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How to Play Contra Dance Percussion

I play percussion in the contra dance bands Jiggermeister and Mockin'bird My training is in Arabic, Turkish, and Balkan percussion, with a little bit of Irish. I've done a lot of adaptation and experimentation to fit these other musical traditions to contra dance music. The instruments and rhythms I play are not traditionally played in contra dance music, but hey, the dancers like them if I do say so myself. My fellow musicians have asked me to write up instructions on how to play percussion in a contra dance band, so here goes. Here are the successful results of my experiments, on this webpage for all contra dance band percussionists to read and use, if you find them useful.

These instructions are mainly aimed at people who play some sort of hand drum that's capable of playing at least two distinct sounds: a low and a high. For accompanying melody, ideally, the low tone should be very bassy, and the high tone should be very high, so they're both out of the way of the melody. Also, the sounds, particularly the high sound, should have a short sustain, again so they get out of the way of the melody. A clay doumbek is ideal for accompanying melody in this way, since the sounds mark the time assertively, then get out of the way. Doumbeks accompany melody in their natural habitat, so it makes sense that they're suitable for it. Other drums, like the djembe, that are traditionally played in drum ensembles without melody instruments, are less suitable to accompanying melody, since the sounds tend to be more mid-range and have a longer sustain that gets in the way of the melody. The drum almost plays melody itself, but unfortunately, often sounds out-of-tune with the other instruments in the band. However, this is what makes these drums sound particulary interesting for drum solos. I have heard drums like djembes used successfully in contra dance bands, however, they have to be used very judiciously so they don't overpower the melody instruments.

A skilled drummer can produce several different sounds from one drum, to control the volume, pitch and sustain of each sound. By varying the sounds like this, (and of course, playing them at different times) a drummer can unobtrusively give the music more energy to move the dancers' feet, and also do a flashy, impressive drum solo, which are two very different skills.

To learn the fundamentals of any style of drumming, first find a good teacher, who can teach you things like how to get different sounds out of a drum without injuring yourself. If you're having trouble finding a good teacher, contact me, and I might be able to help you find one. Be aware that there are a lot of "self-taught" drummers out there, who are actually self-untaught. Make sure you find a teacher with at least as much skill as confidence.

Once your teacher has taught you the basics, if you have any interest in Middle Eastern and Balkan music, I highly recommend studying Jas's drumming website, an exhaustively complete guide to traditional Middle Eastern and Balkan drumming. Most of the rythms are not suitable to contra dance, but they're great rhythms nonetheless.

Intro to Contra Dance Tunes

Let's say you've acquired a basic competence at, say, doumbek, djembe, ashiko, beatbox, drum kit, or whatever, and now you want to join a contra dance band. Here's a quick guide to contra tunes. (If you're already a contra dance musician and want to take up percussion, you can skip this bit.)

Jigs and Reels

There are only two types of contra tunes, Jigs and Reels. Jigs are in 6/8 time, which means they sound like "Jiggedy jiggedy..." Reels are written in 4/4 or sometimes 2/4 time, which means they sound like "One potato two potato..." The dancers don't necessarily know or care which they're dancing to, because their feet do the same thing either way. They take a step on the "J" of every "Jiggedy," or the "One" of every "One potato." But as a musician, you have to know which is which. Listen to each tune, and determine which type it is before you try drumming to it. Also, everyone in your band, including you, should be tapping their feet on every J of a jig or every One (and two, three, and four) of every reel. This is how the band stays together. If you've been trained in Western classical music, and told you're not supposed to tap your foot, forget about that. This is how contra dance musicians keep track of the beat. If your foot gets tired, you can bob your head instead or something, but you have to keep the beat somewhere in your body, preferably where the rest of your band can see it. Since the dancers are stepping on every beat, they have to feel this beat coming out of the band.

To start playing, someone in the band, usually the fiddler, possibly you, gives two measures of beats. They play "Jiggedy jiggedy jiggedy jiggedy" or "One potato two potato three potato four potato." Since this two-measure unit of beats is like a fundamental particle of contra music, I will be writing rhythms for units of time that are in multiples of this two-measure unit.

