At first glance, a group of white musicians playing Middle Eastern music in Pittsburgh bars — of all places — might seem odd.
But for members of local band Ishtar, traditional Middle Eastern songs — played with a few twists of their own — have given them a new musical life.
Front woman and Spring Hill native Melissa Murphey played the clarinet in band during high school, but after graduation she felt there was no place for her instrument outside of an orchestra, and that wasn’t her speed.
“I just like playing the clarinet,” Melissa said. “I’m a band dork, what can I say?”
In 2000, she went to Pennsic War, a two-week-long festival celebrating medieval culture hosted by the Society for Creative Anachronism. While there, she saw a group of belly dancers and a clarinet player … a bad clarinet player.
“I want to be a belly dancer, that’s the first thing that you think,” Melissa said. Her second thought was that she could play clarinet better than that.
It took a few years, belly dance lessons and a lot of study and hard work before Ishtar formed in 2006, but Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music hooked Melissa and hasn’t let her go since.
The City Paper named Ishtar the best underground band in the city in 2008 and rightfully so. Named after the Mesopotamian goddess of love, Ishtar’s passion and energy emanate from each note.
Melissa’s belly dance training shows in her performance. She plays the clarinet with her whole body, and it’s clear the notes come from somewhere deeper than her lungs.
Husband and wife percussionist team Mark and Beth DeFilippo tap their feet and bob their heads as their hands trace complex patterns across their instruments.
Bassist Jeff Chmielarski and guitarist Rob Metil may move in a subdued manner compared to other band members, but their energy and focus rest solely on the sounds produced with their fingers.
Listening to Ishtar, you can’t help but get up and dance.
Although the band performs songs that were popular in belly dance clubs over fifty years ago, they acknowledge that as Westerners, their techniques and internal musical leanings sway toward an American feel.
“It always creeps in,” said Jeff, also of Spring Hill. “Like, ‘That’s so Zeppelin, let’s do that!’”
Melissa got Jeff hooked shortly after her fascination with the genre turned into an obsession. While the electric bass may not be a traditional Middle Eastern instrument, Ishtar isn’t exactly a traditional band.
All the basics of Middle Eastern music — scales, rhythms, techniques — are different than they are in Western music. For one, there are many specific drum lines that are used over and over again in different songs, so musicians have to memorize them.
“A lot of this music isn’t endemic to our growing up experience,” Melissa said.
Rather than seeing their American background as a handicap, they embrace it. Rob joined the band in 2007 after responding to an ad Melissa posted on Craigslist, and his influence brought the finishing touch to the band’s sound — surf rock.
When you think of popular surf rock tunes like the “Batman” theme or “Wipe Out,” and imagine combining it with belly dance music, you might picture the caped Adam West swaying his hips and playing finger cymbals.
Thankfully, Ishtar’s mix is subtler than that. Rob explained that surf rock, which features memorable, catchy melodies and a lot of tremolo, is similar to Mediterranean music in technique.
The connection between the two is furthered by musician Dick Dale, a half-Lebanese surf rock guitarist whose music was heavily influenced by the Middle East in his early years.
“We were finding that if we wanted to play in Pittsburgh,” Melissa said, “we were going to have to meet Pittsburgh more than half way.”
Mark, who plays the darbuka or doumbak, a traditional Middle Eastern drum, acknowledged that he could spend years and years studying authentic Middle Eastern players and techniques, but his drumming will still sound differently because of his background playing a drum kit.
“We play [the songs] as authentically as we can and then put that spin on it,” he said.
Melissa and Jeff met Mark and Beth through a mutual friend. The couple had, independently of Melissa, become fascinated with belly dance music and relished the opportunity to pick up new instruments.
Mark has over 20 years of experience as a drummer, and it didn’t take him long to pick up the darbuka. “I get a chance to play something different,” he said, “to learn how to get all those sounds out of one drum.”
“Mark is really very intuitive with his drumming,” Melissa said.
Beth plays the riqq, a drum/tambourine that looks simple to play but is anything but. The riqq requires her to hold it up with one hand — which she also has to use for playing the instrument’s cymbals — and drum and play another set of cymbals with the other hand, sometimes simultaneously.
“This was totally new to me,” she said. “I learned it really quick.” She’s only been playing for three years, but can easily keep up with her band mates, all of whom have more experience with their respective instruments.
Jeff said that in order to bend the rules, they all had to learn them first. That includes listening to older recordings over and over again and for Melissa, two trips to Turkey.
“I crashed [Turkish musicans’] little restaurant parties and got free food out of the deal,” as well as the chance to play with Middle Eastern musicians, she said.
Melissa scores songs she wants to play, and uses the basic notes as a starting point for embellishment. “I take it and I vamp it.”
That’s the nice thing about Middle Eastern music: It’s heterophonic, which means the instruments all play essentially the same thing. Stripped down, a song will sound the same with one instrument as it would with five.
In 2008, Ishtar released its first album, “Belly Rock.” Plans are in the works for another release this year, tentatively titled “Istanburgh.”
Because there is not a large Middle Eastern population in Pittsburgh from which to draw fans, Ishtar relies on the belly dance scene and playing in “every bar we can talk ourselves into” to get their unique sound heard, Jeff said.
Ishtar’s dedication to Middle Eastern music does not stop with performing. The band sometimes teaches classes on the basics of Middle Eastern music and on May 1, will teach a workshop called “How to Belly Dance with a Live Band” in conjunction with belly dancer Jennifer Gallagher.
“I wish I was better” at playing the clarinet, Melissa said.
But as they say, practice makes perfect, and Ishtar doesn’t have far to go.
Ishtar will perform at 9 p.m. on May 1 at the Park House on East Ohio Street.