Source of Fire
At the end of his world tour with with Plant and Page, Andrián Pertout speaks to Egyptian master percussionist Hossam Ramzy about his beginnings, working with Peter Gabriel, and his latest album 'Source of Fire'.
The reunion album and tour with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page may have lifted Hossam Ramzy's profile, but this Egyptian master percussionist needs no introduction. As producer, composer and arranger in his own right he has released twelve albums on Egyptian dance music, worked on many TV and film scores, as well as having recorded with such artists as Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, Mari Wilson, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Marc Almond, Barbara Thomson and Debbie Harry. I firstly became aware of his musical brilliance through his album 'Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms', which inspired me so much that I went on to compose several pieces based on his rhythms. After having heard an ARC Music compilation called 'Best of Bellydance' and his work on Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to the film 'The Last Temptation of Christ', I was transformed into a devout follower. He is a musician with a wealth of talent, and unquestionably a true gentleman.
How did your life as a musician begin? Tell me about your early years in Cairo and Saudi Arabia.
HR: "My goodness, where do I begin? First of all, I was born in Cairo, and I had quite a strong, strong interest in rhythm and percussion. And that's the only thing that really interested me in music, and life. I only loved to listen to drums, and to play the drums, and I found myself at a very, very early stage of my life being really drawn and pulled into all of this. My mother helped me a lot to achieve that, however the rest of my family, like my father and brothers were not too interested. Because in Egypt, if you're a doctor or a lawyer, then you're respectable, if you're not then you're not, you know, especially musician. I had a big schooling in music, because the school that I went to was very dedicated to music and to the arts, which was very lucky for me. I played a lot in the school band, and I played a lot in the school festivals, and things like that. And then my father decided to take me to Saudi Arabia to see if he can put an end to that. So he took me over there, and lucky enough I met with lots of musicians, and composers, and arrangers, and I got involved in music again. I've learnt a lot from the Saudi Arabian and Bedouin people, a lot about different styles of rhythms than the Egyptian style. And it was an incredible education for me, to learn this different polyrhythmic attitude to rhythm. And it really helped me a lot in my life as a percussionist, because I'm not totally stuck in one aspect of life as a drummer or performer, because I can play lots and lots of different styles and lots and lots of different rhythm instruments."
Did your move to London have an impact on your musical direction?
HR: "Oh yeah, I moved to London because my musical interest was very much into jazz, and I was expanding into different styles of music, not just the Egyptian or the Arabian thing. I was very interested in different types of performance and jazz drums specifically. So I went to England to play jazz, and to play to different Latin American stuff. And it came a time where I was very much at not a dead end, but looking for a different dimension altogether and wanting a new direction to go to."
What led Hossam Ramzy the jazz drummer back to his roots and the Egyptian Tabla? When did you set up your school of Middle Eastern dance and percussion?
HR: "Well, I was coming to a crossroads within my drumming and within my musical interests, and I was playing a lot of jazz funk gigs, and jazzy, jazzy gigs. I met somebody who just by accident turned out to be an Arabian musician. He was a guitarist called Yussef, and this guy invited me to a club that he was working in. So I went to that, and I was completely stunned, and it was like being stunned by a very strong bee, to all of a sudden meet again with my roots, which I was very experienced in, and to find in them a lot of things that I'm interested in today. And then I thought to myself, 'Why am I having to go around the world to look for something that I've already got?' So I started going back to my roots again, and I found that we have powerful rhythms, and we have powerful rhythmic constructions, and we have a lot of rhythmic conversation between one another. And all these things I used to do from my childhood, but somehow you always think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. So I went back full circle to my roots, and I started playing drums, and within a few years I had achieved a satisfactory level, whereby I was working in the top clubs in London and in Egypt. And especially the dancers, who wanted something fresh and something exciting, they found it much easier to work with me because I was coming fresh to the field. You know, rather than the guys that had been in the clubs, and in the business all their lives, so I was like something fresh to work with."
You have now released twelve albums on Egyptian dance music. How did your recording career initially come about?
HR: "First of all, somebody one day asked me, one of the dancers, they said, 'Hossam, we love the rhythms and we're always having to ask you to tell us again what the name of this rhythm, and sometimes we remember this rhythm but not again, and if you play it in a different way or with a little bit of an interpretation of it, then we lose the plot completely. So could you please just do a small tape for us?' So I started doing a small tape and then somebody said to me, 'Oh, could I have a copy of it?' And then somebody said, 'Oh, could I have a copy?' So I thought, 'Well, hang on a minute, there is a lot of interest there.' And I did my first album which is called 'Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms', on which I speak, the name of the rhythm, where it comes from, and how it's counted, and I play a short section of it. So I did that in a professional studio, and it just like was met with a lot of success. And then somehow this cassette got into the hands of Peter Gabriel who invited me to do one of my rhythms, which is the Zaar rhythm on his album 'Passion'. So I went over to do this rhythm with him and then I realized that he really needed a lot more than just that rhythm, because he was doing the soundtrack to the film 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. So I ended up doing the whole Arabian thing that he had."
