Tribal Happenings & Helm Interview
Originally published in Bellydance Oasis Magazine
Issue 58 2016
Hello dear readers,
It’s that crazy time of year again when our dance events take on feverish momentum. Most of the time I write my article on a plane or a train but this time it’s nice to be doing it from home. Home yes, but running around like crazy preparing for the 7th biannual Australian Tribal and Trance festival. This one proves to be one of the best yet! Fast forward a few days and I was not wrong. This years Tribal and Trance festival was in a new venue which was the Bankstown sports club which had the advantage of having accomodation, workshop venues and market day all in the same venue along with many restaurants , bars and cafes. This made logistics much easier than in previous years. The workshops on offer were diverse and interesting with some of Australias best loved teachers. This years special guest was one of my all time favourite Tribal fusion dancers Mardi Love. Every time I watch her perform she seems to do less and less on stage but some how has internalised her movements and becomes even more mesmerising. I find her teaching style thorough, informative and enjoyable. Combine her many talents with her down to earth personality and you have one amazing woman.
This years red carpet night was a busy one for me performing a solo, troupe piece with Ghawazi Caravan and playing Beethoven’s moonlight Sonata for the talented Jrisi Jusakos and one of my original compositions for Rita “the hush gypsy ” Markwell who always dances with total freedom. This really added a different element to the show and I can’t wait to sit down and watch the whole thing on DVD as needless to say I didn’t get to enjoy the show on the night.
The market day for me really highlighted what a great Tribal community we have here in Australia. The shopping was great of course but it was watching the diversity of the acts along with collaborations ( including dancers collaborating together from Canberra and Japan!) that made it a perfect way to end the festival.
Back in September saw me heading down south to Tasmania to do a few workshops with the Miasma gals.Always an absolute treat for me to work with Kat and Ange who are both ATS(r) sister studio teachers and all round fabulous women. One of the things I love the most about going back to teach in the same location with the same dancers is to see the progress and transformation from beginners and beyond, through to intermediate and finally progressing into beautiful dancers and performers. I loved seeing many of the same faces and being able to witness their growth over time. There were also plenty of new faces. Great to see that ATS (r) is going well in Tasmania!
In October I finally got to my very first Bahar Bayram Middle Eastern Dance and Music Camp. I wonder why the hell I waited so long! For years now friends and colleagues who have gone have always told me what a fabulous event this is and boy were they right! Firstly the location is simply stunning. The Gold Coast hinterland is breathtakingly beautiful and serene. The home cooked meals that are prepared on sight by the host’s (Tamara Taylor) mother were wholesome and tasty and catered for almost all dietary needs and concerns, and there was plenty of it. The dance and music workshops on offer were interesting and diverse and the workshops that I personally took (some dance, some music) I throughly enjoyed and came away with something from each.
Every night there was a concert and the musicians were all MIND BLOWING! I kid you not! From the Persian band to the impromptu jams, to Helm and Greg Sheehan who played toy pigs and made it sound fantastic I was in musician’s heaven. But one of the things that is hard to describe about the camp is it’s sense of community and friendship. Tamara and her team have worked hard to put on a great event which is obvious to anyone who has ever had to hold and event but somehow her and the team have created something much more special than that. If you haven’t yet been to the camp you need to get to the next one. They are held bi annually.
Attending this years camp, and for the first time in Australia was the talented Mark Bell and Ling Shein Bell of Helm. I had met both of them before and worked with them on the FCBD Devotion show in Berkeley in 2011 but this time we had a little more time to get to know each other. They performed with myself, Ghawazi Caravan and other Australian dancers in Sydney, they stayed at my house and we worked quite closely together at the camp where I taught a choreography to one of their pieces. The students got to perform this piece with Helm on one of the nights. This was a blast for me and especially for the students who may otherwise never get the opportunity to experience Helm live let alone perform with them. One of the personal highlights for me was playing zills with Helm for their set. It was nice to be a “guest” band member along with fellow Aussie musicians Peter Van Vuuren, Andy Busuttil and Phil Carroll. Definitely a highlight for me.
