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Finger Cymbals


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Historical Background: Finger cymbals are a member of the percussion musical instrument family. They are primarily used by Middle Eastern musicians and dancers (as well as others who perform this genre of dance). In fact, Middle Eastern dancers are also considered musicians! The intricate musical patterns finger cymbals create, and their sparkling sound quality make them an indispensable part of Middle Eastern music and dance.

Finger cymbals are an important aspect of Middle Eastern dance because they express the sense of rhythm and feeling for tempo. The manner of using finger cymbals is similar to when flamenco dancers play castanets or tap dancers who perform variations of rhythm with the taps on their shoes.

Basically, finger cymbals are small brass cymbals (1-1/2 to 4 inches in diameter) that have finger loops. They are played in pairs. Dancers place a finger cymbal on each thumb and either the index or ring finger of each hand. The finger loops are placed between the knuckle and the fingernail. Different tones can be achieved by using either finger or clashing the cymbals together at various angles. Sometimes finger cymbals are played like orchestral cymbals by holding one in each hand. Either way, it takes a pair of finger cymbals to produce a sound.

Finger cymbals go by names other than the one used in Europe and the United States. In Turkey, they are called "zils." Arabic names are "sil sil" and "sunouj." Egyptians call them "sagat" and, in Farsi, the Persian word is "salasih." The Greek word for "cymbal" is "kymbala." Cymbal (also "cimbel" and "cymbel") is derived from the Latin word "cymbalum" ("cymala" is plural for a pair of cymbals).

Finger cymbals have existed since antiquity and were used in religious ceremonies. There are engravings of finger cymbals in ancient Mesopotamia depicting their use in dance. Finger cymbals were also used for religious music, funeral rites, in times of celebration (such as a victory), and even for magical purposes! Ancient Greeks played finger cymbals and, in Turkey, dancers have been playing them since the 15th century.

It is believed that finger cymbals originated in Asia, where many forms of cymbals have been used in the ancient East. From there, they probably traveled the trade routes to the Middle East. By 1100 B.C., finger cymbals are known to have been used in Israel. The actual use of cymbals tied to the middle fingers and thumbs was recorded around 500 A.D.

Finger cymbals have existed in Europe since the Middle Ages and were introduced by the Saracens, who brought them to Spain and southern Italy. Portrayals of cymbals can be found in medieval miniatures up to the 15th century when they disappeared (probably because the art of hammering had been lost). However, they returned to Europe during the 17th century after the Turkish wars. (By this time, Turkey had long been famous for producing excellent cymbals.)

Cymbal music was also popularized by Turkish military bands which played Janissary music. This type of music is uniquely characterized by the ensemble of noisy and rhythmic instruments used. Besides cymbals, others instruments used in Janissary music are the bell-tree, bass drum, side drum, tambourine, and triangle. By the beginning of the 18th century, European military bands were imitating Turkish military music.

During the 17th century, and on rare occasions, Turkish-made cymbals were given parts in operatic orchestras. Christoph Willibald Gluck asked for cymbals to be used for his 1779 opera "Iphigénie en Tauride." Perhaps the most well-known use of cymbals during this time is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 1782 Turkish opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio." But it wasn't until the 19th century that the cymbals secured a permanent place in the percussion section of an orchestra. Lugwig van Beethoven ("Ninth Symphony"), Georges Bizet ("Carmen"), Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner are just some of the composers who found effective orchestral uses for cymbals.

Fun Fact: Belly dancers are judged more by how well they play finger cymbals than dancing. A belly dancer's musical talent and skills with finger cymbals are considered the difference between a good belly dancer and a great one!

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Finger Cymbals
Finger Cymbals
Item Number 5406

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