Adel Shams El-Din

Alexandria / Paris — percussion

Adel Shams El-Din


Adel Shams el-Din: Rhythm is at the centre of life. We thus speak of biological rhythms such as the heartbeat, the rhythm of nature (the cycle of seasons) or, in artistic domains other than music, the rhythm of a poem or a painting. But musical rhythm is of a different nature. It calls for several components: duration (tempo, measure), intensity (variations of the sound volume), tone colour, and pitch (the tuning of the percussive membrane). The combination of all these elements makes for the charm and richness of the percussion.

Adel Shams el-Din has become a master of this art. On these recordings, you will appreciate the large range of sounds he brings about, notably with the riqq: he seems to manage to make resonate, in turn, each of the ten pairs of metal cymbals set around the instrument His great sense of tempo does not mean that he plays like a metronome. He excels in producing subtle discrepancies that surprise and enchant audiences. Repetitions and variations follow one another, along with a refined usage of syncopation where the rhythmic pattern seems suddenly to come to a stop or move out of sync, for a brief instant and to our greatest pleasure.

He is just as deft when it comes to transformations that imperceptibly lead from one rhythmic cycle to another. Contrary to other, less accomplished, percussionists, he can always give flesh to the simple skeleton of a rhythmic formula, thus endowing each piece with an interior life.

Adel Shams el-Din learnt his art in the traditional way, starting at home in a family of music lovers in Alexandria-where, for that matter, nobody ever considered playing music professionally. He himself was studying engineering at university when he met Fathi Guened, a musicologist and composer of much talent who taught him the art of the darabukka. He pursued his university courses while he assiduously learnt the often-asymmetric rhythmic cycles of Machreq traditional music. His scientific background helped him analyse the formulas, but it was by attentively observing Samir Benyamin, percussionist in an operetta orchestra, that he started to learn the riqq. This small frame drum with jingle disks is also found in the takht, the ensembles of five or six musicians in Egyptian art music. Later on, Adel Shams el-Din played in Alexandria’s Radio Orchestra and in diverse traditional music groups.

He thus gradually became a Professional musician, and then he went to England, before he settled in Paris. There, he was soon hired at El Djazair, a famous oriental cabaret in the rue de la Huchette, where he discovered the rhythms of other Arab countries, of the Maghreb and the Machreq. Since then he has multiplied his musical experiences. He has played for a long time in the al-Kindi ensemble, accompanying the greatest soloists of the Arab Orient, such as the famous Lebanese singer Wadii al-Safi, and in other ensembles, among them Suspiro del Moro, whose leader is the aoud player Marc Loopuyt He has also accompanied many Middle-Eastern artists. He is not averse to “fusion” music or to European medieval music, associating in a duet with Magali Imbert on the recorder.

Though his teaching, his concerts and the recording of many albums, he has introduced European audiences to the rhythmic richness and subtlety of oriental percussion instruments little known until his arrival in France in 1980. All these experiences have helped him create a personal style, based on tradition but largely open to new influences and his own inspiration. He has made a long-standing dream come true with this solo album-solo but on several pieces he has recorded different parts, using his three favourite instruments: the riqq, the darabukka and the bandair. Nevertheless, this new freedom does bring about any laxity, for Imagination and creativity do not exclude exactitude.

These recordings present a geographical trip throughout the Arab world, from the Orient to the Maghreb, as well as a journey in time throughout the diverse traditional rhythms, whether in folk or art music. Some might be surprised to see notations of these rhythms, generally transmitted orally. Yet it was an Arab musician and theoretician, Safi al-Din al-Urmawi, who invented the notation of rhythmic cycles in the 13th Century, in Baghdad. Transcriptions can be found in the Kitab al-Adwar, the “Book of Cycles”. The instruments The riqq is a frame drum whose single membrane is made of fish skin. Its frame is equipped with ten pairs of small jingle disks (cymbals). The darabukka is a goblet drum whose clay body is also tensed with fish skin. The bandair (daf) is a frame drum whose single membrane is made of goat-skin. It is larger than the riqq. Contrary to its Maghreb cousin, it has no snare under the membrane. The sagat are two pairs of small metal cymbals held on the fingers with rubber bands.