Helm are known in Australia as the band that plays for FCBD(r). Their music is of course perfect for us Tribal dancers but there is so much more to Helm so I just had to share their story with you all.
I hope you enjoy the interview. Until next time dear readers.Xx
Interview with Mark and Ling Shien of Helm…
Who are the members of Helm and what instruments do you each play?
Traveling, it is usually just the core members, Ling Shien and Mark Bell. Ling Shien is the vocalist, composer of Helm’s original songs, and plays Arabic woodwinds such as n’ai and mizmar, and accordion. She also plays Sajat (finger cymbals). Mark plays percussion: darbuka, riqq, davul, frame drums, and toumbak. At home David TwoHawk joins in as the group’s second percussionist on darbuka, riqq, and frame drums. For larger performances Helm has been joined by Paul Anderson on oud and Lani Rhodes on qanun.
How did you each get started in music?
Mark started playing instruments also from an early age. Plastic recorders called flutophones came first, then 8 years on clarinet and sax. At the age of 21 Mark started attending Ali Akbar College of Music studying bansuri and playing darbuka on the side. Liking the drum more than the flute Mark spent much more practicing darbuka. This led to performing with the Bal Anat Dance Troupe 1972-74 and then the Arabic nightclubs in San Francisco.
Ling Shien starting playing piano and singing in her mother’s choir in France from the time she was five. She continued her studies on piano (and ballet) throughout her teen years including a couple of years at the Aix-en-Provence branch of the Conservatory of Music. After Mark took her to a concert by the Persian singer, Gougoush, and hearing recordings of Arabic singers like Om Kalthoum, she became inspired to learn Middle Eastern music. She also studied at the Conservatory of music, where she studied western harmony and composition.
What are your main influences?
Bach, Riad el Sombati, Mozart, Chopin, Om Kalthoum, the broad array of folkloric traditions from Afghanistan to Morocco plus the Balkans. As far as teachers we’ve had: Sinan Erdemsel for (mostly) classical Turkish music, Wa-el Kakish for folkloric and classical Arabic, Mahoud Hamouda for darbuka, Mahmoud Eilat and Turks Ahmet and Homer for n’ai. Dance teachers , Angelika Nemeth, ATS- Carolena Nericcio, Megha, and Kristine Adams, and for Raqs Sharki- Terry del Giorno.
You have worked with many dancers over the years. Can you tell us about some of the dancers you have worked with and what style of music they like you to play for them.
We will go kind of in chronological order: For Montrebi (Sioux Ashe and Amanda Kearney) : mostly Egyptians classics especially because we were working with Henri Besançon a one time Perth resident and Rico Orrell on oud; We moved up north and starting working with Katarina Burda in helping create Aywah!, best known for the dancers who were part of it like Mira Betz, Zoe Jakes, Hannah Romanowsky, and Elizabeth Strong. We played Arabic and Balkan folk; Along with Sage Hoban and and former Bal Anat dancer Mish Mish we laid the groundwork for what became Hahbi Ru. We played folkloric Middle Eastern music primarily on mizmars and percussion with some original works by Ling Shien; For FCBD we had the freedom to expand our repertoire into other genres. In addition to traditional Middle Eastern we included music from Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, France, and Russian Gypsy.
You have also collaborated with many other musicians. What are some of your most memorable collaborations and why.
When we lived in Southern CA, we played many times with Henri Besançon who actually spent most of his childhood in Perth and played both oud and flamenco guitar. He was a great musician and we recorded several tracks with him in a live setting. These included tracks of old Egyptian standards that we arranged for dance and plan to release in early 2017.
