Interview with Brian the Drummer: All about the belly dance drum solo

Belly dancers, have you ever wondered what goes on in the minds of drummers as they are playing a drum solo for you? Well, today you will get an in depth look into the mind of Brian, a doumbek drummer and great friend of mine. We started working together in January of 2009  for weekly belly dance performances at Kasbah Lounge in Sacramento, CA. This collaboration helped me tremendously improve my live drum solo improv technique and I feel very fortunate to have had this experience working with Brian.

Belly dancing to an improvised drum solo can sound frightening, but by reading the following interview, you’ll see that not all drummers are out to stump you and that a live drum solo isn’t that scary at all if you are able to establish great communication with the musician.

Q: Hi Brian! Thanks for taking time to answer some questions for me. We’ll begin with your musical background. How did you become interested in playing music?
A: I started piano at age 4 and I started singing in choirs at age 12 and I played guitar between age, oh I don’t know, between ages 7 or 8 until I was in high school. My parent’s suggested I take piano lessons and my grandmother was my piano teacher from age 4-18. Then I went on to college and got my degree in Piano Performance at California State University Stanislaus. Along the way of my piano studies, I discovered jazz piano and from about 1985 to about 2006 I was a jazz piano player.

Brian and Nyla Crystal at Carnival of Stars 2010 belly dance festival

Q: How did you go from the piano to the doumbek? What drew you to Middle Eastern drumming?
A: I am a Beatles fan and have been for a long time. I would listen to George Harrison’s Indian songs. I loved hearing to the tabla (the real tabla drum played on the floor, not the doumbek). So I listened a lot to the tabla and the sitar and couldn’t get those sounds out of my head. When Youtube first came out, I saw a video of Issam Houshan drumming for Bozenka and I also saw photos on the internet of musicians with dancers showing great camaraderie and I thought to myself, that would be really something to explore. I took up the drum in May of 2006 and have indeed enjoyed a lot of great performances and camaraderie with musicians and dancers.

Q: How did you learn how to play the doumbek?
A: I started taking lessons in October of 2006 with the nationally acclaimed instructor Mary Ellen Donald. Not only did she teach me the rhythms, she taught me how to play for dancers. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in quite a few Arabic bands and please go to for details on instruction and future performances.

Q: What has been your biggest drumming challenge?
A: Getting the drumming strokes exactly the right way I wanted them to be and reliable. For example, it took me 2 and a half years to get the teks and kahs where I wanted them! I’m still working on perfecting the Arabic slap and am always practicing.

Q: I see you everywhere at festivals now, what Middle Eastern bands do you collaborate with?
A: Well that’s funny. I see you everywhere at festivals too! Next question. JK, I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to work with Pangia and the Mary Ellen Donald Arabic Ensemble, the later of which we all played together last Sunday and, let me tell you, it was a dream come true.

Q: So you’ve probably seen a ton of belly dancers. What advice do you have for dancers new to live drum solos?
A: Do not be afraid of the drum solo and only work with drummers who want to make you shine. There are a lot of drummers out there who are only concerned with making noise.

Q: Noise huh? Well, what kinds of things do you do while drumming to help the dancer?
A: First I start with energetic variations on a rhythm, then I play some repetitive accents. Chances are she will be improvising with me so I’ll give her a break by going back to the original rhythm before changing rhythms. An improvising dancer needs to think on her feet and I try hard to make sure there is good communication. Sometimes I will give a verbal prompt before changing the rhythm like “Aiwa!”.

Sacramento belly dancer Nyla Crystal with Modesto drummer Brian

Q: How nice of you! I’m sure a lot of belly dancers new to live drum solos appreciate that. What about experienced dancers? What is something that irks you that experienced belly dancers do when dancing to live drum solos?
A: It irks me when a dancer asks me to drum along to a CD. It sounds junky and the sound is way too cluttered. I feel that the drumming on the recording is the drummer’s and not mine. Oh and when a dancer steps on my foot. JK no one’s ever done that. Another thing is when dancers don’t follow my accents. It comes across as though they aren’t listening and they aren’t conveying the message that should be conveyed. And that is that live drum solo improv is a communication between the dancer and the drummer.

Q: Fair enough. I’m not sure if I’d like it if a drummer gave me a choreographed routine to perform to his or her drum solo! What other live drum solo advice do you have for experienced dancers?
A: Please acknowledge the drummer after the performance! Otherwise his or her feelings will be hurt.

Q: Yes that is an excellent point. Dancers should always acknowledge the musicians! How do you prepare for a drum solo performance?
A: I usually will ask the dancer beforehand and determine what rhythms she really wants to dance to and I make sure to put it in the drum solo.

Q: Any advice for new drummers who want to drum for belly dancers?
A: Make sure the dancer shines and make sure her performance, regardless of how your performance goes, is enjoyable and fun. Play with energy and passion, but it is all about showcasing the dancer.

Q: If any dancer has a question about live drumming and or rhythms, can they contact you? What is your contact information?
A: Yes of course. You can contact me at

Q: How much doum could a doumbek doum if a doumbek could tek doum?
A: Very funny. (Readers, if you have an answer to this question, please leave a comment below!)

Thanks so much Brian for all of this great information. I’m looking forward to working with you again at Carnival of Stars this year! See you at 1:27 pm on Saturday, August 6th, 2011.

Belly dancers, if you have any questions for a Sacramento belly dancer on how to improvise to live drum solos you can either email meor leave a comment below.

• Meet the Author • Nyla Crystal

Sacramento belly dancer

12 comments… add one

  • Very nice interview!!! :)

  • Thank you Rosana! It was fun to hear Brian's story and perspective as a drummer.

  • Wonderful Interview ! I read your information it is very intresting.excellent interview.i love belly dance and drum solo. Great !

  • Haha, so true: “acknowledge the drummer after the performance”. Drummer’s are sensitive, give them some love!
    The New Drummer recently posted..This Flowchart Perfectly Describes The Mind of a DrummerMy Profile

  • i think it was very good interview with the brian the dummer happy to see this :)

  • I go to the Texas Ren Fest every year, and they have great belly dancers and drummers! If you are in the Houston area, you should defiantly check it out!

  • I like Brian and I recently started learn how to play drum solo. Thanks for share the interview for Brian’s story
    Michelle Rod recently posted..Guitar Beginners Tips – Part oneMy Profile

  • hello Rosana,
    Nice interview with Brian, i understand the feeling of not being acknowledged especially in plays and music. the the drummers are the brain behind the rhythmic flow of songs and dance but they are often times forgotten. Quite educative an interview you have there.

  • Beautiful conversation you have there Rosana, quite interesting. keep it up
    Ismael Johnson recently posted..Webhosting Coupons 2015: Everything You Must KnowMy Profile

  • thanks for the post and very informative post. please keep posting
    anmol recently posted..A Unified Electronic Marketing and advertising StrategyMy Profile

  • Wonderful Interview….Even I used to play drums during my school days….Great Post….

  • Wonderful and amazing post, interview was great and very informative, keep it up and thanks.


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