The Sultan of Swing
On his return visit to Australia, Andrián Pertout speaks to Egyptian master percussionist Hossam Ramzy about his celebrated career, and the rhythmic grace of Arabian traditions.
Australian audiences were given the opportunity to experience the Hossam Ramzy phenomenon via the Plant and Page historic reunion 1995/96 world tour, where his prominent direction of the Arabian ensemble introduced the fiery Middle Eastern spirit to this legendary act. A memorable event that served as an augural platform, consequently leading to a global awakening of Arabian music and culture. He went on to receive an invitation to return and conduct a series of workshops on Arabic dance and music around the country in the following year. On this 1997 visit his charismatic presence and rhythmic prowess delighted audiences at Melbourne’s Bennetts Lane, where he appeared as special guest with Alex Pertout & Friends.
The Hossam Ramzy story begins in Cairo, where at the tender age of three his love for the Egyptian tabla and an encouraging mother leads him to a musical education at an Egyptian school dedicated to the arts. The journey continues in Saudi Arabia where a chance encounter with a Bedouin tribe enriches his musical horizons with invaluable knowledge. A move to London then fulfils his dream of becoming a jazz drummer, but is later faced with the realization of the greatness of his roots. Back in Egypt again his loyalty is restored to his first love, the Egyptian tabla. He later records 'Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms', becoming the calling card that introduces his music to Peter Gabriel, who employs his talents on the album ‘Passion’, the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s epic film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. This debut album not only establishes his name as an artist but also becomes the blue print for his career ahead.
Today he is one of Egypt’s most formidable talents, and a brilliant producer, composer and arranger in his own right, with thirteen albums on Egyptian dance music to date. He has also worked on many film scores such as David Arnold’s ‘Stargate’ film, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘Wings of a dove’, as well as attaining performance credits with some of the world’s leading recording artists. His name adorns the CD sleeves of the likes of Peter Gabriel, Barbara Thomson, Joan Armatrading, E.L.O., Mari Wilson, Loreena McKenitt, Boy George, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Marc Almond, Rolling Stones, Deborah Harry, Big Country and Paul Young. Since this is only an account of a career at its prelude, there’s no doubt that the evolvement of this inspiring tale will reveal more of his greatness in the years to come.
Tell me about your early introduction to music. How did you conceive your passion for the Egyptian tabla?
HR: "Well, when I was about three years old, I found myself completely absorbed by the sound of drums. And some of the street sellers in Egypt, they would have a drum and do a simple sound like, ‘Dum ra ka tak’, you know, ‘Dum ra ka tak’, and people would think that something interesting is going to happen. And like a little child I nearly dived out of our window, because I wanted to see and hear the sounds, and then finally my mother realized that I’d really kind of like play on things. I’d get the coat hangers and pull the wooden middle bar from the middle and start playing with them, and she thought, ‘Well, great! He loves drums.’ So she got me a little tabla, and I started playing on the tabla, of course as a little child just banging away and all that. But because my mother was a pianist and also an oud player (Arabic lute), I kind of watched her playing, and copy some of the rhythms from the radio, or when I’d be taken to weddings, celebrations, or whatever. And by the age of six I really mastered quite a few of the rhythms and used to play with my mother a lot at parties, and at our weddings, people would always ask mother to sing. I remember many nights when we sat on her bed, and she would be singing with the oud, and I would accompany her with the tabla.
"Then she put me into a school where they concentrated on the arts, like painting and drawing, sculpture and theatre works, musical athletics, and all this stuff. And I was faced with my first drum kit, and I thought, ‘My God!’ I told the teacher, ‘I can play that you know!’ And the teacher said, ‘I don’t really think so.’ I said, ‘Look I can, really I can.’ So he said, ‘Well, go ahead, show me.’ And it’s like I’d played it before, I kind of like got some very simple rhythms out of it, I just managed to duplicate what I was doing on the tabla, because I played with sticks at home. Immediately he made me like one of the drummers of the school, and by the second year the only drummer in the school band was leaving, because he had finished junior school and was going to high school, and I fitted in perfectly in the place, and learnt all the songs. You must understand, this is at seven years old, so it was quite a job right from the very beginning, but I loved it and it was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to know anything about reading or writing, I would have been really happy to do nothing but be a drummer, from a very early age."
