Putting the Heart of the Dance into the Music
Tucked away just south of the River Thames, which meanders through the heart of London, is an imposing fortress-like structure called the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building. One enters through a foyer of Moorish arches which leads to an enormous hall whose vaulted wood ceiling is adorned with painted coats of arms. The hall is lined with mirrors and bars. As I peek in, a ballet class is underway, but just as often the hall serves as venue for banquets and wedding celebrations. This historic building was once an insane asylum, but now contains private apartments. Wandering through the broad stone corridors, I pass interior courtyard gardens and massive wood doors leading off to more corridors.
The flat I am looking for is crowded with kilim rugs and cushions, piles of musical instruments, neat stacks of tapes and CD’s, and baby paraphernalia and toys. Its six-foot-high arched windows are draped with Egyptian tent cloth, and posters of Egyptian dancers liven the walls. This flat is home to musician Hossam Ramzy, his English wife, Kate Fenwick, and their two daughters, Louvaine, age 13, and Omayma, age two (but not for much longer). Omayma has just scattered the neatly piled stacks of cassettes all over the front hallway, and Hossam informs me that since she is beginning to walk, they have decided to look for a larger place.
One cannot help but be a little nervous when calling a well-known performer cold for an interview. The fact that he is an internationally acclaimed Egyptian musician and you are an unknown American dancer does not make it any easier. The two of you must do a little dance on the telephone: Are you genuine and worthy of the “star’s” attention? Is the celebrity an arrogant or flaky airhead who will make you wish you never bothered? Will you write a sympathetic and accurate article? Will he be forthcoming and helpful, or just feed you hype?
What a delight to meet Hossam – warm, open, and generous, proud of his art but personally unassuming. Hossam is openly and demonstratively affectionate with his daughters, and loving and respectful with his wife, whom he publicly acclaims as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” It is clear that Kate, who is an accomplished oriental dancer in her own right, is a full partner in Hossam’s career life, sharing the workshop teaching duties and handling many of the business tasks.
On this visit, Hossam greets me at the door with a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. This is my second visit. When I had brought Cassandra, my teacher from Minneapolis, to London to teach and perform, I had made a cold call to invite Hossam to meet her. He returned the call with an invitation to lunch at his flat since he would not be able to attend Cassandra’s performance. On that occasion, Kate laid out an abundant spread of Middle Eastern specialities and Hossam presented Cassandra with a gift of two CD’s of his newly released recordings.
Hossam’s music has recently come to the attention of the American dance community with the release of a number of his recordings in the U.S. under the A..R.C. Music, International label. He currently has ten releases of Egyptian music out under that label. Under commission from A.R.C. Hossam is also producing a series of world music albums which to date include Iranian Santoor, Indian Sitar, Caribbean Steel Drums, Japanese Koto and Japanese Shakuhachi.
Hossam Ramzy’s recordings are unique among the many offerings available to dancers today. First, they are specifically geared to the dance. Unlike many Arabic musicians who revere the singers and play half-heartedly for the dancers, it is clear that Hossam loves the dance. His recordings are all instrumentals arranged with the dance in mind. He has taken classical pieces from Egypt’s finest composers, popular baladi and traditional Saaidi melodies, and recorded them with Egypt’s finest musicians. This necessitated recording in Cairo, and most of us know from experience the poor quality of most Egyptian record production. Hossam is a perfectionist in his work, however, so he brought in top quality production equipment and technicians. The result is CD’s, cassettes, and albums unrivaled by anything else coming out of Egypt.
Even more important than the technical achievement of Hossam’s work is its musical quality. Contemporary orchestrations of Middle Eastern music sometimes drown the percussionists out with masses of violins and accordians. Hossam is above all a percussionist, and he has tried to redress the balance, bringing percussion to the fore and allowing the drumer to play freely and to play the melody. Hossam’s goal in each performance is to have his ensemble play in what he terms “a new unit of time,” that is, as though the music is being performed for the first time even when they are playing an old war horse. He wants, he says, “to put the heart of the dance into the music” by arranging pieces to repeat bars in sets of four with variations and drawing out and repeating exciting bars of music to enhance creative choreographic styling.
Hossam Ramzy was born in Cairo. From a very early age he exhibited an affinity for the drums. When he was a child, his family lived for seven years in Saudi Arabia where Hossam came under the tutelage of the country’s top composer, General Tareq Abdul Hakim, and where he also spent many nights in the desert absorbing the rhythms and rituals of the Bedouin tribes people.
