Drumming Full Circle
by Shareen El Safy
In all of existence, it seems the most basic unit is rhythm. The dance of the planets in perfect cadence with the cosmic calendar, the cycles of birth, death and rebirth, the rhythm of the tides, the humdrum of everyday life with its measured existence couched in ever-widening circles of pulsing, synchronized movement. The world’s oldest religions speak of sound in measured units producing form, creation. Surely, “All God’s children got rhythm.” But some have more than their fair share of it!
Hossam Ramzy signs his autographs “With Lots of rhythm.” The source of his rhythm flows, like the Nile, from Egypt. Yet his early musical training in Egypt was western-style, and later jazz drumming. “It’s all Jazz,” composer/conductor Leonard Bern-stein once said. Hossam later moved from jazz into classical Arabic drumming, a return to the roots of the land of his birth. A land where “there’s nothing new under the sun” could surely embrace even jazz elements as its own. From the East to the West, returning to the East, then back to the West, and again returning to the East, Ramzy’s journey has taken him full circle, several times!
Hossam Ramzy was born at dawn on December 15, 1953, in Heliopolis, a fashionable suburb of Cairo. He was born into a family of the upper class, Pashas. His father, a medical doctor, was Dean of Faculty of Science. It was his mother who had the artistic background. Her father was Ibrahim Pasha Ramzy, an author and playwright who took on the unenviable task of translating Shakespearian text into Arabic, and who influenced Egyptian theatre at the turn of the century. His maternal uncle Hassan Ramzy, was a film producer and director whose work included the famous musical hits with Farid al Atrash, Naima Akef and others. He later became Chairman of the Cinema Industry Chamber of Commerce.
Providence smiled on the budding talent of young Hossam. There was a tabla and tambourine in the home, along with an oud, violin, clarinet and piano. Lady Omaima Ramzy was a brilliant pianist and oudist, who played and sang in the privacy of her home, entertaining friends and family with classical Arabic pieces. When not playing a clay drum, which Hossam would break with regularity, his three year old fingers were tapping on the dining table and anything within reach. He drove his family literally “bongos” until they bought him a set of them, something novel in Egypt. It was an era when everything “Western” was in vogue, and Egyptian sensibilities were considered old-fashioned.
No one else played drums in the family, so he would listen to songs with drum accompaniment on the radio. One evening, as the family sat around the dinner table, a song came over the radio with an extended drum break. Hossam was fascinated, but everyone else, with the exception of his mother, looked at him like he “was from another planet.” However, his musical beginnings, which otherwise received little outside support, were given encouragement by his mother, who directed Hossam’s drumming, “keep a steady rhythm,” as he accompanied her while she played the oud and sang. “This was the best education…It made me aware of listening to the person I was playing and performing with. This is 99% of music performance — to support them as a drummer, make the rhythm dance along and carry the correct mood. That my mother taught me at an early age.”
Mrs. Ramzy enrolled Hossam in an elementary and junior school which had a good music section. Traditional Arabic instruments were not part of the curriculum, but there were many Western style instruments to choose from. Immediately Hossam went for the drums — a drum kit (jazz drums) and bongos — becoming the first drummer the school had had for some years. By his sixth school year, “Enta Omri” and “Fakarouni” by Om Kolthoum had come out, and Hossam was teaching them to the class on the piano (without the quarter notes, of course).
In 1967 Hossam moved to Saudi Arabia with his father where he continued to play the drum kit. He was enamored in his teen years with the idea of being a rock or jazz drummer, and was influenced with the pop and rock of the “hippie” era of the late sixties and early seventies. True to a theme which would resurface throughout Hossam’s career, he was co-mingling sounds and influences from both East and West. He often found himself in the evenings sitting around a fire with Bedouin musicians in the Saudi desert, absorbing their sounds. The drummers sat in the traditional elongated “C” formation, playing Yemenite polyrhythms like the adani, which inspired Hossam’s technique of blending the conga’s left-handed counterbeat (ta dum dum du tack) with the right-handed tabla’s (dum dum ta ta), producing a Saudi Arabian flavor. While living there he also met the kingdom’s top composer, General Tareq Abdul Hakim, and performed his tunes on radio and TV programs.
Hossam returned to Egypt in 1973, and for the next two years played Western music, rock and pop with an Arabic flavor, on the drum kit in clubs like Cave Du Roi and Salt ’n’ Pepper. Arabic music was still considered passé, and Ramzy was not impressed with his own country’s contemporary offerings. He “loved Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and the esoteric Mahavishnu Orchestra…and some of the darker sounds like Black Sabbath — the depth of sound, not the black magic stuff.” He also enjoyed American bands like Jefferson Airplane, Loggins and Messina, Frank Zappa and the percussive sounds of Santana.
Although his father wanted Hossam to study medicine and join the medical profession, he relocated instead to England in 1975 to learn more about jazz music, embracing funk, soul, Latin and African rhythms as well. He joined Andy Shepherd’s jazz quartet, Sphere, and also played with Geoff Williams. He performed with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, and sat in on various recording sessions. His own jazz/funk group, “Tiginigi,” similar to Earth, Wind and Fire, and Tower of Power, made local appearances. A twist of fate was just around the corner that would lead him back to his Arabic roots. Some years later, I would come to hear the story from Hossam himself.