Peter Gabriel has been greatly responsible for bringing world music a little closer to mainstream. In what way has the association with him influenced or inspired you?
HR: "Well, first of all, the way he influenced and inspired me was like, umm, it completely, completely changed my life, because it completely undercut any misconceptions I have about great artists, because when I met with this person, I was shaking like a leaf. You know, because I came from a background, as I was saying earlier on, where people were saying to me, 'No, this is not right, this is good, this is what you should be doing, no you shouldn't be a musician, no you shouldn't be that.' And then, I don't know whether you know the album 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', it's by Genesis, when Peter Gabriel was singing there, and there is a song called 'The Chamber with Thirty-Two Doors'. And this exactly portrayed my life, I was stuck in a room with thirty-two doors and I didn't know which way to turn, which door to go through. And the lyrics in one of the verses there was, '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.' And that really, really, really kind of like hit home with me so much, and I realized that I was at a major crossroads. This is going back to the early seventies. And so when somebody has spoken to my heart so deeply, and then I'm going over there to meet him, I expected to meet God himself, and I was shaking, I was really, really shaking. And then to find this person to be such a wonderful human being, and a great artist, and a totally unassuming person who respected me, and treated me like Alex, your brother, treats me, a total brother and a friend. I was completely shocked, and I spent four or five days with him, and on my way back to my house after the session that's concerned, I actually pulled up the car to the side of the motorway, and I actually broke down and I cried for about three or four hours, seriously. It wasn't a cry in sadness, it was like the biggest emotional release in my life, for the very first time. I was about thirty-two years old, which is incredible because, you know 'The Chamber with Thirty-Two Doors?' And I was thirty-two years old, and to work with this man at that time, and to do this level of creativity, this album 'Passion', which is the soundtrack to the film, has totally, totally changed the world, musically speaking. People realize what they can do, after Peter Gabriel has done that, and I had the honour and I had the pleasure of being involved there. That completely changed my life, and from the performance side of it, I learnt a lot. And from the recording techniques, I've learnt how Peter Gabriel works, because I observed him like a hawk observing the prey. I really was absorbing everything this man was doing. And also it put me on a plateau where people heard my stuff, and they were really, really interested in what I was doing."
What instrumentation did you use on 'Source of Fire'? Who is in your regular band?
HR: "There is Walid Fayed, who is one of the most wonderful keyboard-players I've ever heard in my life, he's an Egyptian guy, young man of about twenty-five years old. And he plays all sorts of music, he plays jazz, he plays traditional, traditional Arabic, and he plays Latin American, and he plays very classical Egyptian, and he's a composer and an arranger. And also there is Mr Farouq Mohammed Hassan, the accordion player. He's a wonderful guy, and he's like a brother to me. And there is Ibrahim Fathy who plays kawala, and there is Mr Samy El Bably on trumpet, and there is Reda Bedeir on flute, and there is also Dr Saad Mohammed Hassan on violin, and there is Mamdoah El Gebaly on lute. And those guys are the cream of the Egyptian session musician scene, and they are like incredible, incredible musicians of their own right."
With the world tour with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page over how would you now describe the experience?
HR: "Unbelievable, unbelievable totally. Those people have lifted the rock music to a great height, and they have lifted the Egyptian and Arabian music to a greater height. Because they are legends of their own right, and they really, really have come up with a wonderful combination of music that is so appealing to everyone that hears it from either side of the world. The Arabs are going crazy because they love it, and the westerners are going crazy because they love it. And I really look forward to writing some more music with them, and to going back on the road with them again as soon as possible."
How was the 'No Quarter' album recorded? Were all the elements recorded together live or was your part for example recorded separately?
HR: "Absolutely live, no, absolutely live, yeah."
Are there any special projects awaiting you on your return to London?
HR: "Yes, as soon as I get to London of course I will spend some relaxation time at home and get to see my family, and relax for a little bit. And then by about the twentieth, or eighteenth of March I've got a big recording to do with the band 'Big Country', and then after that I'm recording an album with a lady called Loreena McKennitt from Canada. She's a Celtic artist who really experiments with a lot of world music. And then after that there are a couple of things that I'm not really at liberty to disclose at the moment. And then I'm going over to Egypt in the summer to record, you know, something on the same lines as 'Source of Fire'."
'Source Of Fire' distributed by Larrikin
'Australian Musician' ~ Issue 6, Winter, June 3, 1996
AUSTRALIAN MUSIC ASSOCIATION
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