Accent 

Middle Eastern music is different than Western, and more southerly African, music particularly due to its lack of polyphony. It has neither harmony nor polyrhythm. The skill of the player is judged by how well he or she plays the piece in its essence (how it fits the basic rhythm, in the case of percussion) and how the piece is varied through the use of dynamic, syncopation, accent, and rhythmic variation. Notes (or beats) may be added or left out, or slightly syncopated -- compatible rhythms can be superimposed or exchanged -- but it is important not to detract from the basic nature of the piece or vary too far from how it is traditionally played. In particular, varied fills and rhythmic bridges are often used to cue rhythm changes or changes of phrase in a song. Many songs have places where variation is particularly appropriate and places where it isn’t. It is not easy to list the rules -- instead: listen to the music, find the basic theme, and observe how and when experienced musicians vary it.

Some Examples 

Here are two examples of rhythm arrangements that are particularly suited to Middle Eastern dance that our dance troupe regularly uses for dance arrangements that are particularly "percussion intensive".

Market Dance

The market dance contains four rhythms and is sort of a sampler of Middle Eastern percussion. It is particularly appropriate for a group-choreographed dance, but also works well for improvisation. It starts out with a slow Karsilama that speeds up as the dancers enter. There is a section of dance to this fast Karsilama then it switches to a Masmoudi-Kebir/Beledi combination – 4 measures of the first and 8 of the second. In our choreography each dancer does a short solo during the first one and a half repetitions of this combo – the dancers all dance together for the final Beledi in each segment. This provides a nice transition between dancers. This rhythm combination is repeated and the dynamic is varied with the dramatics of the dance. Near the end the drummers transition to Ayyub as the dancers finish and exit.

[Karsilama – slow] repeat for awhile
[Karsilama – fast] repeat for awhile
[Masmoudi Kebir X4, Beledi X8] repeat for awhile
[Ayyub] repeat


Eledi’s Song

Eledi’s song is a combination of Walking Maqsoum and a double speed Serto. This combination of a walking steady beat into a more powerful syncopated rhythm that crescendos, and then jumps directly back to a steady beat, has the potential for a dramatic dance number. Vary the dynamic as the dance progresses.

 [Walking Maqsoum X8, Serto X8 (twice as fast as the Maqsoum)]