has a unique sound and cadence to his drumming. Perhaps this is
why he is considered one of the best percussionists in his genre
of music. In the early stages of his career he played music for
many of the great singers and dancers of Egypt and for the last
20 years we have been lucky to have his talent here in this country.
Master of Percussion
had been circling the topic of this interview with Yousef for
about a month. I wanted to ask him a few friendly questions here
in the familiar muted lighting of Pasha
Restaurant. Finally, one night he agreed and we found a quiet
corner to sit down, gathering velvet pillows around us as a signal
to others to leave us undisturbed in our tete-a-tete. Yousef is
a humble man. Not one to dwell overly on his talents or bathe
in the reflected light of his achievements, his attention is rooted
at the present; it took me a moment to lure him back to his past
to focus his attention on sharing his own personal story.
to the United States in a manner common to many musicians from
overseas: "In 1979 I was in Japan for a 6 week contract with
a dancer named Hallah Safi. He said, musing,as he
tapping his fingers on the low banquette After that I came
here to do a show with a different dancer, Hanan I think
it was." He looked up with a brief smile, I guess
I got stuck here."
I first came to this country, it all seemed very different to
me then. It wasn't from my world. It had a special new feeling,
and I wanted to see what it would be like to live here. Also,
the owner of the Bagdad
Nightclub offered me a job and I liked the musicians there.
I ended up staying here a year. Soon people in other cities like
Chicago and Los Angeles started calling for me because they had
heard about me. I decided to go to L.A. where I worked at Byblos
for about 10 years also playing at clubs like Ali Baba,
Hagi Baba and Aladine. Then one day Jalal
from Pasha called and asked me to come here, so now I have
been back in San Francisco for several years."
differences do you see between nightclubs in San Francisco and
Los Angeles?, I asked him.
a big difference, like a different color. In L.A. the music is
more like in Egypt. There are usually more musicians, but in general
there is such a difference between the shows in this country and
the way it is in Egypt! In Egypt I was used to having 35 musicians
with me. Here there are only four or five on stage. It was strange
to come here and have three belly dancers a night dancing sometimes
to just an oud and drum. Another thing that I noticed at that
time is that the dancers were dancing to songs. The dancers in
Egypt have special dance music, especially for the entrance. This
music is made for the dancers. When the musicians came from Egypt
we promoted this type of music for the shows here too. So, now
it has become more popular. I think the dancers in Egypt have
changed though. Before, they were great.
they talk a lot on stage. They make a three hour show with
many costume changes." With this Yousef mimics the animated
gestures of a flirtatious dancer appealing to an imaginary
crowd, imitating her with a high pitched salutation in Arabic.
He smiles wryly, warming to the subject. He goes on to describe
in greater detail the dancers in Egypt.
photo was taken during Yousef's first trip to Japan. He
is with a dancer and a band. He explains that when they
got off the airplane, there was a long line of Japanese
reporters and dozens of floral bouquets. As they made their
way into the crowd, they began to wonder what the fuss and
commotion was about." We were looking all over trying
to find out if there was a person from the government or
someone really important that all these Japanese people
were coming to greet. Finally we came to an opening and
we saw the Egyptian flag hanging and we couldn't believe
it, but the reception was for us! It was the first time
any Egyptian group had come to Japan to perform. We started
to laugh! It still seems incredible the whole thing."
are like princesses, in Egypt. People walk behind them to carry
all of their bags. They have people to do their make up, fix the
hair, and also they have agents. They are like stars with all
of the musicians behind them. Their agents find them extra jobs
between the nightclub shows. There can also be several shows just
in one hotel, or their agents find them jobs to do between the
regular shows, so sometimes a dancer and her whole group will
have to move quickly from floor to floor or show to show. A dancer
like Zizi Mustapha can do fifteen to eighteen shows in
one night, especially if its Thursday and she has a lot of weddings
broadly as he recalls more of his musical past in Egypt."
One big tradition we have are annual parties put on by famous
musicians. Every year they invite all the big names in music and
dance. I used to go too. I had no idea of myself as a "drummer".
I just liked to play music. Even when I was a small boy I would
play rhythm on my bare belly. He paused, his mind somewhere
in his childhood, for a moment. So, while playing the drum
in public for many people I started to get a reputation as a good
drummer. All I knew is that I was happy when I was playing. I
didn't want to go to school, just play music! My parents didn't
like this, but after seeing me on TV they cooled down a bit."
Yousef halts, and then adds, levelly, and with conviction, "I
feel I was born a drummer. I've never touched another job."
He looks at his hands. With this comment, an element of calm visibly
entering his body. He gaze meets my eyes and, then returns his
focus to his taped fingers as if contemplating the span of his
career, where he has been, where he is headed.
Yousef as a man who feels his emotions deeply but rarely brings
them to the surface in his expression. There are times when
he surprises me with his keen perceptions. His awareness of
the nuances of music and movement are finely tuned. His intuition
on stage is uncanny -- telepathy in sound and motion. I want
to know more about this quality.
excites you as a drummer on stage?" I ask.
he answers, "Good musicians, good quality dancers" and
finally shrugging, "Good quality overall."
do you consider a "good quality" dancer?
a bit here, letting me know he is uncomfortable with this question.
His sense of diplomacy reigns for he, both on and offstage wants
all dancers to feel like queens. I press him to give me a general
idea. Finally, the the meaning of the question sinks in, and he
responds sincerely. "One with feeling. A good dancer is one
who knows the beat and quality of the music. She can follow anything
I do. When a dancer moves well then I can brings even more to
the music. He smiles again, "A good belly dancer makes
my fingers fly!"
more about the relationship between drummer and dancer.
and dancers know each other . We should understand each other.
For example, a musician and a dancer have the same work schedule
so they can have an understanding of time. They can make a good
couple. It's beautiful. Roh wahada! He pauses for the translation,
In Arabic this means one soul. I know what she what
she is feeling..."
tapers off and even with gentle yet persistent urging he lets
me know he is closed to further questions. As is if on cue we
lean towards each other grinning, "Let's go get tea!"
But as we stretch up out of our cozy corner I remind him that
there are still some questions to consider. He shakes this off
with a polite gesture. "Later, next week maybe" I feel
myself settling in agreement, knowing full well that "later"
used here has a relative quality that may not appeal to my sense
of deadline. I nod, OK. Later. So, its off to
the kitchen for tea. I am left satisfied but still eager to hear
more of Yousef's story when he is ready to share it.
More by Jawahare-NIA:
A JOURNEY IN MIND and BODY FITNESS
I believe that
I am on a fascinating journey and that on of the destinations
is the path, itself.
it my way by
me, dance is not cerebral, but highly emotional.
in Yemen, Part I - Tafruta by Jalilah (Lorraine
A simple question
was all they needed to get them into motion!
knowledgable reviewers needed for venues and products.
contact Lynette: email@example.com