With the Gypsy Moor Dancers, which morphed into Hahbi Ru, our second drummer was Frank Aviles. Frank was the perfect groove master. Frank along with Mark provide the live drum tracks on Helm’s pieces for the Tribal Dance/ Tribal Drum CD, the staple recording for new ATS dancers.
We worked next as a trio with Tobias Roberson who at the time was quite the infectious personage.His drumming style along with Mark’s made for a lively combination. Ling Shien incorporated a lot of space in her compositions to allow for plenty of percussion sections. These are quite evident when you listen to the Itneen CD.
For the past several years we have been able to collaborate with Sinan Erdemsel and Wa-el Kakish, both of whom are mentioned earlier. They are both on staff at Lark in the Morning Music Camp and have been a bridge to styles we were not that familiar with.
What is Helms favorite music to play right now?
What we like to play? Tough question. Ling Shien likes music from Brittany, French songs such as those sung by Edith Piaf and western classical. For Mark, Arabic and Turkish. We love many different styles of music so a Helm performance will always be eclectic. If we had to narrow it down to one style, it would be Egyptian.
What inspires Helm to compose new material?
Many times new songs come about through necessity. Ling Shien started to compose songs herself to avoid copyright issues. At other times songs have come via inspiration.Right now Ling Shien is putting new songs together for a recording project with Aubre Hill from Los Angeles. The recording will be original tracks representing various folk styles.
Tell us about helms most memorable performance. ( If there is just one!)
Around four years ago we spent a month in Pushkar at Collena Shakti’s invitation. Ling Shien was teaching Upper Egyptian rhythms and finger cymbals along with a choreography and a song.
We were playing a set at Sai Baba Hotel for both the class performance and an ATS® set by Megha and DeAnna. In the middle of the ATS(r) piece one of the hotel owner’s good friends jumped into the fire pit which was burning merrily. He obviously jumped out and when he did we were showered with hot coals. We had to stop to check on the damage, contrary to “the show must go on” slogan. Somehow we evaded major damage: Ling Shien’s cane nai’s were safely in the case which was closed, the coals barely missed Mark’s drum head and hair. So, we picked up the song where we had left it.
Another one that is quite memorable is one year at the Northern Renaissance Faire, many years ago, we had a veritable cast of thousands on stage (someone has posted some video from that time on YouTube). Our good friend friend Armando Fojaco aka Uncle Mafufo of the group Sirocco (American) had a booth to sell the gourd figures he was making as well as what he called chicken drums. These were a short piece of bamboo with a head and a string attached to that head. By running your fingers down the string, it would sound like a chicken.
On one of our sets he brought along one of these chicken drums. Mish Mish was doing the main solo that day and when it became time for the drum solo, out steps ‘Mando with the chicken drum and does an entire routine. As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say “I thought I was going to die”.
How would you describe your teaching style?
LS: If I had to describe it in one word, I would say musicality. This means the ability to convey the music through your dance so that the physical expression is in sync with the musical expression. When this happens, it increases everyone’s enjoyment.
Teaching the rhythms on finger cymbals enables the dancer to internalise them; teaching parts of songs provides the opportunity to experience how the melody fits within the rhythm. With this type of foundation, you’ve got tools you can apply to whatever type of dance form you’ve chosen.
Mark: What I look to achieve is teaching technique that is sustainable, so you don’t and won’t injure yourself; giving a basis so that you can begin to play with a concept, not mindless repetition; and how to play so you are a musician, not just a skin whacker. And, most of all, that you should have fun.
This year was your first time to Australia and the Bahar Bayam camp. How ( if at all ) did you find the musicians and dancers from Australia different to other countries.
We really enjoyed the camp. It’s in a beautiful spot, the food was great, the people were very nice. It was great to see the warm acceptance of artists who, it seems, recently arrived in the country. This openness created an open highway of expression, of cultural exchange, of learning, and new friendships.
What do the members of helm like to do in their spare time?
As far as what we do in our free time, aside from making pasta and pizza and going to hot springs, probably just what everyone else does.