I first met him in Victoria Station, London’s mammoth train depot, in late September, 1993. He was rushing down a foggy aisle, his long curly hair blown back, carrying three year old daughter, Omiama, in a one-armed bear hug. It was a formidable first impression. “Here is a large man who leaves a large wake in his path,” I thought to myself. With my luggage deposited in the “boot” (trunk) of his vintage Mercedes, and Omaima snuggled into the back seat for a nap, we made our way through dense downtown traffic and headed out to the beautiful countryside.
Trying to be unobtrusive in my efforts to “size up” the driver on my right, I took in what I could. Hossam was dressed in a black leather jacket and black tee with gold watch, chain necklace and bracelet barely visible. The interior of the car looked like a work in progress with flyers, promo materials and boxes of cassettes covering the dashboard, seats and floor. He mumbled something about it being a traveling musician’s vehicle. As we motored through the winding tree-lined roads, we talked about my ongoing workshop tour of Germany and England, the latter of which he had helped arrange. We shared bits of gossip and snatches of Arabic sayings, arriving in a drizzle at his quaint address, Primrose Cottage, Water Lane, South Godstone.
Once upstairs, my eyes were drawn to a large collection of tablas, Latin and African drums, mazhars, reques, dohollas and duffs to one side of the fireplace. On top of the mantle were dozens of CD albums, most of which I would soon learn, were Ramzy products. Hossam had recently separated from his wife, actress/dancer Kate Fenwick, and he was intent upon providing their young daughter equal time with her father. (I later learned of an earlier marriage which produced a now adult daughter, Louvaine.) While I settled in, Hossam dutifully prepared a toddler’s feast of luncheon meats, bread, cheese, fruit, and yogurt. Bored, Omaima probed and nibbled and finally swirled the ingredients into a monochromatic assemblage.
Hossam, reclaiming a confident demeanor, sat down in an over-stuffed armchair as I sat across from him on a matching sofa, beginning a conversation that would stretch through several days. His voice was a deep velvety bass with sentences punctuated by puffs of smoke from his cigarette. He is a man who is most comfortable when he is in control, and I sensed in him an undercurrent of contained energy, like a subdued, but alert panther slowly padding through the jungle. I was curious how a native Egyptian came to be transplanted in the damp, verdant climate of England, which he truly seemed to enjoy. He explained how he had come there to immerse himself in the jazz world.
“We have this thing in Egypt that Egyptian music is not universal enough, the mental connotations…Arabic music was really suppressed.” For example, during the socialist regime of Abdul Nasser in the fifties and sixties, previously independent artists were encouraged to exhort the virtues of nationalism and economic reform, neglecting the more traditional avenues of expression. “So I followed this jazz line and played the drums a lot. It got to the point where I had mastered the drums, but I was still looking for another sound. And I thought to myself ‘Where do I go from here?’ The drum kit has certain sounds, but it doesn’t give me the emotional depth…I could see that jazz drums, congas, bongos, were too dry for me, and didn’t have that special tone I was looking for.” He was considering adding the East Indian tabla to his vocabulary when, “Thank God I came across Youssef.”
Syrian guitarist Youssef Hamal came to a London club where Hossam was playing in 1980. He liked his drumming and was astonished to learn that Hossam was Egyptian. After exchanging a few words in Arabic, he invited Hossam to accompany him to an Arabic nightclub right there in London. Hossam was surprised to find that things had changed since 1975 and that Arabic music had come back strong. “It was a night of transformation for me. I had never thought that from Egyptian drums there could be such marvelous sounds!” The next day Hossam resigned from the symphony orchestra and quit the Andy Shepherd Quartet. “It was a shock to them. They thought I was crazy to decide something like that overnight, but I knew in my bones that this was what I was looking for.” He went straight back to Cairo, bought himself some tablas and returned to London, and began “practicing like mad. I started a second career immediately, with the intention of playing in Arabic nightclubs.”
At first, Hossam was regarded as an interloper, and there was resistance from the other drummers who weren’t aware of his childhood background. Within six months he had mastered the rhythms, routines and patterns. “An understanding of jazz technique with the drum kit helped me to develop my own technique on the tabla. I felt I already understood how to change to just fingers on the tabla.” After two years of nightly playing, from 1980 to 1982, he had established a solid standing within the London nightclub scene. He worked with the best Egyptian dancers who came to London, including Mona Said, Safa Yousry, Shu Shu Amin, and Gigi Amar, as well as London dancers Vashti, Marde, Nadia, Latifa and Germany’s Shahrazad.
Hossam had encouragement from Vashti (Cathy Selford). “She said to me at the beginning of my Arabic nightclub work that I was doing something very unique, (different) from the other musicians. She’s a little bit clairvoyant, and said to me ‘You have a very big career ahead of you’ and ‘You should look after yourself, pay attention to your art and your own drumming, and don’t get involved in the scene of nightclub life.’ I followed that closely, and started working with dance teachers on rhythms and drums.”
“London’s Egyptian musicians are a little spoiled by the night life and out of touch with what is happening musically in Egypt on a regular basis,” Hossam later opined. “They fall into a rut and keep doing the same thing. After seven or eight years they’re still playing the same thing, dancers are still dancing to the same music, like ‘Al Mashal.’
