Farouk El Safi – The Man who Inspired Page and Plant

Written by Katy Georgiou
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In 1994, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant teamed up with 10 of the most well reputed Arabian musicians from Morocco and the Middle East to record their unledded No Quarter album and MTV unplugged shows before embarking on their worldwide Unledded tour. Page and Plant’s fascination for Arabic influence is well known; the idea of rock musicians drawing on Arabic musical influences is not just unique to Led Zeppelin, though. The Rolling Stones famously brought in the Jajouka Moroccan musicians for their recording sessions in 1989 – it seems that rock musicians have a particular affinity for this genre.

Despite this, we rarely hear much from the Arabian musicians involved in such projects, even though many of these musicians are huge in their own right in the Middle East. Farouk El Safi – a well renowned tabla drum player in Arabic circles who made a name for himself performing alongside many a famous Arabic singer and bellydancer - is one such an example. So this is the story of how he ended up receiving a platinum disc for appearing as the Daf and Bandir player on Kashmir. And it’s also the story of how Arabic music had a brief but prominent impact on London’s entertainment scene in the 80s which led to Page and Plant being able to develop the project in the first place.

Farouk himself doesn’t speak much English. But he has an apprentice called Ali, who is fast following Farouk’s footsteps in becoming a tabla virtuoso, as his interpreter.

Actually, this idea of having an apprentice is something worth mentioning – Farouk explains that in Egypt, at least up until recently, if you wanted to learn an instrument and become a master at it, you wouldn’t just have lessons, but would actively seek out your favourite artist and approach them to teach you their craft. The skill would be directly handed down until you became master at it and passed it on. This is exactly how Farouk began his tabla drum adventure.

Farouk was born in the well-known area of Shobra in Cairo in the 1950s. It was at the age of four that he was first introduced to the tabla drum when on a family picnic outside the city. He was instantly enthralled by it. When he started secondary school at the age of 12, he knew it was something he wanted to start taking seriously. Two of his friends who were also neighbours went to the Royal Academy of Music in Cairo: one was studying Classical music and the other Middle Eastern music. One was a keyboard player, and one a violinist. “I wanted to play with them but I didn’t have a tabla so I got a saucepan and started playing on that. There was another neighbour who had the flute and we all joined and played together…”. The father of one of the boys was a musician a the Royal Academy and Farouk began learning from him.

When the boys were 16 they created a proper group…instead of a piano, they rented an accordion, and their first gig was his friend’s sister’s engagement party.

They started telling people they were a wedding band group and began asking if anybody needed them to play. Without any of their parents knowing or finding out, they were soon playing loads of weddings.

It wasn’t long really before Farouk’s talent became spotted. In those days, particularly in the Egyptian community, everyone knew each other and musicians talked. His reputation got around, and big singers started to hear about him.

He left the small group and founded a bigger one. Together they travelled to Alexandria, then Aswan, both outside of Cairo.

“It was 18 hours on the train between Cairo and Aswan,” Farouk explains. “To while away the time we started playing on the carriages, and when people from different carriages over heard, they came over to listen.”

Within two or three years, Farouk was working with famous Arabic singers.

Did you approach them yourself?

“It was all through word of mouth. In those days, it was in the best interests of a well renowned Egyptian singer to seek out the best musicians to play with them to perpetuate their reputation. You would get a job by people telling each other about who is who.”

He was introduced to a drummer who played for the very famous female Egyptian singer, Oum Kolthoum. His name was Sabr El Falha. He was a key musican to Oum Kolthoum's orchestra and Farouk El Safi was asked to play the Riq within the orchestra for a year, until Mr Al Falha left and Farouk took his place leading Oum Kalthoum's orchestra for another four years.

When Oum Kalthoum’s orchestra disbanded, Farouk El Safi remained friends with the accordionist, Farouk Salama and they created their own band, playing for an array of famous singers, including Abdul Halim Hafiz. Farouk El Safi traveled to Lebanon and played for the top singers of that time.
In 1974, Farouk travelled to Tunisia, with a very famous singer who died. They performed a huge concert for the President of Tunisia of the time. From there, they went to Morocco and played regularly at one of the countries biggest venues. “I absolutely loved Morocco.”

And it was his experiences here, from a fortuitous circumstance that occured in a Moroccan nightclub in 1979, that changed Farouk’s life.

Farouk was playing a gig there. Unknown to him, however, there was a well known club owner from an Arabic nightclub in London, called Sahara City, who had flown over to Morocco to sign a contract with two famous Moroccan singers who he wanted to sing in his club. It was pure chance that he came into the club where Farouk was – he had already been to several of the Moroccan nightclubs over the course of his stay in Morocco, and was intending to leave back for London. He only went to the concert to have fun and but when he saw Farouk’s playing style it immediately grabbed his attention.

So what happened, how did he approach you?

