|Other names||zils, finger cymbals, fanglesnaps|
(Concussion or percussion vessels)
Zills or zils (from Turkish zil 'cymbals'), also called finger cymbals, are small metallic cymbals used in belly dancing and similar performances. They are called sājāt (صاجات) in Arabic. They are similar to Tibetan tingsha bells. In Western music, several pair can be set in a frame to make a tambourine.
Zills are part of a family of musical instruments known as clappers. Clappers are musical instruments made of wood, bone, metal, and other substances that are played by being struck against each other. Clappers come in pairs and are often held in the hands, fastened together, or strapped to the performer's fingers. The clapper family also includes spoons, bones and castanets.
One of the earliest forms of the zill is known as krotalon, early wooden clappers that date from 520 BC. Ancient Greek pottery depicts men and women celebrating at a Dionysian festival, with the latter playing krotala. The tradition continued as krotala evolved to a smaller, metallic form over the centuries, and later become essential to the tradition of belly dancing.
Zills share a close history with Middle Eastern belly dancing, and are one of its main percussive elements. They have become synonymous with the dance form due to their crucial role in rituals of Egyptian culture. Most of the zill's origins in belly dancing can be traced to a single line of hereditary dancers, the Ghawazi, whose tradition is theorized to date back as far as the time of the pharaohs, with the culture passed down through generations. One of the most important Ghawazi traditions is the zaar, a healing ritual utilizing rhythmic songs and dances meant to soothe Jinn, a form of magically empowered spirit beings. Dancers use the zill to find a rhythm that soothes the spirits, which then becomes the rhythm performed by the ensemble.
A set of zills consists of four cymbals, two for each hand. Zills come in a range of sizes, the most common having a diameter of about 5 cm (2 in). Different sizes and shapes of zills will produce sounds that differ in volume, tone and resonance. For instance, a dancer performing with an orchestra will use a larger zill with more volume, whereas many belly dancers may use a zill with a more delicate sound, depending on the venue and whether their music is live or recorded, amplified or acoustic. American Tribal dancers typically use a much larger zill with a more mellow tone.
Zill manufacturers commonly use brass rather than the bronze used for larger cymbals, and may design their own brass alloys specifically to achieve particular sound qualities. They may plate some zills in order to give a specific color to them. Zills vary in appearance and may be shiny, dull, plain or engraved.
Before the invention of elastic, zills were tied onto the fingers with leather strips. Modern cymbalists use elastic to secure the zills, one to the thumb and one to the middle finger of each hand. Many zills have two slots to allow the threading of the elastic through the zill, allowing greater control of the instrument. Others have a single hole, allowing greater wobble and creative use with speed.
Zills played as idiophones (two on each hand) can be played in many ways to produce a wide and subtle range of sound, from quiet clicking, bell-like ringing, muted cupped sounds, loud clacks, and even a small range of pitch change.
Zills belong to the family of instruments used in Ottoman military bands, and also occasionally appear as part of Western orchestral or other musical performances. In these cases, musicians usually just call them finger cymbals and use them to obtain a ringing sound with "Middle Eastern" associations. Percussionists who are not exclusively cymbalists sometimes play finger cymbals by striking one cymbal with a drumstick, or by holding one cymbal in each hand by gripping the strap between the thumb and the index finger, and striking the rims together. They tend to use zills for occasional flourishes in the music rather than for complex rhythms and sounds. For more intricate rhythms, an orchestral player might attach a cymbal to both his thumb and first finger. Then, placing that hand between his other hand and knee, the player will alternate between striking the knee and the opposite hand. Each of the motions produce one articulation of the cymbals.
There are many rhythms in belly dancing music that can be spelled out in finger cymbal playing. The style of playing varies from one style and era of dance to the next.
Zills are also used in Sufi music, and may be played arrhythmically in a lyrical flow of sound for meditations and sound healing.