What impact did your later association with the Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia have on your music?
HR: "Oh, at the time it was like, you just played their rhythms in order to accompany them. There was a lot of hierarchy, and a lot of politics within the playing, but I didn’t understand at the time, I thought, ‘My God!’ They’re being a little bit stupid, ‘What do you mean, nobody can solo except what’s his name?’ Who happens to be the chief of the tribe, or from the eldest, and all this stuff. But I did what they said, because I didn’t want them to be upset with me and stop me from playing with them. And I came across them by total accident, I used to go riding horses, and I knew about the Bedouin, you see them on television and you see them on the street, but you never really meet Bedouins just like that. And one day, actually it sounds like a bit of a romantic story, but a horse, believe it or not his name was Taxi, just belted with me. He must have been rested let’s say for two years, and he just like galloped away with me for almost quarter of an hour non-stop. And by that time he got too tired and stopped, and was standing there puffing and panting. I saw at a distance a few tents in an area, so I thought, ‘I’d better go and get bloody water!’ And I found these people there, and they said, ‘We could see your trail coming from a distance, what’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘No, the horse just like ran away with me.’ So they sat me down, and they gave me a drink, and they washed the horse down. They said, ‘It’s really good that you’re here because we have a wedding’, and of course when you stop at Bedouin peoples’ places, you don’t just walk away, you have to accept their hospitality.
"I watched the drumming, and I was really fascinated by it, because their drumming had some elements that we don’t have in North Africa, and this is polyrhythms. They sit like in a semi square type arrangement or in two lines facing one another. And one line of them play exactly the same thing, and the opposite line plays like an intricate paradiddling type of rhythm that goes between what the other guys are doing, the two of them together sound magnificent. Then there are two different types of people playing a third part, one is keeping like a really bass down beat on the whole thing, with the other person kind of like soloing every now and then, and singing a line, and then doing a call, and then they answer him, that sort of thing. It was really fascinating, so I used to go over to them once or twice a week, but this time I didn’t take the bloody horse, I drove! We just like became really good friends, and sometimes I’d spend the whole weekend there.
"Later on this benefited me in so many ways, I learnt about polyrhythms, and how rhythms work against one another, and why they work against one another, and where are the counterpoints or the harmonizing points, rhythmically speaking between this rhythm and that rhythm that makes it then go in a flow, instead of a sixth, to be on a part of a two. What sort of soloing should you do, and why? He’d kind of like say that today he was feeling like so and so, and that is why he soloed like so and so, and I learnt how different drumming sounds mean different emotions. If the guy was like angry or there was something that he was not too happy about, then his soloing was abrupt, very sharp, very quick, very few and very far in between. But when he was kind of like in a really good mood one night, he would be doing some really funky, really groovy type soloings, and everybody was happy, and you would see the guy smiling. But then when this guy finally looks at you and points at you, like you take away some soloing! ‘Oh my God!’ It’s like the honour of all honours. It happened a couple of times, and that’s like sitting one of youngest members of the family on the throne! But all this also taught me a lot about respecting other musicians, and respecting other people, and listening to what they are doing, because I believe that music is about listening to other people rather than playing and hoping other people follow you."
In England you went on to pursue a career as a jazz drummer, fulfilling one of your aspirations. How did this change in direction come about?
HR: "Well, when I was learning to play the drums at school, and because of my percussive nature… I mean, I’m not one of those four on the floor type drummers, I like to decorate my rhythms, it’s very percussive type drumming. I found that even though I loved heavy rock, and I loved all the sort of rock, pop and soul music, I wasn’t the type of person good for that sort of thing. So I found a lot outlet for my style of playing in jazz playing, plus I loved the sounds of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Chick Corea, and all sorts of fusion like Mahavishnu Orchestra. And I found that, ‘Gosh!’ I really need to go somewhere where I can be in the middle of all of this. I was going to go to the United States, but then I decided that England was a little bit closer to Egypt. So I went there, and I got really shocked by the standard, like in Egypt I thought I was it! But in England I saw some people that to me looked like very normal people, but were bloody marvellous musicians and marvellous drummers, and I thought, ‘No, that’s it,’ I have to get my chops together. So I worked very, very hard, and I kind of like studied five or six hours practising every day, after working in all sorts of jobs, cleaning, dish washing, and everything. Oh yeah!"