Tune Structure

Contra tunes usually have an A part and a B part. For a reel written in 4/4 time, where each measure is counted "One potato two potato," there are 8 measures in each A part and each B part. Each A and B part is played twice, for an overall structure of AABB, and an overall length of 32 measures. It's often a good idea to play different rhythms on the A and B parts of the tunes, since that helps the dancers tell the parts apart, and keeps them entertained, so they don't get bored with hearing the same rhythm all the time.

Intro to Middle Eastern Rhythm Notation

From here, I'll be writing in courier font, so the beats are evenly spaced. If you're printing this, make sure to keep it in courier font.

I'm writing these rhythms as if you can get only two sounds out of your drum:

  • Doum, a low tone, usually played with the right hand. Abbreviated D
  • Tek, a high tone, usually played with the right hand. Abbreviated T

    I occasionally use other symbols:

  • tek, a quiet Tek. Abbreviated t
  • Ka, sounds like Tek, played with left hand, abbreviated K
  • ka, a quiet Ka, abbreviated k

    I also use the symbol - to represent silence, which is a very important part of music, and can be difficult to play.

    You can read these rhythms straight off this page, if you're comfortable with the notation. Or, you can copy-and-paste them into Jas's very useful rhythm generator.

    Jig Rhythms

    Here are some rhythms you can play to accompany jigs. I have written two measures worth of beats across the top, which can be read "One and a Two and a Three and a Four and a." The rhythm lines up below it. As you read the rhythm, you should be tapping your foot, so you know where the beat is.

    Stupid Jig rhythm:


    I call this the Stupid Jig Rhythm because it's totally uninteresting, with a Doum on every downbeat, and kas filling in all the rest. The dancers know exactly when to put their feet down, because they can hear a doum on every step. Thus, this is a very powerful, strong, blatantly obvious rhythm, which can be very useful on occasion, but gets old fast. You don't want to play it very much. You'll drown out the rest of the band, the dancers will feel insulted, "Sheesh, we know where the downbeat is already, you don't have to keep hitting us over the head with it" and everyone will get bored. But a sledgehammer is a useful tool to have in your kit, so practice this rhythm, and use it on occasion.

    Here are some variations on the Stupid Jig Rhythm:


    Here the dancers know to put, for example, their right foot down on every Doum and their left foot down on every Tek.



    In the two rhythms above, the dancers know to put their feet down on every Doum or Tek, but also the introductory kas make them pick up their feet, so they feel lighter. Compare that to this:


    which feels very heavy, since there's nothing picking up the dancers' feet, only doums putting them down.

    All of the above variations of the Stupid Jig Rhythm are useful. None of them are interesting enough to play for very long. So, you could play any of them for just the A parts or just the B parts of a tune, and then switch to something else.

    Here are some more jig rhythms:


    This is a very fun rhythm, because it lurks in the shadows for while, then it pounces on the downbeat after just a little warning of those two kas rustling in the underbrush. Rhythms like this are good for helping the dancers find the begining of each phrase. To help the dancers find bigger phrases, play rhythms that are longer than two measures, that are four or eight measures, like this four-measure rhythm:


    I leave the eight-measure version of this rhythm for you to work out yourself.

    Here's another good lurk-and-pounce rhythm:


    In this rhythm, the first doum is putting down the dancers' feet as usual, but then that second doum is picking their feet up! Yes, their feet actually go up on a doum, unlike in the Stupid rhythm we started with, in which a doum always meant down. This feels very different for the dancers. But then it gets even weirder! Let's say they put their right foot down on that first doum. Then the second doum picks their left foot up, and positions it to take a step. Then on beat two, just as they're putting their left foot down, what do they hear? Dead silence! Scary. This challenges the dancers to find the second beat (and the third and fourth beats, for that matter) on their own with no help from you, maybe just a little help from the fiddler and people like that. Dancers enjoy a challenge like this. It's a puzzle for them to solve. You told them where the first beat is, and then you gave them a clue, in the form of that second doum, as to where the second beat might be, and then the were on their own. How did they do? If they managed to solve the mystery, then they stomped loudly on the second and probably also the fourth beat, just to prove that they got it. This is a fun thing to do when the dance has balances in it. This is a brilliant rhythm, but I can't claim any credit for it, since I've heard this type of syncopation in Irish music a lot. This rhythm is actually very tricky to play, by the way. Make sure you're tapping your foot evenly, and the second doum arrives before you tap 2. Practice with a metronome (which is a useful exercise anyway.)

