Hossam Ramzy’s drum tells tales going back to Ancient Egypt


Special To The Japan Times

Given the ongoing popularity of bellydancing in Japan, the signature sound of the Egyptian darbuka drum, has become far more familiar. While it may not have the ubiquitous hippie drum-circle presence of the djembe, this smaller-but-brash hand drum has developed quite a following of its own. Local groups such as Tabla Kwaiesa, led by Tom Ueda, have popularized the explosive, playful side of Egyptian drumming, and they’ve been successful enough to merit a studio in Shibuya, El Salaam, offering lessons and imported drums for sale.

But when it comes to darbuka, there is one musician who literally every bellydancer or percussionist knows: Hossam Ramzy. (Ueda refers to him as “the textbook.”) Born in Cairo, but now based in Britain, Ramzy has released more than 30 albums of his own music, while enjoying a successful career as a session musician to the stars, working with the likes of Shakira, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (“Unledded”), Jay-Z, Killing Joke and many more.

“I love the sound of skin stretched on a frame,” Ramzy tells The Japan Times. “Every drum has a unique and personal character that attracts me to touching it and interacting with it any way I can.” Ramzy, who also plays the daf (frame drum) and rek (Egyptian tambourine) as well as plain old drum kit, fell into music from an early age. For that he credits his mother, a singer and pianist who gave him his first drum when he was 3 years old.

After music school and a stint living in Saudi Arabia learning Bedouin rhythms, Ramzy moved to the United Kingdom in 1975 and worked as a jazz drummer before returning to his darbuka roots. His big break was playing on Peter Gabriel’s Grammy-winning 1989 album “Passion” (the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ”), a landmark work of world-music fusion. “Peter fell in love with my song ‘Zaar’, which he used as the base foundation for his own song,” explains Ramzy. “I got a call from his office and was invited to do a one-day session, and it ended up being four days, with full exposure to the album. I felt that for the first time in the history of music, here was an album that brought every color, depth, and flavor in one palette.”

When it comes to fusion, though, Ramzy sees this as an age-old process. “The roots of our music come from the fallahin (farmer) rhythms slowed down to produce different levels of funkiness. But Egypt has been invaded by almost every civilization ever, from the Hittites to the Persians to the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, French, British. Now we are invaded by MTV. Our current rhythms take different shapes due to all the above, but many of the nations that invaded us have adapted some of our rhythms to make their own. Rock, funk — I could show you how they were taken from Egypt.” It seems an extravagant claim, but anyone who’s ever heard a Motown breakbeat would have no problem recognizing that backbeat in Egypt’s baladi rhythm, or reggae-dancehall’s staggered groove in malfuf.

This may be why Ramzy’s drumming can often be heard, credited or otherwise, in any number of club-oriented tribal-house tracks. When I suggest, jokingly, that Ramzy’s near-perfect timing makes it easy for DJs to loop over programmed beats, he replies in kind: “Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not nearly perfect … I am perfect.” It’s the kind of joke only someone as good as Ramzy can hazard, but it’s not far from the truth.

“I love playing so close to the metronome and still making it funky and loose,” he explains. “I like to make it sound almost not in time, which requires practicing constantly and becoming metronomically perfect to the point that I can loosen my timing.”

Ramzy will be performing live and holding workshops for the first time in Tokyo next month with his bellydancer wife, Serena, and a bevy of Japan’s better dancers (including Asya, Tae and Huleya). Ramzy has described a simple formula for good drummer-dancer collaborations: “The true art of Oriental dancing is to visually hear the music,” he insists. “I never repeat the same drum solo twice; it is always improvised” — but adds, “there are rules of engagement.”

The beauty of bellydance lies in the direct communication between musician and dancer, where sound is immediately reflected in movement; Ramzy and Serena’s show should display that at a peak level of connection.

Hossam Ramzy performs at Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Chuo-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 3 (6 p.m.; ¥6,500 in advance; [03] 5541-8710). The pair will hold bellydancing and drum workshops in Tokyo from Nov. 4 to 6. For details, visit the Japanese website at www.raqs-altarab-tae.com/hossamramzy. Workshop enquiries in English should be directed to hossam@tae.sub.jp. For more information, visit www.hossamramzy.com, www.kwaiesa.net or www.el-salaam.com.