This is a guest post by Dawn Devine – Davina. I am really honored to have her work shared here on my blog. I have such respect for her dedication to research and her ability to show us the depth of history in all aspects of our art. If you are as fascinated by this history of zills as I am, you will be very excited about what we’re doing over the next few days! Learn more after you’ve enjoyed this short history of finger cymbals.
Scholars of dance love to theorize on the origins of our art form. We contemplate the regions that may have given rise to unique body motions or the cultures that developed different musical styles. But there is one component of our dance that has been definitively proven to date back to pre-literate antiquity. These are our much beloved favorite music instrument, the mighty finger cymbal.
In this article, we’re going to take a trip through time and trace the evolution of finger cymbals from their popular precursors through today. This is an overview of the technological advances that begins deep in prehistory and extends through our current, modern finger cymbal production. This is a story of the development of the metals used to produce the instruments we use today.
Our journey begins back in the 4th millennium or 3000 BCE. It’s a time when our ancestors were still making music with wooden clappers, skinned drums, and simple stringed instruments which rarely survive. The smallest, most portable, and easiest to make instruments were simple concussive idiophones. This is a category of musical instruments that produce resonant sound from the intrinsic property of the item. Our forbearers used materials such as wooden sticks, lengths of ivory or bone, and precious stones to produce pleasing resonant sounds to their ears.
The discovery of smelting ore, and humankind’s first practical metal, copper, allowed people to craft stronger and more practical work tools, kitchen utensils, and weapons. It also added a new material for making musical instruments. Some of the earliest finger cymbals are made from copper or simple copper alloys. Examples of these earliest instruments survive because of their value and importance in daily life. They have been found in the graves of wealthy and important individuals ranging from Anatolia (modern Turkey) around the Eastern Mediterranean to Egypt.
The next phase of technological development in metallurgy coincided with a rapid growth in civilization. At the dawn of the bronze age, writing developed, cities grew, and people began to live in larger groups defined by their mutual languages, religions, and social beliefs. As the population of the world blossomed, there were more people to make music, sing songs, and dance. This new material, bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, made a stronger and more durable metal. It was used extensively to create musical instruments around the world including struck instruments like the gongs of China, jingling instruments like the sistrum of Egypt, and our favorite, finger cymbals. Archeologists have unearthed hundreds of sets of cymbals in sites around the Mediterranean that span the breadth of the bronze age.
Because the human hand hasn’t changed significantly in design and shape, ancient finger cymbals are about the same configuration as modern instruments. The length of the fingers determines the maximum and minimum size possible. Consequently finger cymbals of great antiquity closely resemble their modern descendants. Bronze zills also sounded much better than than earlier copper varieties. They are still coveted by performers today for their resonant sound and long sustaining ring.
Finger cymbals made from brass are a relatively new invention. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and throughout the Middle Ages, zinc was difficult to find and was tricky to smelt. It wasn’t until the early stages of the industrial revolution in Europe that large scale brass production was made possible. By the late 18th century, brass was made in large rolling mills which created enough metal that a new class of wind instruments was invented. These brass instruments, includes flutes, French horns, and the mighty tuba.
Of course, as time passes and the technologies of print and industrial papermaking and bookbinding improve, we begin to find images of dancers making their way into texts on culture, costuming, and history of the world. Throughout the whole of the 19th century, the subject of the exotic east was so abundant, that they are now grouped and labelled as the Orientalists. Our dancing ancestors move through these paintings and illustrations, often with props we would recognize and use today, including finger cymbals.
German Silver & Silver Toned Alloys
As metallurgy advanced during the industrial era, there was a search for an alloy that closely resembled silver. A recipe was found after an 1823 contest in Germany. This new “German Silver” is a nickel and copper alloy that had the appearance of silver, but without the tarnishing or the high cost. Nickel or German silver retains the beautiful ringing tone of all of the “red metals” that include copper as the base. But unlike copper, brass, and bronze, this alloy has a beautiful silver toned finish. This is the same metal used by instrument makers for piccolos and french horns. The ringing tone of nickel silver is brighter and higher, but unfortunately, this is a softer metal, so is prone to scratches and warping with heavy use.
Modern Finger Cymbals
Dancers are now able to buy finger cymbals made from a myriad of different metal alloys, finishes, and in in sounds from high toned trills, to deeply resonate rings. Today they are known by a wide variety of names depending on your location. In Turkey, they are called Zil or Ziller. In Egypt they are called sagat for smaller sizes and toura for larger orchestral instruments. Here in the US, we use any or all of these terms depending on our taste, style, and dance education.
So when you are selecting your next set of finger cymbals take a moment to consider the kind of metal you enjoy. If you have the opportunity to hear how different metals sound and resonate, take the opportunity to listen to copper, bronze, brass, and white metals. Many performers select their instruments based solely on how they sound. Pro dancers will often create a wardrobe of different metal toned instruments to coordinate with their wardrobe, choosing to play silver-toned sets with silvery costumes and brass with gold. But always, buy the best quality you can afford and a ring that you enjoy. If you like the way your finger cymbals sound, you remove one obstacle from practice, and ultimately performance.
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“ZILLS: Music on Your Fingertips”
Dawn Devine ~ Davina is a well known author, costume designer, and historian working in the field of belly dance. She has published several books the meld her love of history and dance including her latest book Zills: Music on Your Fingertips with Illustrator George Goncalves and The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut with photographer Alisha Westerfeld. She has a blog on her website, http://www.davina.us and is active on various social media platforms including:
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