“He was sitting in the club with a well known singer at the time. They were watching me and my band on stage and when I finished playing, a waiter came up to me to explain that there were some people who wanted to speak to me. I went up to them when I was done playing and was introduced…one of them said he’s a singer who sings in this club in London.”

The Sahara City club owner asked Farouk if he would be interested in coming to London and playing at his club. “Well I said yes, of course”, Farouk explains. Back then, being asked to play in London was a big deal for Middle Eastern musicians. Farouk went to the hotel where the club owner was staying, signed the contracts and was sent the work permits enabling Farouk to make the move over to London.

In UK at the time in the late 70s and 80s there were a great many Arabic nightclubs opening up, catering for rich oil workers who would come over from Middle East to stay in London and go out. After the recession in the late 80s, many of these people left and the nightclubs shut down, leaving none to this present day. But in their day they were huge institutions and would be open well into the early hours of the morning until dawn. There was therefore a big exchange between Arabic and UK entertainment, music and dance scenes occurring during this time. Many influences were taking place.

“In the 1980s, Middle Eastern people couldn’t go to nightclubs in their own countries because there wasn’t really any such thing,” Farouk explains. “Also, singers, bands and musicians around the world in general wouldn’t go to visit an Arabian country to perform back in the 80s because it used to be so strict on issues of music, women and drinking…”

How did the clubs develop in London initially?

Before the 80s, Lebanon was a centre for tourism in the Middle East, and Beirut had a high number of cabaret nightclubs. This was the most popular destination for Middle Eastern people to go to for entertainment. Egypt was probably the second most popular destination for nightlife in the Middle East.  When civil war broke out in Lebanon though, tourism suffered and many of the nightclubs shut down. Around the same time, Arabic people stopped going to Egypt when Israel and Egypt signed a peace document. “Around this time,” Ali explains, “oil wealth became a relatively new prospect, and many people in the Middle East became very rich. They could no longer go to Lebanon because of the war and Egypt was now out of the question. Since they now had nowhere to go out in Arabia, neither in Kuwait, Bahrain or Libya or wherever, they started coming to London. They had a lot of money, and therefore London was becoming a great centre for Arabic musicians and performers to come to. So much so, that a total of 17 Arabic nightclubs opened up in London in the 1980s.”

Essentially, London was where all the big bucks were, and Middle Eastern performers knew this. Musicians out in Egypt, Lebanon etc, knew if they wanted to make it big, they’d have to move to London. As London was the place they could have fun in, it became like a dream city – it was where everyone wanted to go. London during the early 80s had become. a hotspot for the wealthy, the owner of Sahara City knew he had to pick the best of the bunch of musicians to play at his club on New Year’s Eve when he knew many people from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would be coming to London. This is what led to him approaching Farouk on that fortuitous day in Morocco.

It was the week of Christmas 1979 when Farouk came over. He was  one of the first set of Middle Eastern musicians to do this along with a few other famous Arabic people who were booked to come over and play, but it wasn’t long after this that it gradually became more popular for Arabic artists to move over to London.

Farouk explains what his lifestyle became like once he’d made the move. “What would happen is, we would do our gigs in the nightclub, and from there, we would continue into the night at one of the princes’ mansions in London,” he says. “Sometimes, from about 8pm until midnight, we would play for the prince or his royal highness, and then after that we would play in the clubs until about 6am. Sometimes we’d even finish working at 6am and then go back and play in the prince’s house.”

Arabic music and entertainment started to infiltrate into public consciousness in the UK, and it was around this time that it caught the attentions of television. Prior to 1982, Arabic music had never really been featured on British television.

In 1982 in London, Farouk El Safi was approached by the BBC to record his music alongside with violinst Abdul Ali, who passed away last year, and Naht Sabr.

How did that situation come about?

“The presenter of the show had at some point been invited along to the biggest of all the 17 Arabic nightlubs in London at the time,” Farouk explains. “It looked like an opera house – two floors and always packed with wealthy people,” he continues. “There is actually a video that was made about the project, where he explains how he and his wife put their children to bed and went out to this club to experience what it is like to spend 6 or 7 hours in an Arabic atmosphere. The brother of the guy who owns this club was the ex president of Syria, so he was a figure of celebrity and everyone wanted to go there and see what it was like, so it was a big deal. While there, the presenter got to see two important performances: one from one of the more well-known bellydancers and the violinist Abdul. Upon seeing them perform, he was inspired to make two programmes - one about the bellydancer and the other about the violinist, but when he invited them to be on television, she was already in the States, so it limited him to one. Nevertheless, he invited Abdul for an interview which appeared on BBC2, and I was invited to record alongside him.”

Not long after this, Farouk explains that he was asked to play at the Royal Albert Hall and Elizabeth Queen Theatre.

By this point, Farouk’s name was very well established among Arabic musicians both in London and the Middle East, and in the years that followed he was only playing with top performers.

