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23 juillet 2008

Ramzy rule

By Nantha Kumar, the Star On line

Noted percussionist Hossam Ramzy is a man on a mission to redefine the teaching of music.

Away from the anxious public relations hawks and rolling tape recorders, Hossam Ramzy expounded his world views on unsuspecting reporters. The distinguished Egyptian percussionist and composer was easy with his opinions at a recent press conference and would have enriched the morning with his candid take on non-music matters if protocol had permitted.

Ramzy transferred his natural ebullience to the stage at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas with no difficulty later in the day when he interpreted the music of Umm Kalthum and Abdul el-Halim Hafez. The two-night performance was divided into Classical – which showcased the music of Egypt’s golden era – and improvisations pieced together by Ramzy and his seven-man ensemble under the Baladi segment.

Adding colour and cultural zip to the proceedings was Ramzy’s Brazilian dancer wife, Serena, who sashayed to the beats. Serena performed what we have come to identify as belly dancing, although in the hands of Ramzy it is converted into an elevated form of movement in music.

Ramzy provided a reformist’s perception of the Egyptian dance and demolished a few myths along the way in a show that doubled up as a crash course in the music and culture of his homeland.

This is not an alien subject matter for Ramzy. Eleven years ago in his solo debut album, An Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms, he had demonstrated his dedication to document the roots music of Egypt.

He has continued to produce albums that mingle closely with the reintroduction of Egyptian music and dance. Despite his hectic tour schedules – he returned to London after his shows here, to prepare for his gig at Womad Charlton Park 2008 this weekendRamzy keenly monitors the music developments in Egypt.

“My main concern is the dissemination and education of Egyptian art, culture, music and dance. People are not (in tune with the authentic forms) ? nobody in the world knows how the pharaohs dance or sang or did anything; what we have are stereotypes. I had decided to educate people on how what it sounds like ? none of my albums are the same, they (illustrate) the whole array of Egyptian music.”
“Cairo is the biggest cultural centre in all of the Middle East. Musicians come from all corners of the Arab world to Egypt to study the music. All artistes come to Egypt for their recordings and for education as well. No matter how famous they have become in their own country, until they have met the approval of the Egyptian public, they don’t feel they have (obtained) the recognition,” Ramzy revealed.

“(The music scene in Egypt is) vibrant and very powerful. It is coming up with new things all the time. The musicians are trying to copy and compete against MTV but on the musical side, there are a lot of wonderful and interesting things happening all over Egypt and the Middle East. People are now beginning to recognise that we need to stay close to our roots. We must stay tight with our culture rather than become westernised? identity is the important thing,” he stressed.

The absence of an invigorating education system, Ramzy lamented, is the key obstacle in lifting music in Egypt to a level that could benefit musicians at home and abroad. The two main music establishments in Egypt – a conservatory and the institute for Arabic music Institute – are both run by the government and do not use all-encompassing approach to music.

The conservatory concentrates on classical western music while the other concerns itself with Arabic music but the old-fashioned method of teaching excludes other music from around the world.

While Ramzy does not doubt the quality of the alumni shaped by these organisations – “they produce fantastic musicians” – he is not convinced that they have bred music sophisticates.

Ramzy is worried that the non-exposure to international music would impair these musicians’ appreciation and application of music. While ethnomusicology has been introduced in higher institutions in Britain, Europe and the United States, its scope has been limited so as to render it ineffective.
“Only in this decade, they are beginning to have ethnomusicology (departments) in the universities and (the focus is mainly on) Indian music, which I think (brings) a little bit too much curry to the dish. If you are going to introduce a European to an Indian dish, you are not going to give him a jalfrezi (spicy curry) straight away. You have to give him mulligatawny soup, something that is mild and with a little hint of curry and then move on to tandoori,” Ramzy drew an amusing analogy.

“It is an act of protection. Sometimes the parents are so protective of the child that the child has no life experience of the outside world and when they go out there, they are lost. And this is what they are doing in Egypt ? we are going to teach the local style of music and absolutely nothing else. I believe that in order to really become a proper artiste you need to learn the proper style of local music and, at the same time, realise that the world is not as small as it used to be.”

He is, however, confident that Egyptian musicians are opening up and are now knowledgeable of a world outside theirs – thanks largely to the Internet – and the “move away from the conservative squares in which they were pegged for so long. This progression would definitely be placed on a fast lane if Ramzy gets his grand music project in Cairo off the ground in near future.

Ramzy is looking for investors to help finance the building of a complex that would house recording and dance studios and a residential home – where he plans to relocate for most of the year. He also wants to start a recording label here, which will be fashioned after Peter Gabriel’s Real World but would specialise in the music of the Middle East; and invite musicians of other genres for collaborations.

The imprint will continue Ramzy’s work as well as create a synergy between cultures in the Middle East – regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Ramzy believes that “every artiste has got a voice and has got to be heard.”

The joint albums borne out of these unions will then be made available to the rest of the world.

Ramzy enthused philosophically: “One of my greatest dreams is to put together an Islamic choir with the Christian, Jewish synagogue, Buddhist and orthodox Greek choirs and write and arrange for them. There will not be a spoken is not about this god or that prophet but just voices and you’ll see that they will communicate with each other.”

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