The style of drumming the troupe does is simultaneously fairly new in the belly dance community and as old as drumming itself.
To fully explain the dynamics of tribal drumming I have to compare it to the other styles of middle eastern drumming. First, I want to be completely clear that I am not disparaging the other styles at all, as all are artistic, and any drummer who can play in any style at a high level has practiced long and hard at their craft and should be commended and enjoyed.
In short, there are classical style, cabaret style, and tribal style.
Classical style, as you might guess, is based on the long traditions of middle eastern music. It is often very technical, with incredibly complex rhythms, playing techniques and flourishes. It is usually played with an orchestra, with long periods of playing a background part (though still often complex, such as using 34 count beats) and the occasional featured solo if the music calls for it. Most classical middle eastern orchestras have 2 or 3 drummers, and those drummers all play a variety of instruments, from doumbeks, to tars (frame drum), to riqqs (tambourine), to zills (finger cymbals). Playing with an orchestra in classical style is very demanding, and most of these drummers have studied and played for literally dozens of years.
Cabaret style is, as implied in the name, more of a club style. It usually features a single doumbek player, who is part of a band. Doumbeks in this context are a lead instrument, much like a guitar or piano. From time to time they are asked to hold down a rhythm, but often are free to play counterpoint over the top of what the band is doing. This style often features dazzling stacato finger rolls and the sharp arhythmic pops and doums. Cabaret style belly dancers are the ones that most people think of first when the words, “belly dance” come to mind, with the shiny costumes, and the high intensity, very flirtatious, dancing. Often a cabaret style drummer will “solo” with the dancer, both of them rolling and shimmying, popping and playing very fast, very sharp fills in concert with each other. The great cabaret drummers make a dancer even more alluring, by providing a playful, yet predictable, framework for her to work with.
Tribal drumming, as you already know, involves a group of drummers who play together as a unit (sure, call it a tribe). It is virtually always in support of a troupe of tribal dancers. The goal is to provide a steady beat for dancers to follow, as well as give the audience a groove to connect with and create a sense of intimacy and community. This is done by playing as on point together as possible, and combining the various tone ranges of the drums to create a very full sound.
When all goes well, the audience feels swept up, almost as if they are part of the performance, and they are clapping in time, laughing and cheering the dancers. The audience sees how much fun it is and can easily imagine that it could be them dancing or drumming as well.
After performances are over we are always approached by many people, all very excited and appreciative, and many asking how they can get involved as well. It is wonderful.