Coinciding with this rise in public awareness of Arabic music in, Page and Plant had been in contact with a famous Egyptian music composer Hossam Ramzy. Hossam Ramzy himself had crossed over the boundary of rock and Arabic music several times. He hung around in English circles, and told many of his peers about Arabic music.

How did Led Zeppelin become aware of Hossam Ramzy?

“Because although Hossam Ramzy was an Egyptian musician, he was actually a rock drummer himself, playing with the sticks, and in the 1970s lived in the UK playing for various Jazz musicians. Hossam Ramzy had good English and he mixed with English people a lot. He was always telling them about Arabic music, and he got to know Led Zeppelin through the circles he was in. They wanted to combine Arabic and rock ‘n’ roll music and wanted a tabla player to perform with them. Hossam’s English was better than anyone elses, it was he who was first contacted by Led Zeppelin to play. Hossam then got in touch with Farouk El Safi who he knew. Hossam arranged the strings and percussion for both the tour and the MTV Unplugged recordings.

“What they did was bring in 10 of the best Arabic musicians they could find” Farouk continues.

Were these the 10 best musicians through word of mouth?

“Yes. When they went to record in the MtV studios there were actually 100s of musicians there, but only 10 Arabian musicians. We all played, and when we finished, the 100 people clapped us. After they played, everyone clapped. Everything felt new being in the studio.

Was that your first experience of rock music?

Yes it was. I love it. I loved the idea of combining the two types of music together. I love any good musician. Good music makes me happy. Arabic and European music go together, that’s why they did it because they knew it would sound good.

Do you think Jon Bonham would have had a brilliant understanding of Arabic drum rhythms?

“Although I never knew him, I do know they had the best drummer in the world. I know they went to Morocco and found Arabic music interesting and they loved the rhythms, so I imagine that he would have probably understood it very well. To a musician, all music is the same; they will pick it up straight away, because they are professional.

Did you get to speak much with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant themselves?

“The first day I walked in the studio, I noticed that Robert Plant was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Oum Kalthoum on the front. She was one of the most famous female Egyptian singers ever. When we said hello, I asked him about whether he knew who that singer on his t-shirt was. His reply was, “Yes, it’s Oum kalthoum.” Then he said to me, “Do you know who I think is the best singer I’ve ever heard?” I said, “Who?” and he replied, “Abdel Halim Harfez. I think he’s got the best voice I’ve ever heard.” I couldn’t believe Robert Plant said that! That is my favourite singer too! This year, that singer won an award for best vocal voice. You wouldn’t think that someone like Plant would say something like that when he himself is so famous for his own voice. I went back to my country and told everyone about how said Robert Plant said Abdel Halim Harfez has the best voice in the world.

Did it change your career?

“It changed my life. Even after all these years, I still believe Jimmy page is the best guitarist out there. When we first met and started to practise, I remember Jimmy Page just started powerfully strumming really loudly all of a sudden. I love him, I love him very much, and Robert Plant, I love very much. I’ve got a lot of respect for both of them.

Were they easy to play along with?

“Yes. They were clapping along to us, they were very easy going. they could all play in and out no problem, they knew exactly what they were doing.

And after that moment did rock music in the Arabic world change?

“Yes it did. Everybody started taking the idea of playing, so they started doing the same thing, they started getting an English singer and Arabic singer to do things together, so it kinda started from then, yes. One of the most effective examples a very famous Lebanese singer took 10 people from her symphony, and took from here more than 100 classical musicians to play her music at the Royal Albert Hall, so it had a big effect on it, yes.

How well known are Led Zeppelin in the Middle East, especially since this project?

“They are big, but still not known to everyone. Michael Jackson is better known out there.

What did it feel like to receive a Platinum disc?

I was ecstatic. When I went to the royal music academy, I showed the head of the Academy the Platinum disc…he told people to come and have a look and they were all really fascinated. It’s something I’m really proud about to this day.

Did you get more involved with rock music after your experiences with Led Zeppelin?

“Yes…I fell in love with rock n roll music, and wanted to learn more about it, so following this I started studying Western music for four years.

Despite this, Farouk says he has not formed any of his own rock bands but claims it’s actually something he really wants to do.

“I never had a chance before because I was always so busy, but I’m looking to do it now, I want to make some changes in what I do and that is one thing I really want to do. You never know, someone might read this and want me to play with them in an English band.”

Were there any other bands at that time who approached you?

No because I didn’t have contacts with anybody. In a movie, I played some Arabic rhythms but that’s about it.

Are you still in touch with Page or Plant now?

“No, I only did it once then stopped so we’ve not been in touch.

Farouk El Safi still lives in London with his family. In following the tradition of learning from the top, Farouk now teaches Arabian tabla drum rhythms in a studio in Kentish town every Saturday, as part of a new school project called RaqsWeMazika (Arabic for ‘Drums and Music’). So, you can keep in touch with a piece of this history if you want to.

© Words - Katy Georgiou/ ZANI Media

Read 8203 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 15:44
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