I asked Hossam who were his teachers or mentors for the Egyptian tabla; who was his inspiration? Without hesitation he said “Mr. Mahmoud Hammouda (brother of Ahmed Hammouda, the late tabla player for Nagwa Fouad) is one of the greatest tabla players. He’s a tarib drummer, for singing in the classical sense, as in the music of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Om Kolthoum. He was also the drummer for Samia Gamal…We played together in his house and I took class from him…I had many discussions with him and had him listen to my drumming and analyze it.” Although he said his drumming is Egyptian sounding, “he believes I am very different in that I don’t play in the conventional style, I don’t conform to a particular thing…I don’t care how it’s done, which finger is doing it — all this is unnecessary limitations…But if it creates the correct emotional impact, then I am happy.
“I don’t like conventional drum solos. You’ll probably never hear me play one.” One rule Hossam does have when it comes to a drum solo is “The Rule of Four.” “Anything you do, do it four times,” he explained in a short article, “From the Eyes of the Tabla” (1993). “With the dancer originating the communication, if she does things four times this gives me a chance to catch what she is doing the first time; the second time I’ll do a sound that fits with it; then at number three it will be very good and number four will be excellent…” It’s not just the repetition, he later added. “There are patterns that lead to other things. It naturally drives to the next one; it compliments it.”
Other influences in Hossam’s background have been Abdel Rahman and Om Kolthoum’s drummer, Ibrahim Afifi. “She stretched the time of the count, and he (Afifi) had the unique ability to relax the rhythm and stretch it or shorten it to flow with the one (dum) of her voice.” Hossam practiced with tapes and records of the classical pieces, noting how the drummer “shapes the sound so that it comes together,” and how “the rhythm leads the band in following to the same place. Afifi was a master at that.”
Most of Hossam’s tablas come from Egypt, where they are specially made for him by Hassan Abdel Megid of Mohammed Ali St. They are clay drums with fish skin heads. Hossam also has some drums made from high quality English clay by potter Alan Pett. He uses metal tablas only when playing in the open air or when it’s not possible to warm the drums. This leads Hossam naturally to another story: “At one time fish skins could be had for as little as ten piasters, in the sixties and seventies. Then a Mr. Sarsaa went down the Nile to every fisherman, giving him the equivalent of 100 Egyptian pounds saying ‘From now on, every fish skin that you have goes to me,’ monopolizing the market. Now one fish skin is sometimes 50 EL’s. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and somebody from Alexandria found a solution by inventing the plastic skin. This never would have been invented down in the Saaid, because they don’t have a problem with humidity. But in Alexandria, it’s a major problem.”
Hossam began drumming at workshops around England, and his first album, “Introduction to Egyptian Rhythms,” was produced in response to repeated requests from dance teachers and students for more of what he offered in class. It was suggested that he make a homemade tape, but he felt he “should do something professional and establish a high standard to go by.” He recorded eleven commonly used Egyptian rhythms in a small eight track studio. It was very well-received and generated a widening circle of Western appreciation for Eastern music.
Rock singer and composer Peter Gabriel was recording the sound track for the film “The Last Temptation of Christ” when he heard “Introduction to Egyptian Rhythms.” He especially liked the zaar (ayoub rhythm), and booked Ramzy for a session. The resulting album, “Passion, The Last Temptation of Christ” incorporated a slow zaar for the “Bazaar” cut and Middle Eastern sounds in other sections. Ramzy also performed on Gabriel’s award-winning “US” release.
Other artists combined Ramzy’s percussion with their material, leading to collaborations with Sting; Joan Armatrading; Italy’s Claudio Baglioni; Brazilian Mae East; Marc Almond; Paul Young; Michael England; Vera Vitale; Barbarah Thompson; Debbi Harry; John O’Conner; Dee Lewis; Richard Burgess; Temper Temper; James Asher; Little Creatures; El Ultimo De La Fila; Gary Thomas; Tim Wheater; The Edge; Mari Wilson; and several albums with Jazz Coleman, including “Songs of the Victorious City”, an atmospheric taste of Cairien street life. (partial list)
Ramzy’s second album, “Rohe” (My Soul), was recorded with funds from the inheritance of his mother’s house upon her death. “Every note was heartfelt.” Without a big orchestra, instrumentals were recorded on a multi- track system. Ramzy’s first two albums were originally released on the “Inspirational” label, a partnership with composer, violinist Essam Rashad. Ramzy planned his next release, “Baladi Plus” (1989), an extension of the concept of a practice tape for dancers, with “Egyptian urbanized folk music.”
Returning to London from Cairo with the finished tracks, he met ARC Music Int’l owner and director, Horst Tubbesing, of Germany. “We met each other at the right time,” says Ramzy. Their cooperative efforts began almost immediately, extending to the present-day. Tubbesing was aware of the growing number of dancers in Germany and England and was interested in recording music for the belly dancer. He also informed Ramzy of the demand for a “workshop” approach to teaching percussion instruments, leading to the recording of a fourth album, “Rhythms of the Nile” (1990).