    Here's the four-measure version of this rhythm:


    I trust you to come up with the eight-measure version on your own.

    Here's a variation:


    Of course, this can be played in four-measure or eight-measure versions, which spend more time lurking in the shadows before they pounce, after that little warning rustling of kas.

    Here's another fun syncopated rhythm:


    Notice how that second doum serves the same function as in the Irish-inspired rhythm above. It introduces a beat, beat 3 in this case. It picks people's feet up, then leaves them on their own to put their feet down again. Then it finally validates their conclusion by giving them a good loud Tek on beat 4, so they know they were right all along, which is obviously a very satistfying feeling.

    Syncopated rhythms like this can be very hard to play. Two measures of a normal jig is in four groups of three, 3+3+3+3, so the simplest Stupid rhythm, for example, could be counted Doum 2 3 Doum 2 3 Doum 2 3 Doum 2 3. Practice saying that out loud, and playing it, while tapping your feet on the beats, which are also the doums in this case. Easy, no? But this syncopated rhythm is grouped 5+4+3, so you could say it out loud as Doum 2 3 4 5 Doum 2 3 4 Tek 2 ka, which is considerably harder to say and play, particularly when you're tapping your foot four even times with the rest of your band. To make matters worse, you'll probably be the only one in the band playing something this syncopated. This is a useful rhythm for making things interesting when the tune might otherwise be too dull and predictable. Obviously, I hope, you would not try something like this unless you are very well practiced at it, and can play it really well, all while tapping your foot to reassure the rest of your band that all is well, you know where the beat is, you're just choosing to play a syncopated rhythm. If a dancer can't figure out the mystery of beats two and three of this rhythm, they'll get off the beat and maybe crash into people. But if this rhythm confuses someone in the band, so someone (possibly even you) for example, mistakes that second doum for beat three, the whole tune will collapse, and chaos will reign throughout the dance hall. So keep that foot tapping.

    An easier variation of the above syncopated rhythm adds a Tek on beat 2, and also introduces the Tek on beat 4 with a little ka, so it doesn't come out of nowhere and startle you:


    So, beats 1, 2, and 4 all have good strong sounds on them, leaving only beat 3 with any mystery. This is such a great rhythm, with just the right amount of syncopation, I could play it for quite a while without anyone getting tired of it, unlike the Stupid family of rhythms. In fact, I play it quite a lot, particularly in my band, Jiggermeister, so for the sake of naming it, I'll call it the Jiggermeister Jig.

    So, I've given you a sample of possible jig rhythms. Of course, you can come up with many other rhythms and variations on your own. Basic principles: Doums and loud Teks usually tell dancers to put their feet down. For variety, use these sounds to pick feet up. You can introduce important beats with a ka, or a couple of kas, or, for variety, loud things like Doums and Teks. You want to help dancers out by making it very clear where the beats are, but you don't have to be blatantly obvious about it. You can syncopate, and occasionally play silence on important beats.

    Reel Rhythms

    Reels are like jigs, except each beat is divided into four instead of three parts, so each beat is counted "One e and a" instead of "One and a." Here are some rhythms you can play to accompany reels. I have written two measures worth of beats across the top, which can be read "One e and a Two e and a Three e and a Four e and a." The rhythm lines up below it. As you read the rhythm, you should be tapping your foot, so you know where the beat is.

    Stupid Reel rhythm

    This of course corresponds to the Stupid Jig rhythm above. It's powerful and driving, but gets tiresome to hear and play.

