A. R. Rahman, known in the west for his Academy Award–winning soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire, has been adding Ramzy’s Arabian rhythms to his soundtracks since 2002. They recorded “Cairo To India” at Rahman’s studio in Chennai, India, with a live string orchestra. “When I asked Rahman to be on this album, he said he’d arrange a song for me, if I liked. I sent him the music that became ‘Cairo To India’ and he developed the melody with his own touch. He’s very innovative; everything he does sounds brand new. He added the string parts and the vocals, including a singer named Chennai Shripada, who scats in the style of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The track was cut live, with strings and an Indian percussion section. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by musicians of such a high caliber. For me, it was like dying and going to heaven. In fact, the whole album sounds like I was having a birthday party, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve all at the same time.”
Ramzy’s drumming on the album is all live “and organic. No plastic drum heads for me, thank you.” As in all his work, his respect for the traditions of the musicians he works with is obvious. “I study the genre I’m adding to and choose things that fit with the music. Fusion isn’t putting on an Indian sari to dance the mambo. Fusion is deeper than that. I was at the heart of world music fusion when people were still asking what ‘world music’ was. My thing is to understand the music, before I add my own. I’ve played jazz with Chick Corea, rock with Jimmy and Robert, classical and opera with Pavarotti, pop with Peter Gabriel, and Latin with Ricky Martin, but to have successful amalgamation, you have you have a vision for what you want to produce at the end.”
Ramzy was born in Cairo on the evening of December 15, 1953. His parents say he was tapping on things all over the house, even as a small child. “It was obvious I loved drumming. I was given my first darbuka when I was three. I played it so hard it broke. I probably broke a hundred of them while I was learning.
“My father was a scientist and he was concerned about my future. He said music was an impossible choice. He liked it when I played for him at home, but didn’t think I could make a living as a musician. My mom was an artist; a great singer and oud player. She helped me on my path.”
With his mother’s aid, Ramzy took lessons from Cairo’s finest percussionists. By secondary school (high school), he’d mastered the western drum kit as well as bongos, congas, timbales, and various Arab hand drums. He was accompanying belly dancers and playing in nightclubs and on TV before he graduated. When he was 20, his father took him to Saudi Arabia to get him away from his musician friends. “I cursed the idea before I went,” Ramzy says. “Now I cherish those years. Saudi Arabia was a melting pot with musicians from India, Africa, Persia, Iraq — all the Arab countries. I absorbed and assimilated music and rhythms that I would never have learned if I’d stayed at home. It was my first experience of the fusion of cultures. I told my father I’d keep my grades up if he’d let me play music, but it was a struggle.
“I worked hard in school, but I wanted to go to England to study jazz and Latin percussion. I’d grown up listening to Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, and Steppenwolf, along with Coltrane, Fats Waller, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and Mahavishnu. I moved to London in 1979. I was playing jazz with Andy Sheppard, a great sax man, and pianist Geoff Williams, when I had a revelation. I found an Arab nightclub in London called Laroche. They had an Arab percussion ensemble that was as formidable as any Latin percussion section. I asked myself: ‘Why am I bothering to learn any other kind of percussion when I already have this?’ The jazz players tried to bend notes to have a bluesy sound. Arab music has quartertones, which may be what they’re trying to get to, and I had it already. I went back to the tabla and relearned and rediscovered the music I was born into and grew up with.”
Ramzy played his version of traditional Egyptian music and made three albums on his own label, Inspirational Music Limited, including a belly dance record, Introduction To Egyptian Dance Rhythms. Peter Gabriel heard it and asked him to contribute to his soundtrack for The Last Temptation Of Christ and the Passion album. Ramzy then worked with Gabriel on Us, leading to years of session work with rock, jazz, and world music artists. He contributed to albums by Joan Armatrading, Marc Almond, Cheb Khaled, Rachid Taha, and The Gypsy Kings, to name just a few.
A meeting with Horst Tubesing, head of the world/folk label ARC, led to an association that continues today. Ramzy’s made 32 albums for the label and sold over 1 million CDs for ARC in between other gigs, including the Page/Plant Unledded tour that introduced him to rockers around the world. In 2009, he arranged and cowrote “Why Wait For Later,” a track on Shakira’s She Wolf album, and his music appears on the soundtrack of the new Conan The Barbarian movie.
Ramzy’s currently putting together a band to support the release of Rock The Tabla. “The group will include players from the album — Chaz Kkoshi [The Gypsy Kings, Herbie Hancock] on keys, John Themis [Boy George, Ofra Haza] on guitar, Winston Blissett [Lionel Ritchie, Kylie Minogue] on bass, and probably Gary Husband [Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin] on drums. There will be guest artists, when the gigs allow, hopefully Billy Cobham and maybe Mohammed Ali.
“I’m also working on a followup. I already have a few tracks completed for Rock The Tabla Again. I have other friends I can’t mention at this time who will be contributing to it. It’s all part of my desire to make Egyptian and Arabic music part of the international vocabulary. The rhythms of jazz, Latin, and rock are familiar to everyone. I hope to see Arab music just as well known one day. It’s the music of my soul. The first time my hand touched the skin of the darbuka and struck a note, I was hooked. The sound was sensual, sensational, and seductive; it went right to my heart. I couldn’t resist it. I fell in love with the sound and I’m as in love with it today as I was the first day I ever heard it.”