The next three albums were recorded all at one time. “Kouhail” (Black Arabian Stallion) features traditional Saaidi dance music played by mizmar, rebaba and tabl-baladi musicians from the Saaid. The saaidi rhythm (dum tack dum dum ta ta tack) has “the feel of attack and retreat, as it’s danced in the tahtib with sticks.” This music is also played for dancing horses. “The judge or test of an Arabian horse is if he’s affected by the rhythm,” says Hossam. “When it’s played in the field they just dance to it.” (Incidentally, Hossam’s uncles had race horses and show jumpers which he exercised as a young teenager.)
“Eshta” is improvised Egyptian baladi dance music with trumpet, accordion, nay and percussion. “God bless him, my musical director Mr. Farouq Mohammed Hassan, the accordionist. We played whatever came to our head. It was the first take.”
“El-Sultaan,” an album of classical Egyptian dance music includes the song “Ya Bent el-Sultaan.” Hossam Ramzy was becoming a well-known “session” percussionist in the western recording scene when Rhythm Magazine did a feature story dubbing him “The Sultan of Swing.” It stuck.
“A culture is as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists.” This 1951 quote from L. Ron Hubbard, Church of Scientology founder and author of Dianetics, the Science of Modern Health (1950), appears on the inside cover of all of Ramzy’s ARC releases. Hossam has been a practicing Scientologist for a number of years and speaks about his experiences with a combination of mystery and practicality. One senses that the fiercely focused intensity that drives him is due, at least in part, to extended training in the organization. ARC Music Int’l (a Scientology term for the “arc triangle of affinity, reality and communication = understanding) is not directly affiliated with the Church, but company members subscribe to its tenets.
One fine autumn morning during my three day visit with Hossam, we went on a drive through the lovely landscape of Surrey and Sussex, stopping briefly at the ARC offices situated on pastoral, rolling farmland, complete with pond and gliding swans. We continued some distance further to the stone castle of L. Ron Hubbard and massive Scientology Headquarters where dozens of young officers, some dressed smartly in nautical braided uniforms, and carrying briefcases and two-way radios, filed outside onto the immaculate grounds.
Our memorable excursion culminated at Hever Castle in Kent, the sixteenth century country seat of Henry VIII and Anne of Boleyn (his second of six wives). She was a deeply religious woman who prayed in a tiny room adjacent to her bedroom. I walked across aged wooden floors into the tangible devotional silence as golden sunshine flooded through the diamond shaped leaded windows onto the altar. Henry VIII, autocratic, patriarchal and cruel, had her beheaded on charges of adultry (leaving him free to marry again and produce a male heir to the throne). Her exquisitely hand-painted prayer book was open to the page she was reading when her head rolled into the basket in one final disempowering stroke.
In the late afternoon, we cradled our cups of cappuccino at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Castle surrounded by its moat with flashing koi, and fanciful sculpted topiary, great oaks and sycamore. As orange and red leaves fell from the trees in chilly gusts, we discussed reincarnation. I had felt a disturbing tug of familiarity inside the castle. “Good for you Shareen,” Hossam said, alluding to past life memory but without providing any intimate details. In a later conversation he mentioned his belief in one’s ability to guide destiny and control events in one’s life. With this comment the ramifications of my first impressions were confirmed: Hossam is indeed a powerful man who leaves an influential wake in his path.
Working with the ARC label, a company whose scope includes traditional and folkloric music from around the world, intensified Hossam’s own involvement with world music. To date he has produced over 35 world music albums for ARC, including music from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, Japan, Persia, Mexico, India, China, Scotland, the Caribbean, Greece and Africa.
In 1990 Hossam was invited to represent Egypt on “One World One Voice,” a BBC television program that was seen by over a billion people in more than forty countries worldwide. In an effort to raise public awareness about the environment, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Eddie Grant, Kevin Godley and Howard Jones composed four pieces of music, with Hossam playing on two of them. They then took the studio tapes and a film crew to many different locations around the globe, including Australia, Japan, Latin America, Africa, India, Pakistan, Russia, Europe and America. Two hundred and ninety two artists recorded music in their own environments adding their unique cultural flavor to the mix, “which grew and became something else.”
“The idea of world music is not a new thing,” said Hossam, warming to the topic. “We are just giving it the correct name…It’s not having just one country’s music and then adding a particular flavor. The new flavor that is coming along is from all the cultures jelling in…It’s like cooking a meal — a dash of Chinese herbs, a little bit of curry, then some Egyptian coriander with French wine on top. The flavor is there; you can sense the different tastes all in one mouthful.”
Diverse cultural influences are not new to Egypt, Ramzy points out. The cultural migration west from India through Persia, the Gulf and the Middle East, and across Africa and into Spain, over the centuries, has produced an intermingling of musical genre. The various occupations of Egypt, including Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, have also changed the nature of Arabic classical music. Ramzy suggests that even before recorded history, when the land mass was one giant continent, Pangea, influences traveled out of Egypt into what is now Latin and South America.
