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An Interview with Karim Nagi
September 12, 2005

Atlanta Oasis recently had the opportunity to interview Karim Nagi, mastermind behind the Turbo Tabla compilations. Karim performs Middle-Eastern percussion on the Egyptian tabla, as well as riqq (Arabic tambourine) and sagat (castanets). He also dances and leads the Zaitoun Dabka Troupe.

Karim studied Arabic music in Egypt as well as with master musician, Simon Shaheen, here in the USA. He now teaches both percussion and dance and performs regularly, both privately and at the New England Conservatory. He will be performing, teaching, and lecturing in Atlanta on September 25-26.

AO: Karim, please tell us a little more about your background. What is your heritage? How old were you when you first studied middle-eastern dance and percussion?

Karim: I am a native Egyptian who came to America with my parents as a young boy in the late 70s. In high school I learned western music. I then started learning Arabic music in Egypt when I was 19 years old.

AO: Who are some of the artists that provide you inspiration in dance and percussion? What do you like in their styles?

Karim: All my musical heroes are singers, not drummers. I love old-style Arabic music, and I still listen to them religiously. Egyptian singers like Sayyed Darwish, Zakarayyah Ahmad and Oum Kalthoum are my heroes. For dance, I really love Palestinian dabka (line-dancing), as well as Egyptian dervish dancing. My favorite dance performance is the "Al-Tannoura" troupe in Cairo who perform religious music and dance in the Egyptian dervish style.

AO: Many people are familiar with the Turkish whirling dervishes. How does the Egyptian dervish compare?

Karim: Egyptian dervish ceremonies have more aggressive music and more visual stimulation. I often feel like the Turkish dervishes are not meant to be watched. I always feel voyeuristic when observing them. If you are not going to play an instrument, chant or spin, you should just leave them alone to pray and whirl in private.

But the Egyptian "Al-Tannoura" dervishes are meant to be watched. All the musicians are standing and moving, and there is more choreography and variety of movement. The whirlers wear colorful skirts, and at the climax release them from their waists to spin the skirts over their heads. It's very enthusiastic and acrobatic, as well as spiritual.

AO: What experiences led you to develop an Arabic-techno style of play?

Karim: I used to own a trendy clothing store. We always played tecno music on the stereo because our clients liked it, and it hyped up the store's atmosphere. When there were no customers, I often practiced tabla using the techno as a metronome. Over time I actually played rhythms and arrangements that went with the techno club music, as well. Once a popular Boston DJ heard me playing in the dressing room and asked me to play with him at his nightclub with nearly 2,000 people there. That was the beginning of Turbo Tabla. I had already been playing classical Arabic for years, but this was my first creation in Arabic techno.

AO: Your first experience in a nightclub in front of 2,000 people must have been exhilarating. What was going through your head when you went out to play?

Karim: Thankfully, I had already experienced large audiences while playing traditional music at festivals, and those types of stage performances are better than nightclubs because everyone is facing in the same direction. But it was a thrill nonetheless.

AO: As both a drummer and dancer, you must have special insight into how the two arts complement one another. What advice can you give to drummers playing for dancers and to dancers who perform with drummers?

Karim: I've only performed dance for three years, compared to 19 years of music, but being a drummer has given me a 3-5 year headstart. I know rhythm intimately, plus my feeling for the music allows me to interpret the corresponding movement more easily. Also, whenever I have a dancer who takes drum lessons from me, they excel very quickly. There is a symbiosis between the two. I highly recommend that people try to learn both dance and music simultaneously.

AO: For the drummers out there, do you have any of your own tricks or unusual techniques on the tabla that you are willing to share and describe?

Karim: I personally know many Tabla players who are more talented than myself. It is a popular instrument in the Arab world and Turkey, and many people have become quite astounding at it. But I am among the few who've endeavored to dance and play at the same time. So this will probably be what sets me apart. My actual drumming technique is essentially traditional. However, on the riqq I have developed new methods. I recently completed an instructional DVD for the riqq.

AO: Do you make any special modifications to new drums in order to get the sounds you want out of them?

Karim: For the tabla, I make sure to tune it to "C". For the riqq, I put a small piece of rubber right behind when my finger hits "DUM," which makes the synthetic heads sound less metallic.

AO: How would you compare modern drumming with classical drumming?

Karim: The musical context dictates how one plays. When I perform classical Arabic music, I try to play with finesse and elasticity. The most important thing is to follow the lead instruments and play in a complementary way. When it is time to play for dance or modern music, the rhythm needs to be stronger and more rigid. Here the goal is to propel the music forward.

AO: There seems to be a world trend toward combining Arabic and Latin music. Do you view this combination favorably, and how do you see it developing?

Karim: Sometimes the mix is nice, but actually the "Baila Habibi" movement has already peaked and may have started to decline. I think there will be more ethnic mixes to come.

AO: Tell us more of the history of Turbo Tabla. How was the music conceived? Will there be more albums?

Karim: My first Turbo Tabla songs were remakes of classical Arab and Turkish songs that I made with musicians from my traditional groups. I would often feature a strong soloist on the oud, nay, a singer, or myself on tabla. In the current CD, "Bellydance Overdrive," 60% are traditional songs and the rest are my own compositions. My intention was to have a music that could be danced to, but could also be performed on a stage and watched by an audience. So far so good!

There are many more Turbo Tabla albums to come, insha'Allah. I am really happy with my first creations. I enjoy this mix of authentic Arab songs and instruments with techno and hip hop. I have managed to get an authentic sound that is still aggressive enough for club dancing. Future albums will blend more cultures in addition to Arab. Also, I have begun, and will continue to develop, a larger troupe and theatrical live presentation with more performances. You can expect a "Turbo Tabla Theater" in the coming years.

AO: I certainly get a thrill out of your club mix of the classic Arab song, Longa Farahfaza. You mention that you will blend more cultures, in addition to Arabic, into future CDs. Can you give us a hint about what cultures you are exploring?

Karim: It's a surprise!

AO: Karim, thank you for your time. We look forward to seeing you in Atlanta.

Karim's instructional DVD for riqq is available from, and the Turbo Tabla CDs are available from Amazon.


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