Musicians and fans paint the town as they celebrate the Cairo International Jazz Festival
Never flew so high
Along with thousands of jazz music lovers, Rania Khallaf
swings to the sounds of the 1930s
Tuning in to Royal Crown Revue was a unique experience in itself. It drove me back to the era of swing, the style of music that sprung up in the United States in the 1930s.
The Royal Crown Revue arrived in Egypt last week, and although this was not the first visit for some of them they all appeared fascinated by being in the heart of Cairo, home of the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, or as Eddie Nicholas, the band's lead vocalist and founder, says in his broken Arabic, umm al-donia (mother of the world).
The history of the band dates back to 1989 when the Royal Crown Revue emerged in Los Angeles as a pleasant musical event, mixing the different musical styles of swing, jump, jive and jazz. "When we first started as a band, we fell in love with swing music. It was not a popular type of music to choose at the time, but we cared about this music and we wanted to educate people about it," Nicholas told a press conference organised by the American Embassy in Cairo and held last week at the Semiramis Hotel.
"Some band members inherited their talents from parents who were also involved in this genre of music," Nicholas said. "We took it from there and added a little bit of our modern spirit to it. When we first started we were a group of 10 friends, we wore 1940s and 50s clothes, and we had old cars, and at the time we had one night club to go to. And then we went to San Francisco where we found players with the similar interest, but with no bands to join."
Swing developed in the early 1930s and by 1935 had become a distinctive trend. Swing uses a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums as the anchor for a lead section of brass instruments such as trumpet and woodwind including saxophone and clarinet, and sometimes stringed instruments such as guitar and violin. Benny Goodman and Count Basie were the leading kings of swing in those early years from 1935 to 1945. Asked if they had any acquaintance with oriental or Arab music, Nicholas said that although Arab music was of a different musical form he enjoyed listening to it. "I only heard of Umm Kolthoum songs and I think they have some 'mysterious' elements in them," he said.
"We came here to share our culture with people who are the descendants of the world's oldest civilisation," said guitarist Mark Cally. In turn, bassist David Miller and vocalist Jennifer Keith enquired about belly dancing techniques and whether they involved man and woman dancing together as was the case in swing dance.
The Royal Crown Revue has performed in several of the world's most prestigious venues, from the Hollywood Bowl to Radio City Music Hall. The band has played in many countries in Europe, as well as Japan and Australia. "On visiting those countries we are proud that we found swing jazz fans that were already acquainted with our music and records," Nicholas said.
"After more than 20 years now, I think the band is getting better, and we are very proud that we are part of the history of jazz music itself," saxophonist Mando Dorame told Al-Ahram Weekly. Dorame, who is one of the founders of the band, added that he felt very proud to be able to expose this old music to the younger generation.
Asked if they expected a resounding welcome to their music in Egypt, Nicholas said swing was not just music, it was also an action, a beat and a style of dance from the 1930s and 1940s. "You don't have to know the rules of swing dancing; you just let your body move to the beat," he said.
"Good music is just good music. It can transcend all borders. And I am hopeful that Egyptian audiences will find our music interesting."
Nicholas is the son of a jazz singer and a ballerina. Born in New York, his musical influences were classic American singers such as Frank Sinatra; he also discovered punk rock at an early age.
The band presented three concerts at the Semiramis Hotel, the Mubarak Public Library in the town of Banha, and finally at the Al-Sawy Cultural Wheel where there was an audience of at least 2,000 jazz lovers, which meant some reorganisation of the River Hall to hold that capacity. This did not prevent young people standing in front of the stage, clapping and dancing to the rhythm. It was a hot start. And from the first moment one felt the mood would be swinging from cheerfulness to joy.
The set kicked off with one of the band's famous hits, The Contender, and then went on another favourite, Something's Gotta Give. One of the band's hottest tracks in the set was Hey Pachuco !, which has featured in several motion pictures, television shows and commercials.
Nicholas swings and jumps in a sprightly fashion on stage. After two hits, vocalist Keith appears in her short classic black and grey frock and, along with Nicholas and breaks into It Can't Be Love. They both danced and exchanged places on stage in a unique harmony that captured the hearts of the audience. "Hello, it is really great to be here in Cairo, we are all so excited, and we wish to come back soon," Keith announced after her first song.
Keith sang a soft, sweet song from the 1930s: "Until I met you, I was very lonesome," she crooned, echoing the spirit of the good old days, even though the audience was far too young to remember even a shadow of that era and had possibly never heard of the musical trends loved by their great-grandparents.
The band has released eight albums so far. Mugzzie's Move, and Altoro are Nicholas's greatest albums, while Hey Pachuco includes the band's famous song, composed by Nicholas; Pachuco is a Mexican word which means "pal", and the expression was used by Mexican migrants to express how much they suffered when mingling with Americans when they first came to the United States in the last century, Nicholas says. "Most of our songs are just for entertainment; they don't have a political connotation," he told the Weekly.
"But while you compose your songs, how do you go back to the 1930s of the last century?" I ask.
"It isn't difficult for me, because when I was younger I immersed myself in this trend, knowing all the composers and listening to slang pertaining to jazz songs, I know a lot of the lingo, so whenever there is a subject I am interested in, I go back to my own memory or do some research, and at last I am set to write it down. I don't have a conflict here, but, oh my Gosh, I am living in the past all the time!" So thanks to Nicholas and the members of the Royal Crown Revue, and to all the other followers of the style, we can still take a trip into the past through song and swing.