The queen of the darbuka drum explains the adventures – magical and mundane – that helped to create her debut album
You have to sacrifice something to pursue your dreams; nothing comes for free. It’s something that Sabrine el Hossamy – Sabrine to her growing fanbase – knows all too well. The Egyptian-born musician is currently promoting the release of her debut album, Darbuka Heat, in the UAE. But that album wouldn’t have existed if Sabrine hadn’t made a major, life-changing decision.
‘I started playing the darbuka [an Arabic hand-drum] 10 years ago, but I couldn’t make much of a living from music. Instead, I ended up as the senior director of a telecoms company. But then the recession hit and I began to struggle with myself: I wanted passionately to pursue my dreams of music, but I also knew I would be giving up my job when all my friends were losing theirs.’ In the end she decided to make the leap into music, though her boss was far from impressed. ‘He thought I was hallucinating,’ she laughs.
The tension between dreams and reality, magic and mundanity is something that many artists have to contend with, but in Sabrine’s case the difference between the two is particularly pronounced. She may have been a major-league businesswoman until recently, but she feels that her original discovery of the darbuka drums in 1999 was something close to supernatural.
‘I discovered them in Sinai, which is a very interesting place – I believe it has powers and energies. I heard the darbuka many times in Egypt, so why did it seem so special to me on that day, in that place? The moon was high, there was nothing to do but meditate, eat simple food and be humble, and when I heard these Bedouin musicians playing, something magical happened. I just thought: I need to do that. I need to learn those drums.’
And learn she did, taking tutelage from Turkish darbuka master Misirli Ahmet. ‘His technique is incredible,’ she says. ‘He became my guru, but I had to do a lot of the work on my own. I spent three years learning the skills I needed to play the drums, spending five or six hours a day practising.’ But Misirli’s tuition was more than just drum-bashing; he is a master of the finger-tapping technique that turns the drum from a percussive instrument into something more melodic.
It is this skill that takes centre-stage on Sabrine’s album. ‘It takes a lot of practice to get the speed and technical ability that you need to finger-tap successfully, but it opens the door for many more possibilities. In the record you can hear many different uses for the darbuka; many different effects.’
Her debut album, released by EMI Music Arabia, explores the surprising range of the instrument by pairing it with different modern genres – particularly house music, though the CD also includes jazz and ethnic-influenced tunes – and by showcasing its melodic abilities as well as its percussive ones. It’s a marriage of old and new, natural and synthesised, that epitomises Sabrine’s journey. For her, we’re sure, it was one worth taking. Darbuka Heat is available now in stores.