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Yousef Mustafa,
Master of Percussion

By Jawahare

Yousef Mustapha has a unique sound and cadence to his drumming. Perhaps this is why he is considered one of the best percussionists in his genre of music. In the early stages of his career he played music for many of the great singers and dancers of Egypt and for the last 20 years we have been lucky to have his talent here in this country.

I had been circling the topic of this interview with Yousef for about a month. I wanted to ask him a few friendly questions here in the familiar muted lighting of Pasha Restaurant. Finally, one night he agreed and we found a quiet corner to sit down, gathering velvet pillows around us as a signal to others to leave us undisturbed in our tete-a-tete. Yousef is a humble man. Not one to dwell overly on his talents or bathe in the reflected light of his achievements, his attention is rooted at the present; it took me a moment to lure him back to his past to focus his attention on sharing his own personal story.

Yousef came to the United States in a manner common to many musicians from overseas: "In 1979 I was in Japan for a 6 week contract with a dancer named Hallah Safi.” He said, musing,as he tapping his fingers on the low banquette “ After that I came here to do a show with a different dancer, Hanan I think it was." He looked up with a brief smile, “ I guess I got stuck here."

Why did you stay?

"When I first came to this country, it all seemed very different to me then. It wasn't from my world. It had a special new feeling, and I wanted to see what it would be like to live here. Also, the owner of the Bagdad Nightclub offered me a job and I liked the musicians there. I ended up staying here a year. Soon people in other cities like Chicago and Los Angeles started calling for me because they had heard about me. I decided to go to L.A. where I worked at Byblos for about 10 years also playing at clubs like Ali Baba, Hagi Baba and Aladine. Then one day Jalal from Pasha called and asked me to come here, so now I have been back in San Francisco for several years."

What differences do you see between nightclubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles?”, I asked him.

"I feel a big difference, like a different color. In L.A. the music is more like in Egypt. There are usually more musicians, but in general there is such a difference between the shows in this country and the way it is in Egypt! In Egypt I was used to having 35 musicians with me. Here there are only four or five on stage. It was strange to come here and have three belly dancers a night dancing sometimes to just an oud and drum. Another thing that I noticed at that time is that the dancers were dancing to songs. The dancers in Egypt have special dance music, especially for the entrance. This music is made for the dancers. When the musicians came from Egypt we promoted this type of music for the shows here too. So, now it has become more popular. I think the dancers in Egypt have changed though. Before, they were great.

Now they talk a lot on stage. They make a three hour show with many costume changes." With this Yousef mimics the animated gestures of a flirtatious dancer appealing to an imaginary crowd, imitating her with a high pitched salutation in Arabic. He smiles wryly, warming to the subject. He goes on to describe in greater detail the dancers in Egypt.

The photo was taken during Yousef's first trip to Japan. He is with a dancer and a band. He explains that when they got off the airplane, there was a long line of Japanese reporters and dozens of floral bouquets. As they made their way into the crowd, they began to wonder what the fuss and commotion was about." We were looking all over trying to find out if there was a person from the government or someone really important that all these Japanese people were coming to greet. Finally we came to an opening and we saw the Egyptian flag hanging and we couldn't believe it, but the reception was for us! It was the first time any Egyptian group had come to Japan to perform. We started to laugh! It still seems incredible the whole thing."

"They are like princesses, in Egypt. People walk behind them to carry all of their bags. They have people to do their make up, fix the hair, and also they have agents. They are like stars with all of the musicians behind them. Their agents find them extra jobs between the nightclub shows. There can also be several shows just in one hotel, or their agents find them jobs to do between the regular shows, so sometimes a dancer and her whole group will have to move quickly from floor to floor or show to show. A dancer like Zizi Mustapha can do fifteen to eighteen shows in one night, especially if its Thursday and she has a lot of weddings to do."

Yousef smiles broadly as he recalls more of his musical past in Egypt." One big tradition we have are annual parties put on by famous musicians. Every year they invite all the big names in music and dance. I used to go too. I had no idea of myself as a "drummer". I just liked to play music. Even when I was a small boy I would play rhythm on my bare belly.” He paused, his mind somewhere in his childhood, for a moment. “So, while playing the drum in public for many people I started to get a reputation as a good drummer. All I knew is that I was happy when I was playing. I didn't want to go to school, just play music! My parents didn't like this, but after seeing me on TV they cooled down a bit." Yousef halts, and then adds, levelly, and with conviction, "I feel I was born a drummer. I've never touched another job." He looks at his hands. With this comment, an element of calm visibly entering his body. He gaze meets my eyes and, then returns his focus to his taped fingers as if contemplating the span of his career, where he has been, where he is headed.

I see Yousef as a man who feels his emotions deeply but rarely brings them to the surface in his expression. There are times when he surprises me with his keen perceptions. His awareness of the nuances of music and movement are finely tuned. His intuition on stage is uncanny -- telepathy in sound and motion. I want to know more about this quality.

"What excites you as a drummer on stage?" I ask.

Almost cryptically, he answers, "Good musicians, good quality dancers" and finally shrugging, "Good quality overall."

So, what do you consider a "good quality" dancer?

Yousef squirms a bit here, letting me know he is uncomfortable with this question. His sense of diplomacy reigns for he, both on and offstage wants all dancers to feel like queens. I press him to give me a general idea. Finally, the the meaning of the question sinks in, and he responds sincerely. "One with feeling. A good dancer is one who knows the beat and quality of the music. She can follow anything I do. When a dancer moves well then I can brings even more to the music.“ He smiles again, "A good belly dancer makes my fingers fly!"

Tell me more about the relationship between drummer and dancer.

"Musicians and dancers know each other . We should understand each other. For example, a musician and a dancer have the same work schedule so they can have an understanding of time. They can make a good couple. It's beautiful. Roh wahada!” He pauses for the translation, “In Arabic this means one soul. ‘I know what she what she is feeling...’"

Yousef's voice tapers off and even with gentle yet persistent urging he lets me know he is closed to further questions. As is if on cue we lean towards each other grinning, "Let's go get tea!" But as we stretch up out of our cozy corner I remind him that there are still some questions to consider. He shakes this off with a polite gesture. "Later, next week maybe" I feel myself settling in agreement, knowing full well that "later" used here has a relative quality that may not appeal to my sense of deadline. I nod, “OK. Later”. So, it’s off to the kitchen for tea. I am left satisfied but still eager to hear more of Yousef's story when he is ready to share it.

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