Hossam Ramzy is a master percussionist known for his work on Egyptian tabla (darbuka), but he’s also adept on bongos, timbales, Latin percussion, and drum set. He’s been playing his own expansive brand of world fusion since he came to London from Cairo in 1979, as well as playing sessions for The Rolling Stones, Ricky Martin, and Sting. Despite an impressive resume, Ramzy had a relatively low profile until 1994, when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page invited him to add an Arabian flavor to their No Quarter album and tour.
“When I got the phone call [from Page and Plant], I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Ramzy recalls from his home in Sussex, England. “I never could have imagined collaborating with them. I found out later they’d auditioned some big names in Arab music, people who are great musicians, but without experience playing rock. They wanted to add a Middle Eastern vibe, without taking away from the rock and roll feel. They asked me to put a band together for the album and the subsequent tour. I worked with them for almost three years, from 1994 to 1996.”
Plant and Page wanted new arrangements, but not total revisions of the originals. It was a struggle to find the right balance. “We started with lots of trials and errors, tearing up scores and starting again. They didn’t want to make the rock sound weak or the Arabian sound watered down. I introduced them to the hardcore, backstreet, urbanized folkloric music that only the hardest of hard musicians in Cairo can play and left the rock as it was. In ‘Kashmir,’ we added a bridge of North African rhythm. Then, in the second verse, we introduced a sensual Egyptian violin line in the style of baladi, a belly dance rhythm that works with the 4/4 of rock. The audiences couldn’t believe their eyes or ears when we played. I keep saying I was honored and humbled, but it’s inadequate to describe what it felt like to be standing behind Robert and Jimmy every night, seeing what they’re doing and becoming friends with them. They really looked after my musicians and me and made us feel at home.”
Ramzy’s experience on what was billed as the “Unledded tour” is one of the inspirations for his latest release, Rock The Tabla, probably the best world music release of the year. Ramzy had been dreaming of collaborating with some of his superstar friends for a while and rounded up Billy Cobham, Japanese taiko drummer Joji Hirota, and Bollywood soundtrack composer A.R. Rahman for the project. The title track, a fusion of rock and Egyptian rhythms, includes work by an anonymous rock guitarist who sounds distinctly familiar.
“The song ‘Rock The Tabla’ is based on the rhythms that have been beating in my head since I was a child,” Ramzy explains. “It’s inspired by Egyptian country music, which is deep and earthy with a lot of complex rhythms and poetic lyrics, and Led Zeppelin, a band I grew up listening to. Jimmy Waldo, who has played with Quiet Riot and Waterbone, arranged it to fit both styles. In the first bars, the rhythm is free and loose, but when the electric guitar comes in, you get a feeling of dancing stallions and gallant warriors from Luxor mixed in with the rock.”
Among Ramzy’s other collaborators is venerable fusion drummer Billy Cobham, who appears on two tracks on Rock The Tabla — “Billy Dancing” and “Six Teens.” “Billy is a master of time keeping and odd rhythms; nothing surprises him,” Ramzy says. “I met him at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Recording Week sessions. Billy has been a major influence on my music since I heard Birds Of Fire by Mahavishnu in 1968. When I heard that album, I knew that was the kind of music I wanted to play. He’s a melodic, musical drummer, and that album informs all the fusion I’ve played.
“A few years ago, I played with Billy at the Cape Breton Drum Festival. We started jamming on the ancient Egyptian aksak rhythm — it’s in 16 — that I play with a jazzy feel. He took to it quickly. We started trading fours, then taking long breaks, while the other player held down the time. I made a demo in my studio, then sent it to him and he replied with his ideas. The next time we were at Real World Studios, we cut the song live, improvising as we went along. Mohammed Ali, a brilliant young Egyptian violin player, added some Mahavishnu-style improvisations. ‘Billy Dancing’ was done the same way. It’s based on two belly dance rhythms. When I told Billy the title, he loved it.”
Ramzy met taiko drummer Joji Hirota a few years ago. Their duet, “Shukran Arigato,” is one of the album’s most unique racks. “Arigato is Japanese for ‘thank you,’ and shukran is Arabic for ‘thank you,’” Ramzy explains. “We composed the track together at my studio. His style is quite different from the way I think of things. He’s in time and on the ball, as far as the rhythm is concerned, but he has a looseness that’s difficult for me. I couldn’t understand what he was doing until I listened over and over again. I kept time in the studio and allowed him to play whatever he wanted, then added my stuff afterwards.” The jamming on “Shukran Arigato” is full of surprises and has a feel that recalls Latin music at times. “Latin rhythms come from Arabia,” Ramzy says. “The Moors occupied Spain and Portugal for centuries and the Spanish brought those rhythms to Latin America. I understand Latin very well. On this track, he plays pure Japanese and I play pure Arabian, but where the rhythms come from, and where they go when you play them, is always open to speculation.”