His academic family hoped that Hossam would study medicine. They tried to discourage his leanings toward a musical career, but the call was too strong. Hossam mastered Egyptian rhythms, and moved on to explore new music, but he eventually found himself at an unsatisfying dead end playing drum kit with pop bands in Cairo. In 1975 he decided to go to England to study jazz and Indian music, and he was soon playing professional jazz, funk, soul, Latin American and African drums. Although by any standard he was a successful musician at this point, Hossam was still searching for his own musical path. A pivotal event occurred in the early ‘80’s when a friend invited him to an Arabic club in London. Hearing the music of his youth again, he made a decision to turn back to his roots, to the Egyptian tabla.
In Britain’s oriental dance community, Hossam is known as “our Hossam Ramzy.” There is pride in claiming one of Egypt’s finest musicians as their own, and Hossam has given much of himself to support the development of the dance in Great Britain. His involvement with dancers led to his first recording of Arabic music and ironically to a second cross-cultural intersection in his musical career. The English dancers sought a better understanding of the music of the dance, so Hossam began giving rhythm and drumming workshops for dancers. When they asked for tapes with samples of rhythms and explanations of the music, Hossam produced a tape called “Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms.” A copy of the tape eventually came to the attention of Peter Gabriel, who invited Hossam to play on his album Passion, the soundtrack to the film The Last Temptation of Christ. The recognition Hossam received for his work on Passion brought his art to the attention of other creative musicians, and he since has worked, toured, and recorded with a number of well-known international singers and musicians. Americans may be familiar with his work with Joan Armatrading.
In the meantime, Hossam has continued to record Egyptian music for dancers. Among his most recent recordings are instrumental collections of the classical works of Om Kolthoum, the songs of Abdul Halim Hafiz, the music of Farid al Atrache, and the work of Mohamed Abdel Wahab. These classic and familiar pieces are given new life in Hossam’s arrangements and are geared, as always, to the dancer.
Hossam talks seriously about the dance. He supports the growing interest among Western women in the dance. It is a more emotional dance form than most, and Hossam feels that Western women in particular seem to discover that they have an emotional side and seek an expression for it as they mature as women. The oriental dance is an available and acceptable way for such women to feel and portray emotions not allowed artistic expression in their own culture. “The dance is accessible. Anyone can do it for her own pleasure. You don’t have to be a super expert to do it and enjoy it, but you can become a super expert if you want to.”
I ask what would define a super expert. Hossam is immediate in his reply: no dancer should ever be considered an expert Egyptian dancer until she can do a great, spontaneous, improvised baladi. Actually, he is even more specific. It should be at least ten minutes long. Hossam does not choose sides in the tedious folklore versus oriental debates, and he is enough of an entertainer to know that slavish pursuit of “authenticity” is not art. Hossam knows what makes a good show and he does not object to careful choreography, creative costuming, and Raks sharqi/cabaret style with its amalgam of influences, so long as one does not claim to be presenting something other than what it is. But to Hossam, the heart and soul of the Egyptian dance is the baladi, and the true test of the dancer is her ability to do a spontaneous and expressive baladi…of course, with the help of a good drummer. Hossam’s choice as the most exciting and artistic of Cairo’s current crop of up and coming dancers is Lucy.
Hossam and Kate teach regular workshops in London for dancers using live drumming and sometimes additional musicians and emphasizing musical interpretation in the dance. Because few western dancers can understand the words to the songs, Hossam stresses learning the language of the music. The extensive notes which accompany all of his recordings are also part of his effort to increase the musical understanding of the dancer.
“The tabla is making the sounds that you are dancing,” explains Hossam. “If you could put the tabla player’s sounds and hand movement into a computer, and pass them through a choreographic converter, what would come out the other end would be your hip movements.” He uses Indian dance to illustrate what he strives for with the dancer. In classical Indian dance, the feet rather than the hips play the rhythm. The tabla player verbalizes the rhythm in the form of a chant so the dancer knows what he is going to play. Then, they play it together, he with his hands and she with her feet. As they go on, she starts to tell him what she wants him to play, again using the chant. “She is just as highly trained in rhythm as he is, and he is as highly trained in dance as she is. That is what I want to achieve between the Egyptian dancer and the tabla player.”
Hossam, his ensemble, and selected dancers regularly tour England and Europe. His first USA tour is being planned for spring of 1994 with the assistance of California dancers Feiruz Aram and Angelika Nemeth.
Vashti of Vashon (Mary Lynn Buss) is an American dancer who has recently returned to the USA after living in London for a year. She currently lives and teaches dance on Vashon Island in Washington. She is co-director of the Oasis Dance Camps, and former director of the Habibi Dancers in Michigan.