But Latin influence in modern Egyptian culture is more recent than that. Since the 1920’s, Egyptian composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab, have been integrating the samba, rhumba and karachi rhythms into their contemporary music. And during the “Golden Era of Cinema,” Hollywood films stimulated this worldwide appetite for the sexy, colorful, pulsing rhythms of the mambo, tango and bassanova. I am reminded of a big Brazilian production number in a classic Egyptian film which stars Naima Akef and Kamel el Shennawi from the forties. There continue to be references to these spicey rhythms even in today’s Middle Eastern music.
Hossam had the opportunity to take Egyptian music to Brazil when he participated in the “Omame Project,” in preparation for the “Earth Summit” in 1992. “And what was their response to Egyptian rhythms?” I asked. “Lovely, wonderful!” Before a large audience numbering tens of thousands, Hossam, en solo, introduced various rhythms on the tabla. “I found when I would play one rhythm like the maqsoum at a tempo they were comfortable with, they were listening. Then I slowed it down, but they didn’t respond to it, so I did several other rhythms, including the zaar and the fallahi which they hooked onto immediately, and one they responded to by screaming. It was an incredible response; they were on the seats, dancing!
“We can communicate with that. It’s like vibration, it’s wavelength. I have to find the correct wavelength to communicate with people.” Communication through rhythm and music was a subject Hossam and I discussed several times during my stay. Three year old Omaima had danced joyfully and spontaneously to a baladi piece, but when the zaar was played she became frightened and covered her ears, crying. “She’s open to the music,” explained Hossam. “She gets the emotion immediately. Music communicates emotion. When rhythm is truthfully put in to create that feeling, then it effects the person receiving it.
“…If we take masmoudi with three dums, at the correct slow speed it puts you in that vibe, with long wavelengths. It sets you in that feel. Played from the heart, the soul, the creative part of me has to go into that. The hands don’t do anything really; the hands are just moving around. If I don’t feel that emotion it doesn’t come across. I think it’s the willingness to be in communication,” he reflected, “willingness to be ‘effect’ as much as the willingness to be ‘cause’, as in ‘cause and effect.’”
Hossam maintains one of the strongest reasons that the legendary Om Kalthoum was so highly appreciated “was not only for her vocal talent or entertainment talent, but for her special ability to be that particular scene or incident she sang about. She became the words, the music, the emotion. She lived that poem of life; she portrayed it. That is the philosophy of rhythm — it effects the person receiving it, the environment.”
My host was preparing his tasty version of chicken marengo. With a flair he turned a pan upside down onto a plate, Egyptian style, revealing a mound of cooked rice with its crunchy golden crown. A bottle of Spanish red wine provided a warming counterpoint to the rain tapping on the windows. We sat at the kitchen table, talking late into the night.
“The most important part of any art is predictability,” he said continuing the discussion. It gives people a chance to interact with what I am doing. When I give them a steady rhythm, no matter how complex, they adore it; they get a chance to appreciate it. But when I’ve experimented with it, where I do simple, understandable rhythms but change it every two or three bars…I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the people start talking to one another. You hear them coughing or yawning or see them looking in the program (guide). But when you give them a regular, predictable rhythm they are able to hook onto it They get into the wavelength itself and ride it.
“The communication is a spiritual communication…It’s not just creating sounds, it’s creating an emotional feel. An emotion in the body is only the reflection of how the soul feels, if the music is emotional enough, the maqam expressing with the right tones — Let’s take a simple song, ‘Bahlam Beek’ by Abdul Halim Hafiz.” Singing first in Arabic and then translating, “Sadness — ‘I am dreaming about you, and in my days I am waiting for you. But if you never ask after me or answer my calls, it will be enough for me that I’ve lived many a happy night dreaming about you.’ The melody is expressing the words. This is why the song is universal — the melody according to the words that are being spoken, with the correct rhythm. Note next to musical note creates that particular emotional impact. The maqsoum rhythm played to a sad melody becomes melancholy.
“It’s a very versatile rhythm; it’s the most used rhythm in Egyptian and Middle Eastern songs — dum dum tek tack dum tek tek tack. It’s a derivation of masmoudi, called a small masmoudi. On my Om Kalthoum tape I put it at the end of a line, ‘Many years have gone by on the love like ours before’— grief. She’s saying ‘and if I could live again, I would love only you.’ At this point I bring in the maqsoum (his fingers playing a faster upbeat tempo on the table top) as she says ‘All the beautiful emotions that were between us were still with us even when we didn’t speak.’ There the maqsoum came in to create ‘this beautiful love we had was still with us.’ That’s the use of rhythm in creating emotional impact.”
Through his countless collaborations and world music productions for ARC, Hossam had an idea that had been “cooking for a long time. I wanted to do something that was like world music, but presenting the funky side of the Middle East. I came up with the idea of ‘Egyptian Rai’.” Rai means opinion in Egyptian Arabic, and the opinion was “that there was a lot of hip, funky stuff in the Middle East…Arabian sounds influenced by African sounds and very danceable. I wanted to say to the rest of the world, ‘Look, I have something here from the Middle East which is very likeable, which is possible for you to get your ears around.’” ARC underwrote the project and yet another Ramzy album was recorded in Egypt. It was well-received and resulted in a European concert tour for the Egyptian Rai Ensemble.