I know about London (laughter), it’s a tough place.
HR: "You’ve been there!"
HR: "Been there, done that, seen the film, read the book, got the T-shirt, the lot, yeah. So I really worked hard, and I studied with a marvellous, marvellous teacher, his name is Mr Joel Rothmans, he’s a very famous drums teacher. And he really opened my eyes, and opened my hands, and opened my career up, and I used to study so good with Joel that after almost two years of constant studying, I met Andy Sheppard the saxophonist, and he asked me if I would join his band and tour with him. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I didn’t know anything. I mean, I’d been a recluse for a couple of years studying. And people would say, ‘You’ve been asked by Fear to play!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, are they a good band?’ They’d say, ‘Fear, for God’s sake!’ I was like the blind leading the blind type thing. It’s like, you know the bull mastiff dogs? They have the guts to chase the tiger until they catch him, and then they realize, ‘What the f… have I done here!’ (Laughs)
"It was really fantastic, and I played with lots and lots of jazz outfits, and had my own band. But I went so much down the road of getting technical, that then I was beginning to look for different sounds. And by mistake I went to an Arabian nightclub in London and saw a big percussion ensemble from Egypt, and I thought, ‘Wow! What the hell did I forget here!’ I thought, ‘Why did I even leave this stuff!’ In the Arabian, Middle Eastern drum sections we have such an interesting combination of drums and drummers like you would have in the Cuban sounds, and in like Santana, and the Latin American stuff, which I had been very interested in all my life. So I kind of like almost did a very a crazy thing, I dropped everything that I was doing, and went straight back to Egypt, and started learning again. I don’t think I ever looked back."
Captivated once again by the rhythmic prowess of your roots you released ‘Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms’, leading ultimately to your discovery by Peter Gabriel, and your involvement on his album ‘Passion’. How would you describe that experience?
HR: "Well actually, Peter called it himself, ‘The fickle finger of fate.’ I saw him on television at one point in time saying that he’s doing this album and he’s looking for all sorts of inspiration, and he’s working with different people from different parts of the world… Could you hold the line for a second?"
(Interrupted by call waiting again and again, I begin to wonder whether it’s actually a good thing after all… and the beeps continue sounding with merciless conviction…)
That was Alex actually, he was just checking whether everything is still alright for tonight.
HR: "Yeah, absolutely, everything is fine tonight, there are no threats of hospitals or anything like that.
(The scheduled Drumtek clinic had been cancelled the previous week due to a food poisoning episode that landed Hossam in St Vincent’s Hospital.)
So where was I, my father did not want me to become a musician, he wanted me to have a real job, and he was very much against me going to England. But my mother was encouraging me to go abroad and do something, and find myself, and come back. And my brothers didn’t want me to do this, and my cousins wanted me to do that, and my aunts were advising me, and everybody was just like giving me their mental diarrhoea basically. And I heard this album 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', and it says, 'My father stands to the left of me, my mother to the right, each one of them is pointing, and no one seems quite right, and I'm hovering like a fly, waiting for a windshield on a freeway.' It’s from a song called 'The Chamber with Thirty-Two Doors', and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, that’s just me.’ I’m standing here and I have so many directions, and everybody’s telling me to go right, to go left, to go up, and to go down, but nobody seems quite right.
"So Peter had a major, major effect on my life, and then many years went past, and when I did this album 'Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms', I thought, ‘Maybe he would be interested in that.’ So I tried in every way to get a tape to him, but I couldn’t find anybody that knew him. Then somebody who’s a friend of a friend made a copy of this CD of mine for somebody else, and that somebody else made a copy for his drummer who was one day in a session at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. He just said, ‘I felt compelled to just give it to him.’ So he ran out to the car, and said, ‘Peter, you should listen to this guy.’ (Laughs) Some guy I never met in my life, that’s right. Therefore Peter heard it, and liked a track called ‘Zaar’, which is a rhythm used to drive away evil spirits, for a ritual type dance. He composed a song using this rhythm and using the feel from that for ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and I got a call saying that Peter Gabriel heard your cassette and your rhythms and wants you to come and work with him. So it was as he said, ‘The fickle finger of fate’, that put us together.
