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04 juillet 2008

Hossam Ramzy, Pioneer of percussion


Hossam Ramzy continues his experimentation with various genres.

Four names stand out in the history of Egyptian music – four who have influenced and inspired generations after them. Umm Kalthum is a star who stands alongside the finest songstresses that the world has produced and Arabics music’s undisputed marvel and her demise in 1975 is still mourned by many in the Middle East.

Kalthum’s improvisational prowess is legendary and her attempts to break out of the traditional mould – alongside the luminous Abd el-Halim Hafez – set the tone for the changes that swept the musical spheres in Egypt. Sheikh Sayed Darweesh is revered as the progenitor of Egyptian Arab music and gained prominence in the 1910s and 1920s with the “innovation” musical movement.

His fusion of neglected Arab and Egyptian tunes with Western harmonisation and nationalist songs for the common man earned him affection and admiration amongst the masses before his tragic death in 1923 at the age of 32. Darweesh’s controversial and pioneering spirit lived in Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab (1910-1991), who is widely recognised as the man who took Arabic music kicking and screaming into the western world.

El-Wahaab’s steadfast devotion to his principles of modernisation brought criticism and belated appreciation. He believed in the freedom to create music as an artist sees fit and, upon his death in 1991, it was unclear whether his ideals would continue to be championed by his successors. In Hossam Ramzy, one would say, we can see this courage to shift beyond the traditional route and maintain Egypt’s experiments with other music genres.

The classically tutored percussionist too is exceptional in the Egyptian stratum of musicians. There are possibly three chapters in Ramzy’s vocation that has made him the celebrated musician that he is now. He left Cairo for Saudi Arabia for career-defining stints with Bedouin tribes to gain first-hand knowledge of the music of the Middle East.

Another journey that influenced the course of his craft was to London – where he has been based since the mid-1970s – to reinvent himself as a jazz drummer. This proved to be short-lived and a return to his roots yielded successes that led to global fame, especially after the release of his seminal solo work, An Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms, in 1987.

A prolific recording artiste, Ramzy produced at least 22 albums between 1987 and 2007 alone and collaborated with the top names in the 1980s – from Boy George and Joan Armatrading to Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. His partnership with Gabriel opened up numerous possibilities in world music circles and he remains one of the most sought-after percussionists in the industry.

While Ramzy struggled to repeat the popularity and critical approval of An Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms in his numerous subsequent albums, there are a few that are notable for their inventive bent. Egyptian Rai (1994) was an amalgamation of music forms from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – amongst other nations – and featured the pan-Arabic smash hit, Wah Wah.

The rai genre, a combination of popular music and traditional Bedouin desert music, has maintained a consistent pull on Ramzy and he has worked with the leading rai singers in the arena. His momentous 1-2-3 Soleils concert in 1998, which was reproduced in an equally smashing album of the same name the following year, brought together Khaled, Rachid Taha and Faudel – three top musicians in rai. Ramzy served as the orchestra director, arranger and lead percussionist for the project that showcased the talent of the Algerian trio.

Ramzy has preserved his interest in working with musicians of diverse backgrounds and another breakthrough album was Ahlamy in 1996, a joint effort with the acclaimed Rafat Misso – who has modified and mastered the quartertone saxophone to suit the rendition of Arabic music. The album’s highlights are the updates on a number of folk dance pieces and pop songs. Ahlamy also serves as a reminder of Ramzy’s ability to sustain and venerate the vision and legacy of his predecessors.

Hossam Ramzy performs at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, next Monday and Tuesday with his six-man ensemble and his belly dancer wife Serena Ramzy. Tickets for both shows – which commence at 8.30pm – are priced at RM140, RM100, RM60 and RM40. Please visit for more details.

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