Hossam had been teaching percussion workshops and touring the U.K, and in 1990 he offered monthly Egyptian baladi dance workshops in Switzerland and Germany, and at his own school of Egyptian Dance and Drumming in London. Upon hearing that Hossam also taught Egyptian dance, I tried to visualize him teaching movement and choreography. I was reminded of a story that Feiruz Aram told me when she and Angelika Nemeth had returned from co-teaching in England a year earlier. They were driving home late one night and dance was the topic of animated conversation. Hossam was at the wheel, gesturing in his characteristically infectious manner, while trying to explain a particular movement. On impulse, he stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out. Standing in the glare of the headlights, he energetically demonstrated a giant hip circle! It apparently left an indelible impression on his passengers.
“Why did you start teaching dance?” I asked Hossam. He explained that he had been drumming in the London nightclubs for Egyptian and European dancers, and had worked with almost every dance teacher in England. He realized that some teachers and their students “knew nothing about the various rhythms, and no one was truly Egyptian and understood how the Egyptian people interpret things.”
I was seeing all kinds of interpretations and wild ideas — it didn’t match the music, which would be singing about something melancholy, heartbreaking, but the choreography would be celebrative, or the other way around….One of the most important things I would like to have achieved with my students is capable dancers. They don’t have to be the most beautiful or fantastic, but they should understand the music…I don’t want to create clones of their teacher, interpreting music in the wrong way. I’d like to create dancers who can go anywhere and dance to any music who, when they’re thrown into the deep end can swim all the way back to the shore.
Hossam began a teaching partnership with Aischa (Barbara Lüscher), and they toured Europe and the U.S. in 1993 and 1994, giving seminars. Quite by chance I had the opportunity to meet Aischa in Fall of ’94. I was in England giving another workshop series, visiting briefly with Vashti in London. I had phoned Hossam, who was out, and left a message. Vashti and I took the underground to the West End’s historic “Her Majesty’s Theatre” matinee performance of “Arcadia.” Afterwards we walked briskly to the Soho district as raindrops started falling. We entered the red archway with its dozens of Chinese eateries, and going to the very end, decided on one with steamy windows, full of Chinese families. By incredible coincidence (in the Jungian sense of synchronicity) Aischa and Hossam were inside! She had just arrived from Switzerland, and they had stopped for a bite to eat on their way from the airport.
Aischa was articulate and her demeanor refined, looking very professional in a plum-colored suit and pearls. Hossam introduced her with obvious pride in their association. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at the University of Basel, with a background in comparative religions and Islamic studies. She also speaks fluent Arabic, and has written several books and scientific articles, and lectured on Egyptian culture. Aischa, a jazz, tap and ballet dancer from the age of nine, began Oriental dance in 1984, studying with Professor Hassan Khalil, Mahmoud Reda, Mohammed Khalil and Bert Balladine. She teaches seminars and performs throughout Europe, introducing dance to the general public.
Hossam and Aischa taught together, choreographing to his music, including the “Best Of…” series. Responding to requests for classical “big orchestra” compositions, Hossam had begun a four album instrumental series in 1992. “Best of Om Kolthoum” and “Best of Abdul Halim Hafiz” were recorded in Egypt, with Musical Director and accordionist Farouq Mohammed Hassan assembling the best classical musicians available. Master violinists Dr. Saad Hassan, Dr. Saaid El Asabgy (Assistant Dean of the High Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo), Dr. Omar Farahat, and Dr. Reda Regab (faculty member of the Institute), have played together for many years, and are the “hottest session violinists in the Middle East.” The ensemble also included Dr. Mahmoud Effat (El Mouseha Orchestra), nay; Walid Fayed Mohammed Fayed (son of the great singer), keyboards and bass; Professor Magid Sorour, qanoun; Mamdouh El Gebaly (oudist for Farid Al Atrash), oud; and of course, Hossam Ramzy, Musicial Arranger and percussionist.
Both albums were recorded live and in one take, during a twelve hour session, breaking after sundown for a Ramadan feast in the studio. “It was all arranged very quickly; it was very synchronous. It was a lesson and an education for me to work with these musicians, and I felt honored to be playing on the same album with them.”
Hossam was especially moved by Dr. Saad Hassan’s playing. “He stood up and gave one hell of a violin solo that should go down in history. He makes the violin sound like a nay, with all this beautiful feeling…I had come to a point in my life musically where I was starting to search for people to look up to in the music world..He’s such a virtuoso.” His sweet innocence and humility had touched Hossam. “I thought, ‘I want to be like him when I grow up.’” He also greatly admires long time collaborator Farouq Mohammed Hassan. “He’s the most used accordionist in the Middle East; he played on Warda’s ‘Betwanes Beek.’ He doesn’t play the same phrase twice, but it’s still the same phrase, without changing the emotional context.”
The tracks were mastered in Cairo, but Hossam was disappointed with the quality. He re-engineered them digitally in London to his technical satisfaction, resulting in some of the most clear, impeccable sound that I’ve heard. “I believe in re-modernizing our music and bringing it up to the nineties…From living here in the West, I only take from the West what is good,” he explained, “(along with) the deep-rooted core — ‘high tech with a human face.’ I believe in using the technology to its fullest capacity, but it must have that human element. It must stay as pure as possible.”