"The experience now itself was quite shocking, because I expected to see some super hero, a very kind of like powerful stuck up guy who we all have to suck up to, and I was completely shocked. The guy was the nicest, most humane, and most understanding and spiritual person I have ever come across. He was really the best person I have ever met in my whole life, because until today he is the same guy. And I tell you something about Mr Gabriel, he is what you see. This is not a falsity, this is not a public relations kind of thing that he does, this is the man. He truly cares about people, and genuinely sympathises with the world. And apart from all the musical techniques that I have learnt from him, and apart from the magnificent wealth of industry technology that he’s got and that I have absorbed from him, the one thing I learnt is that the more famous and the more big a person gets, it’s only due to the fact that he’s a real human being. And that never ever forget who you really are, don’t ever become the name that people look at and read in the papers, and this is Mr Gabriel for you."
What is the essence of Egyptian dance music? How are the compositions structured and performed? What is the general instrumentation?
HR: "The general instrumentation has varied along the years. Going back to let’s say three hundred years ago, it was just like one tambourine, as far as the rhythm section, and maybe one drum, like the tabla but made from clay and goat skin at the time. And we would have a nay (Egyptian bamboo flute) of course, and we would have a lute, and kemençe, which is like a violin, for the classical type of sound. And the music would be structured around small things called ‘taqtuka’, which is like a small section, and we used to call ‘khana’, a small section of music. This would be mainly in the 4/4 domain, and the rhythm would be constant, but translating and transcribing the sounds of the music, and would actually kind of like stop and start with the music quite a lot. OK, and the whole ensemble would be playing the same melody all together. We’re not a harmonizing nation, in the Arab world people don’t harmonize with one another. You’ll never find somebody singing in E, and another guy in G, and another guy in B, we don’t do that. We all sing the same line together, one melody. And the rhythm did the same thing with the melodies, and then they would go into a straight format, keeping a repetitive phrase for which they do something which is called the ‘taqasim’, which means little improvisations, and bring it back into a flurry for the ending.
"Along the years with the introduction of different civilizations, occupations and colonizations from the French, Italians, Germans, to the English occupation of Egypt for a while, you saw lots of things changed in our music. We had the big introduction of the violins, and the symphony orchestras, and brass sections. We now compose dance music with these kind of big orchestrations, but the ‘thaht’, the original Egyptian ensemble is still there. This is as far as the classical type of composed music, but the popular dance music is like the pop songs done by the drum machine, playing the standard 4/4 rhythms, and the odd token Arabian sound like an accordion with a nay player, or a quanoon (Egyptian dulcimer) player. And they have the one tabla player only, with the drum machine doing the rest of the work."
Your album ‘Source of Fire’ is an inspirational journey, capturing the inner spirit of Middle Eastern music. How did you compose the material?
HR: "Well, first of all thank you, and are you sitting down? This album from zero, from absolute nothing, it was composed, arranged, performed, recorded and mastered in four days, yeah! Ronnie Scott, the saxophone player from England, God rest his soul now, he died a couple of months ago, said one thing, ‘If you wanna look beautiful, hand around ugly people. And if you wanna look young, hand around old people.’ And I think, ‘If you wanna sound fresh, hang around the fresh people,’ I believe, ‘And if you wanna to do something spiritual, hand around spiritual people.’ So I got this bunch of musicians, and one at a time, I sat with them in the studio with our keyboard-player Walid, and we just talked and talked about life, spirituality, until the guy says, ‘What would you like? We’ve been here for two hours now, when are we going to do some music?’ I say, ‘Well, what would you like to do?’ He says, ‘Are you serious?’ I say, ‘Yeah, what would you like to do?’ He says, ‘Well, I’ve got this mood that I want.’ I absorb the mood from him, and I say, ‘Right, well here is the mood.’ I gave him the rhythm and the stuff, and we played.