    Here are some variations on the Stupid Reel Rhythm:


    Here the dancers know to put, for example, their right foot down on every Doum and their left foot down on every Tek.



    In the two rhythms above, the dancers have a moment to breathe after they put their feet down on the Doums and Teks, and then the little teka picks their feet up so they feel lighter. Compare that to this:


    which feels very heavy, since there's nothing picking up the dancers' feet, only doums putting them down. Actually, if this is all you're playing, it doesn't matter if you're thinking of it as a jig or a reel, since all you're doing is playing the doums on the beats. If the rest of your band is doing something crazy, like switching back and forth between a jig and a reel, this is a safe rhythm to play, and the dancers will appreciate your steadiness.

    Here's a rhythm that's sort of stupid, but it's interesting enough to have a name in Middle Eastern music


    The pause after the first doum is hard to play, since the tendency is to get anxious in all that silence and play the ka too early. Relax. Breathe. Tap your foot. Practice with a metronome. Once you get through that, you'll be able to put the dancers' feet down with the second Doum and pick them way, way up with a nice loud Tek.

    Here's a related Middle Eastern rhythm:


    That quick ka near the beginning makes it a bit livelier than Ayub.

    The "Lurk and Pounce" technique works for reels as well. For example:



    There are also lots of fun syncopated reel rhythms. For example:


    I call it Malfuf because that's a name of this rhythm in Middle Eastern music, although I've heard it in many other musical traditions as well. Note that every measure in this rhythm is grouped 3+3+2, instead of 4+4 as in the Stupid rhythms above. The Doum tells the dancers to put their feet down, and then the first Tek comes just before they put their other foot down, which is disconcerting, and then the second Tek picks their first foot up. After all of this confusion, it's very comforting to hear that doum come right on the beat again the next time through the rhythm. Tension and release, that's what music's about.

    Malfuf variation

    In the above variation, the kas warn you whenever something big is about to happen.

    Another Malfuf variation


    The above variations sound very busy, since they're all filled in with sound. It's very important to play the capital letters loudly and the lowercase letters softly, otherwise these just turn into the Stupid rhythms, and you lose the fun 3+3+2 syncopation. By the way, if you're pasting these into Jas's online rhythm generator, you'll discover that at least at the moment, it doesn't distinguish between loud and soft sounds.

    This 3+3+2 pattern is also fun to use on a larger scale, so it takes up two measures:


    We had a similar syncopated Jig rhythm above, where the first doum puts dancers' feet down, the second doum gives them a clue that they're supposed to be putting that foot down again very soon, and then the Tek finally confirms, as they put their other foot down, that they were right all along.

    There are lots of different ways of fancying up and ornamenting this rhythm, and making it more or less syncopated.


    The above variation removes some of the syncopation by putting a good loud Tek on the second beat.

    And here's a more syncopated variation.


    That one is actually grouped 3+3+4+2+4. I've heard that this rhythm was originally West African, but it's spread pretty far. Remember to tap your feet on the beats, 4+4+4+4, especially while you're playing syncopated rhythms like this. If you make it all the way to the final Tek, it feels like a very satisfying accomplishment, because your foot and your hands are finally doing the same thing. The dancers feel the same way when their feet finally agree with their ears.

    You can play the same pattern with different sounds, for example:


    This is also often played on claves.

    On the subject of syncopated rhythms, here's a funky one:


    This is heard in funk, but actually I hear it most often on doumbek in my band, Djinn, which plays medieval-bellydance-funk-rave dance music, which we have named East Coast tribal music. So let's call this a traditional East Coast tribal rhythm, shall we? It's my webpage, so I can do whatever I want.

    But here are some rhythms that have been traditional for longer:




    These three are popular dance rhythms throughout the Middle East.

    This page is a work in progress. More rhythms are coming soon, as are instructions for when and how to switch between rhythms, fitting rhythms to tunes and dances, and the uses of silence.

    Questions, comments, gig offers? My email address is .

    Updated August 28, 2012 © Melissa Kacalanos