He cites as an example a cut from the “Best of Abdul Halim Hafiz” album. The song “Oqbalal Yom Miladak,” written by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, was “originally recorded with a salsa, samba type sound at the beginning, and then the fallahi rhythm comes in when the singing begins. It was played by a big symphony orchestra with violins, etc. The South Americans don’t do that! Their ensemble for salsa is two or three percussionists, bass or guitarron, some brass instruments. I have played a lot of salsa in my own time and I have brilliant sounds on my dufs, riqs and tablas, so (I thought) why not play our Egyptian percussion instruments with that viewpoint?”
Hossam used these compositions when teaching dance in his school, “accustoming them to the subtleties of different instrumental solos in the taxim — nay, fluid floorwork; violin, faster more contained movement; oud and qanoon, staccato shimmies. Getting different colors of movement according to the instrument that’s doing the taxim at the time, is one of the most important things that a dancer should have studied and mastered, so that she can create with her movement a visual effect appropriate to that composition.”
Returning to Egypt in 1993, Hossam recorded with the same ensemble famous (“Zeina”), and not so well-known (“Khai Khai” and “Olli Ammallak Eih Albi?”) songs on “Best of Mohammed Abdel Wahab,” which he remembers hearing in his childhood home. “There are two directions I am going in — the raks sharqi compositions, (but) also in the home (the Egyptian) people dance to all kinds of music, so I am arranging these compositions as a danceable choreography. And (I am) also creating old favorites like ‘Aziza’ with new elements, like the addition of the accordion baladi at the end.”
Ramzy’s “Best of Farid Al Atrash” was recorded at the same session, with beautiful compositions originally sung by the nobleman son of Sultan Al Atrash of Lebanon. “When I started recording ‘Yahliw’, I had Lucy in mind because she really interprets music in a fresh way, and I thought that she’s a little yahliw (little beauty), and one of the stars of Egypt today who has also, once again, lifted the Egyptian dance to great heights.” The album includes a well-loved song most likely unfamiliar to some Westerners, “Ya Walishny Rod Allaya”, originally sung by both Farid Al Atrash and Moharram Fouad, a former husband of Tahia Carioca.
Incidentally, the lovely dancer featured on all four album covers is Nadia Namendi, of Lebanese descent but living in Europe. She is also a Scientologist, and was chosen by ARC for the cover photos.
Concurrent with the “Best of…” series, Aischa and Hossam were laying the foundation for their cooperative video project, “The Stars of Egypt.” The now released four volume, seven part series provides a rare compilation of black and white footage from Egyptian film history. The careers of Oriental dancers Naima Akef, Taheyya Karioka and Samya Gamal were enhanced and sustained for decades, much like their American contemporaries, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, by their musical dance productions which brought glitter and glamour to millions. Lesser known stars such as Houda Shamseddin, Suzie Khairy, Nabaweyya Mostafa and Jamal twins Liz and Lyn, are featured on the volume, “The Great Unknown.”
The project has had its challenges, including acquiring copyright permission from film owners who were sometimes deceased, or even unknown. Hossam’s family connections proved beneficial as his cousin Mohammed, son of Hossam’s maternal uncle Hassan Ramzy, is now Chairman of the Cinema Industry Chamber of Commerce, and he helped obtain master prints and the necessary documentation.
Watching this collection is like taking a visual history lesson in the formative development of Oriental dance and music with the particular styles — technique, musical interpretation, emotional expression and, of course, ever-changing fashion. Expect another installment of Volume Four soon. “(Aischa and I) have commissioned the collecting of every dance clip from every single Egyptian movie that has every existed,” Hossam wrote in a fax. Volumes Five, Six and Seven are secretly in the works, also. “I can only say that they will be the full documentation of three magnificent dancers that are loved and admired by all.”
Earlier this year Hossam’s latest album, “Source of Fire” (reviewed in this issue) was released, a blend of dance music with a world music flavor. Most of the virtuoso solo musicians who participated on the “Best of…” albums are also featured here in addition to Ibrahim Fathy, kawala; Reda Bedeir, nay; and Samy El Bably, trumpet. Hossam says of El Bably: “There’s never been a trumpet player before in Egypt. He hasn’t copied anyone. He’s created the trumpet as a solo improvisational instrument in the Arabic frame of mind…a sweet sounding, appealing, soulful version.”
The most far-reaching waves in Hossam’s wake of pioneering collaborative efforts is undoubtedly “No Quarter,” a 1994 Atlantic Records release with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, formerly of the rock group Led Zeppelin. The reunion album was recorded in Morocco, Wales and England and includes an eclectic mix of Arabic, Celtic, Rock and symphonic influences. The musical adventure culminates in rousing, sometimes haunting collaborative cuts with the Egyptian Ensemble headed by Hossam Ramzy. The Ensemble musicians include Wael Abu Bakr (soloist), Bahig Mikhaeel, Hanafi Soliman, Amin Abdel Azim, strings; Bashir Abdel Al, nay; Abdel Salam Kheir, oud; Ali Abdel Salem, Farid Khashab, Farouk El Safi, Ibrahim Abdel Khaliq, and Hossam Ramzy, percussion.
