Hossam Ramzy: World Fusion Without Limits

Hossam Ramzy

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.”

Rock The Arab World

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.”

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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.”

A Return To The Fold

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.”

Stretching Out The Fingers

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.”

Next Page: Ramzy’s Setup Diagram

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Ramzy’s Setup

Hossam Ramzy

Drums
1 8" Egyptian Tabla
2 9" Sombati
3 10" Doholla
4 15.75" Mazhar with jingles
5 17" Duff
6 11" x 30" Meinl Professional Series Quinto
7 11.5" x 30" Meinl Professional Series Conga
8 12.5" x 30" Meinl Professional Series Tumba
9 6.75"/8" Meinl Bongos
10 11"/13" Meinl Timbales
11 12" x 25" Kambala Bougarabou
12 12.5" x 25" Kambala Bougarabou
13 11" x 25" Kambala Bougarabou

Cymbals
A 12" Zildjian A Splash
B 14" Rassem Wafer Thin Splash
C 10" Rassem Wafer Thin Splash
D 10" Zildjian K Splash
E 16" Zildjian K Crash
F 12" Zildjian K Splash
G 15" Zildjian Azuka Latin Multi Crash Hand & Stick
H 17" Zildjian El Sonido Multi Crash Ride

Percussion Meinl
Chimes, bell tree, woodblocks, and cowbells

Hossam Ramzy also uses Meinl True Skin Buffalo conga heads, Vater Fusion sticks, and Dixon hardware. Congas in Aztec Red Fade. Drums 1-3 are all custom made by Ramzy Music International.