The pyramids, hazem shaheen, and el sid hussienu
Trip Start Jan 01, 2009
31Trip End Feb 21, 2009
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as a medical student at the university of tennessee health science center in memphis, tennessee (when i lived within walking distance of the pyramid on mud island with the egyptian statue in front of it), i had a microbiology labratory for which shehab ismail was working as a teaching assistant. this was part of his graduate school gig in molecular biology. we also crossed paths at the VA and St. Jude when i was rotating through richard gilbertson's lab. i think i was drumming my fingers on the table in that lab, with a beat in my head from a hossam ramzi cd i had recently found. however it happened, shehab and i entered a conversation in which i told him i was very interested in middle eastern music and had been for years. he told me he played tabla (aka dumbek aka darbuka aka dirbekki), and i told him i played open-tuned steel-string acoustic and electric sitar, on which i could play maqams like hijaz and nahawand. he said we should jam some time. we exchanged phone #s. we jammed. we recorded together on the first stereognosis album ("moving mountains" and "clouds over alhambra"). my training took me to portland oregon for residency and his training took him to toronto and then germany for his post-doc. we maintained contact over email and phone conversations. shehab often asked me, "when are we going to egypt, man?" in my last year of residency, i started taking egyptian colloquial arabic lessons. i told shehab i needed to go to cairo to record for the new album. he said he could get off work last week, and so we both bought tickets. during this trip, i got to meet shehab's parents, his brother, his paternal grandmother, his wife, his wife's siblings, parents, extended family, and his 2 best friends. he fed and housed me like i was a member of the family. he navigated and translated and networked like a pro. not to mention taking me to the egyptian museum and the pyramids, where he treated me to a camel ride (see the pictures below).
the main reason i wanted to visit cairo now (rather than after my upcoming oncology fellowship etc.) is hazem shaheen. i could say that i met hazem sheheen through miles jay, but readers of this blog may not know who miles jay is or how i met him. this actually goes back to my trip to the mendocino middle eastern music and dance camp in 2006. it was there that i ran into the syrian percussionist faisal zedan, who i would later record for this album. i told faisal i was looking for an upright bassist who was adept at middle eastern music theory yet open to nontraditional rhythm structures (e.g. hiphop and drumnbass beats). he told me i needed to talk to miles jay. suffice it to say that miles jay is a jedi that really needs his own blog entry. i think he spent over 2 years training in cairo, gigging, and recording. one of the musicians that he recorded with was an oud player named hazem sheheen. when i asked miles who was the best oud player in cairo, and the most suitable for this project, he adamantly nominated hazem. (for readers of this blog unfamiliar with the oud, it is basically an ancient fretless middle eastern precursor to the fretted european lute, which gave rise to the modern-day guitar. the oud has eleven strings that are anchored to the head stock with wood-on-wood tuning pegs instead of the geared tuners on a conventional guitar. this difference alone deters many would-be learners. however, intonation seems to be the biggest hurdle for players of fretted stringed instruments such as the guitar--i.e. frets neatly divide the neck such that one inch equals one note, the next inch equals the next note, etc. on an oud, the inch that yields any given note on a fretted instruments now exists only within one millimeter. furthermore, the "scales" of middle eastern music theory include tones halfway in between 2 keys on a piano (i.e. "quarter-tones"). thus the ear for intonation required to create even a very basic melody on the oud must be EXTREMELY discriminating. so...one can imagine how long it takes to create expert solos on the instrument. hazem shaheen has clearly invested that time.) when i first called hazem from the states (with my arabic teacher serving as translator), he expressed much suspicion toward me and little enthusiasm toward collaboration on this project. i later learned that hazem had undergone a negative experience with an american hiphop producer named "frederique(sp?)" that had seriously damaged hazem's trust of western artists seeking to collaborate on studio recordings. i asked miles to talk to hazem directly, and hazem subsequently agreed to meet me in person to discuss things further once i reached cairo. this was when shehab's help became absolutely essential. shehab not only knew how to explain to hazem what i said, but what i MEANT, and vice versa, which obviously required a much more sophisticated knowledge of cultural context. so hazem agreed to record oud solos for two tracks at a studio we booked with the help of shehab's friend (www.soundesign-egypt.com). as a side note, this may have been the most professional recording studio i have ever seen. the gear, the sonic insulation, the engineer, in all respects, A+++. anyway, hazem knocked it out of the park as expected. one day later i recorded mizmar player el sid hussienu at ammar sound with my arabic teacher's nephew ehab nabil engineering. although we initially had some communication difficulties, this session ultimately ended up going extremely well. this was also recorded on the highest quality gear (neuman mics protools etc.). for readers unfamiliar with the mizmar, it is a double-reeded wind instrument that curves out into a cone shape toward its open end where the sound exits. the body is made of wood with circular holes that are spaced such that maqams can be played on it. it is typical of egyptian folkloric music, sometimes with bellydancing. the turks call it a zurna. many westerners think it sounds/looks like a snake charmer's flute.
now i am back in spain and entering some exponent of mixing mode. (i think i may want to move to spain someday btw. this place ROCKS.) the opening track of this CD will consist of blake lewis beatboxing, misirli ahmet playing darbuka, moslem rahhal playing nay, hazem shaheen playing oud, and miles jay playing upright bass. it already sounds mindblowing. ideal for music video. speaking of which...we may now have an inside connection to the egyptian equivalent of mtv, which shoots and edits all its own videos. now how cool would that be? regardless, will be printing up albums in english, turkish, arabic, and possibly spanish. die-hard stereognosis fans should feel welcome to pre-order copies of each--see the travel blog "donation" link for details.
stay tuned for the session with miles jay in LA.