“No Quarter”, in its inspired, exciting crossbreed of musical elements from East and West, has introduced hundreds of thousands of rock fans to genuine Middle Eastern sound. They have been sensorially seduced by a liberal use of the exotic Arabic quarter-tone — its sinuous weavings punctuated by the visceral pulse of Western rock and roll with enigmatic Eastern rhythms kaleidoscoping in heightened, multi-textured layers.
Robert Plant commented about his recent collaborations at a press conference in Cannes, as reported by Larry Blumenfeld in RhythmMusic, Vol. IV No. V, 1995. “The term world music is dangerous and tired. Music doesn’t require any particular science or categories. The marriage of different musics is an organic thing — it’s full of exciting accidents and collisions.” However, it’s no accident that Plant and Page, who’ve been experimenting with diverse sources for decades, here explore the Arabic culture. Hossam explains in the same article: “Robert Plant is a real scholar of Middle Eastern music…(He) has listened closely to the singer Om Kolthoum — the most legendary of Middle Eastern singers. He knows this music as well as he knows his own…And Jimmy Page simply feels the style, he always has.”
The album has gone platinum, selling over one million copies. “It’s about time that Egyptian music got its well-deserved exposure,” Hossam faxed me several months ago, “and I am grateful to the powers of the universe that I am given the opportunity to present it to the rest of the world. I have been working on this for the last twenty years, ever since I left my family’s home and came to England in 1975.” Yes, now it can be said that he’s drummed full circle.
Prior to Aischa and Hossam’s October ’94 U.S. workshop tour, sponsor Feiruz Aram spoke with Hossam, who had just finished a live concert in London with Germaine Jackson and Issac Hayes. The next day he was scheduled to do the “MTV —Unledded” video tapping of a special “No Quarter” concert, which later premiered to millions the same week Hossam was in Los Angeles for the workshop.
A 1995/1996 “No Quarter” tour of the world’s major cities is now in progress, and Hossam wrote during a short break between countries:
The tour is a great experience. The magic of performing with Mr. Plant and Mr. Page is a dream come true for me. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, as well as other rock bands, and when I was asked to participate and put the Egyptian music together, it was an honor. Ed Shearmour, the Musical Director and myself worked extensively on the songs, coming to the arrangements on the album. But as we progress on the road, we change things and improvise, adding new introductions and solos while the main frame stays the same. Many a time the magic sets in and we have this unbelievable surge of energy, and a special sparkle in the eyes of all of us is observable. The whole thing takes off like a rocket through the galaxies of spiritual creativity. You should hear the audience screaming when this happens — twenty thousand of them. It puts a lump in my throat!
As is probably obvious by now, Hossam has a voracious appetite for creative activity. His personality profile is similar to many artists — a singular vision, emotionally sensitive, undeniably talented, and searingly intense. “My band members have told me that I come on a little too strong, sometimes,” he said in a phone conversation when he was home on a short break in the tour. “I can knock their heads off without even knowing it.” To ease the accumulative tension of being on the road, they’ve taken to playing dominos between sets!
There is no lukewarm ambivalence with Hossam, in my personal assessment. He has strong, sometimes controversial opinions and can be somewhat intimidating. His ideas are expansive and his plans ambitious. His words are frequently impassioned and noble, his manner warm and charming, yet occasionally condescending. He is mercurial — concentrated and absorbed one moment, engagingly playful the next. Has his giant’s stride unwittingly stepped on a few delicate toes along the way, I wondered? “Does he truly respect women?” I asked. He responded with heartfelt conviction. “Had I not respected women’s role and art in the dance, I wouldn’t have dedicated so much time and technical (attention) to making music accessible to dancers.”
In fact, his next project will take him to Cairo in November and December, 1995, during a break in the “No Quarter” world tour, to record a ten CD series. He is currently working on the arrangements for twenty new dance compositions in a variety of styles not previously recorded.
This article has attempted to document the prolific career of Hossam Ramzy to date — a litany of tapes and CD’s, workshops and concert tours, videos, commercials and films. Oh yes, commercials and films! In 1992 the Hossam Ramzy Egyptian Ensemble launched the release of Oscar De La Renta’s new perfume, “Volupte,” in New York, playing an especially commissioned piece. Hossam has also recorded ads for Johnson & Johnson, Old Spice, Esso and Ford Escort, and American Express, to name a few. And films? Hossam has worked on many TV and film scores including the 1994 feature film “Stargate.” His acting credits include the memorable role of the burly Arab in Blake Edwards’ “Son of the Pink Panther.” (I knew there was a panther in his background!)
Ending a recent phone conversation Hossam said, “I have tried to use my power to create something good. When I fell in love with the music, I wanted to give back — it’s the exchange factor.” Hossam’s exchange between East and West will surely continue to be a factor — one with lots of rhythm!
A taped interview conducted by Aischa (Barbara Lüscher) for Habibi, February 24, 1994, provided some material for this article.
Photo Credit: Joe Compton is a photo journalist specializing in ethnic music from around the world. His writing and photos have appeared in Acoustic Guitar, Sing Out!, RhythmMusic Magazine and Dirty Linen (for which he was senior writer for four years). He lives in Baltimore, Maryland but visits Santa Barbara regularly.
Special thanks to Jonathan Kessler for bringing RhythmMusic to our attention.
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.