"As a matter of fact, we were planning to do a big thing with the violin player, but I said to him, ‘What would you like?’ I said, ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No.’ ‘You want a coffee?’ Made him a cup of coffee, and he said, ‘I would like to go and just like pray to God for a little bit.’ I said, ‘There you go, you can go and pray.’ This is a guy that prays so that he can be close to the great supreme being, not because it’s a duty, he loves praying because it brings him closer to his God. So I said to him, ‘Look, you can pray until your heart is contented.’ So off he went, into the drum booth, believe it or not, and came out radiating. And what you’ve actually got there was his sound check. I was saying, do us a little bit of something so that we kind of like really get you a good sound, and we recorded it. I looked at Walid and I said, ‘Well, it’s what we had in mind, this is what’s going down on the album.’ Yeah, for all of us it was an education in violin playing, and an education in Arabic music, and how to move between rhythms, and how to move between modes and all that. It was an incredible piece of heartfelt, soulful thing that he played, and he said, ‘Is the sound good now?’ I said, ‘Yeah, could you come back here please.’ He heard it, and he was in tears, we were all in tears as a matter of fact, it was just an incredible album."
What are some of your most memorable highlights of the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page historic reunion world tour?
HR: "The highest of highlights, I think people don’t get to know what they’ve got until it’s gone, and it was the most wonderful experience. I mean, I am so humbled by the fact that on the rejoining and the remarrying of these two magnificent giants of rock that I like grew up living and listening to, and loving so much; The fact that when they got back together I was involved in arranging some of their music and performing with them, this is like, it’s only because I believed that when my mother died, she was happy with me, and she was praying for me that I would be successful. And it’s an incredible, incredible experience, but the greatest, greatest highlight was at the very end of the tour, actually it was here in Melbourne. Robert took me under his arm one day, after the last concert, and he said, ‘Hossam, we’ve been together now for three years, and we’ve had our ups and downs, and we’ve had our lovely days, and we’ve had disagreements, and we’ve had all of this incredible effort and hard work touring, and no matter what I may have said or whatever anybody may have said, I want you know that I still think that you’re a bastard!’ (Laughs) And that sums it all up in one word, ‘I still think you’re a bastard!’ (Laughs)"
Tell me about your latest project featuring some of Egypt’s great dancers.
HR: "Oh God, as a matter of fact, my latest project did not involve some of Egypt’s greatest dancers, it involves some of Brazil’s greatest dancers. There is a bunch of Brazilian dancers who do Egyptian dancing, and they’ve got the rhythm like I have never seen in my life. And they’ve got the feel, and they’ve got the understanding, and they’ve got the love of the music. Even on the cover my latest album, which is called ‘Gamaal Rawhany’ (Soulful Beauty), is my girlfriend Serena, whom I wrote a piece for. And I did a song called ‘From Cairo to Sao Paulo’, which involves kind of like Brazilian as well as Egyptian modes. I’m planning a tour with them at the end of this year in Brazil, and hopefully if this goes well I’m going to take them around the world with me."
What are some of the other entries in the Hossam Ramzy 1997 diary?
HR: "We’re talking about a tour with Loreena McKenitt, because we’re doing the album, there’s just a little bit more recording to be done. As soon as I get back to London I’ve got a session with the Gypsy Kings, and I’m finishing the new album with Mr Gabriel, and as matter of fact in April I go to Italy for three months touring with Dino Danelli. And then I go to Egypt, at the end of June I’m producing an artist called Levi Mossoud. He’s from Israel believe it or not, an Israeli and an Egyptian working together. After that we’re preparing for the Loreena McKenitt tour, and I also know that Mr Plant and Mr Page are back in the studio at the moment, recording their new album, they start in April. Whenever they are ready for me, then I’ll be doing some stuff with them, and hopefully go on the road with all three of them all at once."
Hossam Ramzy’s set up:
As an Egyptian percussionist, the Egyptian tabla (or darabukka) features as Hossam's main instrument. In this North African tradition there is also the doholla (or bass tabla), sagat (or hand cymbals), as well as different types of frame drums in use. One of them is the reque, which is a small tambourine, and then there are two of a large variety known as the duff, and the mazhar which features large brass jingles.
'Drum Scene' The Drummer's Magazine ~ Volume 3, Issue #2, May 16, 1996
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Hossam Ramzy: Source of Fire