Internationally famous Egyptian drummer Khamis Henkesh has passed away…May he rests in peace. He was an incredible drummer, who came from an entire family of musicians from Cairo. In his lifetime, he played for some of the most famous belly dancers from Egypt as well as those from other countries , and also made many recordings, which are treasured and regularly used by performers all over the world.
I don’t know any of the details of his death; in fact, I actually heard about it-and found out that it was indeed true- on Facebook. What I do know though, is that he has been on my mind a lot lately… mostly because I was planning to write up an anecdote about the time Khamis and his band played for me, in Cairo at The Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. As soon as I heard of his passing, I knew it was a “sign from the universe” that this story needed to be written now as a tribute… especially since the entire story revolves around a sign from the universe! So here it is:
I don’t normally get stage fright, but admittedly, I was quite nervous to be performing at The 2009 Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival. Let me amend that statement- I wasn’t just nervous, I kind of had a sick and hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach all day, just even from thinking about it… and of course I couldn’t stop thinking about it!
It was my first year as an instructor at the festival, which on its own was kind of hard for me to believe, considering that many the other instructors were people I had been idolizing since the very beginning of my dance career-legendary Egyptian dancers like Mona El Said, Dr. Mo Geddawy, Dina, Aida Nour and celebrated choreographer Raqia Hassan, who is the festival director… and they were all going to be in the audience that night! So yeah, I felt like I was about to go full-blown into a panic attack!
Even so, I’d had the classic Egyptian song We Deret El Ayam going through my head for the past week and a half. Made famous by the illustrious Om Kalthoum, the song is heartbreakingly beautiful. Now was my chance to perform to this gorgeous piece of music, played by a live band in the city where it was created.
Steeling my shot-to-hell-and-back nerves, I told myself that I shouldn’t be a coward or a quitter; I would do this, I needed to do this, even if I felt like an imposter in front of the famous dancers I’d adored for years, even if I was so ruined with jetlag that I was no longer sure I would ever sleep again, even if failed miserably. I’d wanted to do this for years, now it was happening, and I was considering not doing it? I pushed myself past my comfort zone and proceeded ahead.
The light at the end of the tunnel appeared when I found out that The Henkesh Brothers were going to be playing for the dancers that night, and like most belly dancers on the planet, I was familiar with their work. A festival representative instructed me to find Khamis Henkesh so we could discuss the music for my set, and I crossed my fingers that no one had selected We Deret Al Ayam so it could be mine. If I was going to do this, it might as well be to my favorite song!
After running around the halls and the massive souk at the Mena House Hotel for a good forty-five minutes, I finally located Khamis on the mezzanine. He was sitting in a corner on a folding chair drinking Arabic coffee and smoking, a tabla resting on his lap. After a brief introduction, Khamis and I began to “discuss” my music.
“For you, Farhana, I will play Enta Omri!” he announced decisively.
Now, I love the wistful Enta Omri, it's a striking Om Kalthoum classic. The only problem was, I was going completely OCD on We Deret El Ayam. Plus, I’m a bossy American chick who, impending panic attack or not, wasn’t going to let a drummer who didn’t even know me –no matter how famous he was- tell me what he was going to play for me without at least a little discussion of personal musical preference.
“ I was kind of hoping to dance to We Deret Al Ayam, “ I said in my best honey-silk Egyptian girly-girl back-up singer voice.
“ No, I think Enta Omri will be better,” Khamis said, taking a long drag of his cigarette.
“Oh, but I really really want to dance to We Deret Al Ayam! “ I said, batting my eyelashes.
“For you, I play Enta Omri!” Khamis declared, “ You will like this music!”
“Is someone else dancing to We Deret Al Ayam?” I inquired, hoping I was still sounding flirtatious.
After a long, contemplative sip of coffee, he said no.
“You know We Deret Al Ayam, right?” I asked, as desperation began to seep in. I needed to dance to it, dammit!
“ Of course I know how to play this, “ he said in exasperation, “But I think for you, Enta Omri is better!”
Because he was so emphatic, it would’ve probably been a done deal at that point, my performing to Enta Omri, except for the fact that at that very second, man in a business suit approached us as he walked the hallway. Just as the man passed by us, his mobile phone rang…and the insanely loud Arabic music ringtone that blared from his phone was We Deret Al Ayam!
Khamis and I both stared in dumb amazement as the stranger passed us.
An expression of incredulousness passed over Khamis’ face for a moment before he threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. He looked directly into my eyes and said sincerely,
“Farhana, for you, of course I must play We Deret Al Ayam…” With that, he shook his head, and we both watched as the stranger with the phone disappeared down the corridor.
Then Khamis said:
“ Yes... I must play this song for you, together we will make beautiful show!”
And we did.
Photos: top- Dancing to The Henkesh Brothers band in Cairo, 2009 Photo by Andre Elbing
Bottom: Khamis Henkesh, RIP