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Virtuoso drummer

Jamal Mohamed has popularised the Doumbek, a traditional West Asian percussion instrument. He has designed a Doumbek

Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Music in his hands Percussion maestro Jamal Mohamed with his signature Doumbek

Jamal Mohamed settles down on a sofa, places the Doumbek sideways on his legs, smiles and begins drumming. The sound, its resonance hits you. This interesting Lebanese hand drummer flicks his fingers over the Doumbek's skin until it sounds like there are several drummers playing with him. Watching Jamal on the Doumbek, a drum used throughout West Asia, one feels hitting the drum is one of the easiest things to do. “It's not like a violin or a saxophone where you have to study just to begin to make it sound good,” says Jamal. Jamal's virtuosity in rhythmic complexity, his dexterous use of hands and amazing creativity are all the result of years of perseverance.

Traditional instrument

A first generation immigrant to the United States, Jamal's father migrated from Beirut when he was just two years old. Growing up in Chicago, listening to blues and jazz, Jamal carried the sounds of his native land in the recesses of his memory.

“I remember bugging my father to buy me a drum set, to play contemporary North American music. My father bought me a single bongo drum. I was disappointed then for I was a Beatles fan,” says Jamal who is on his first visit to India.

Right through his high school Jamal was fully into contemporary Western music. “But I used to listen to all kinds of music. At home, Arabic music was there and I was slowly being drawn to my roots.”

The turning point came when Jamal went back to Beirut for a year in 1965. “My father insisted that I spend time with my family there. And in the 60s Beirut was a lovely place to be in. It was the centre of arts and music. A group of friends and I formed a group ‘The Gamblers.' This was when I came to realise the possibilities of the doumbek and Arabic music.” There was no looking back after that.

Back in Chicago Jamal, along with his brother Buddy Mohamed, Ken Gromes and Mark Menikos formed the ‘Beledi Ensemble'.

“Beledi means ‘My Country'. It is a combination of Arabic heritage, jazz, blues, avant-garde and other Western styles.” Jamal has also been a featured artiste in many international music events. He has played with big names like Sting, Mark O'Connor and Giovanni Hidalgo. And he has composed for television documentaries like ‘Ramses the Great', National Geographic's ‘Lions of Darkness' and the film biography of the musician Robert Johnson, titled ‘Can't You Hear the Wind?'

“I joined Sting at the concert at Jones Beach, New York, in 2000, along with Simon Shaheen and Al'Quantara. That was one hell of a performance. But the best thing to have happened after the show was that Stewart Copeland, who along with Sting formed ‘The Police', joined our percussion group D'Drum as composer.”

Full plate

Jamal, currently, teaches percussion and is the director of the World Music Ensemble at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University.

He works extensively with dance, theatre, film, music therapy, and has an exciting new music group ‘Brahmah'. Jamal has carved a niche for himself as a hand drummer. His style welds jazz, Latin styles with the sounds of this ancient instrument. And Jamal also designs and makes a number of the instruments he plays such as the Egyptian Ney Flute or an Egyptian Darabuka. In fact, in 2010, Toca, a leading brand in the percussion market, brought out ‘Jamal Doumbek,' Jamal's signature drum.

“This took a few years. The manufacturing unit is in Bali, Indonesia. This involved a lot of mails, travel, to finally design and create the doumbek I had in mind.”

The Doumbek has been the butt of many jokes. Sample this.What's the difference between a Doumbek player and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four. But Jamal has transformed this traditional West African drum into an integral piece of contemporary music.

The Doumbek

The Doumbek is one of the many types of goblet shaped drums that originated in Egypt. It is a small, portable hand drum traditionally made of clay and the head with goat or fish skin. Many West Asian countries have their own versions of the Doumbek with different names. Modern Doumbeks are commonly made of aluminium, fibreglass and other materials with a synthetic head.


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