Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The fusion master

Nothing is more rejuvenating than a concert. Rania Khallaf talked to Egypt’s premiere drummer after joining the audience for an unforgettable jazz night

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It is hard to interview a living legend. On the one hand your fascination with the superstar prevents neutral judgment. On the other hand the superstar acts as if he is an open book, whose life is legible to anyone, when naturally he is not.

For the last 20 years, as a lover of jazz, I have been following news and attending concerts by Yehya Khalil, one my most favourite musicians. I had interviewed him twice before, and yet – when he gave his first and only jazz concert at the Opera House this summer last week – I still felt the need to unearth the secret behind his everlasting youth, his enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

It was a full moon night. Half an hour before the start of the show, people started flocking to the gate of the Open-air Theatre. The audience was mostly young people and foreigners, with a few older listeners. I noticed one old man making his way with great difficulty to the ticket booth, and then leaning on the wall to wait for the gate to open. For him, it was evidently part of a healing strategy. Actually, that is what it is for me too.

The theatre was full, with some audience members sitting on the stairs. The band members, all in black T-shirts, appeared on stage 20 minutes late. Then, to a warm welcome from the audience, Khalil appeared in a striped blue T-shirt and grey jeans.

One of the stunning tunes played was Misr lu: Greek for “Egyptian lady”, a famous Greek folklore number, which Mohammed Ali, the violinist and vocalist, performed fantastically, imbuing the ballad-like delivery with a spiritual quality.

His broad smile always evident, Khalil responded to the applause with sensitivity. At times he would be involved in his drumming as if pampering a baby, at other times he would look tense, waving to the voice technicians to fix some technical problem. Every now and again he took hold of the microphone to explain the meaning or the origin of a song, praise the performance of his own musicians, or ask the audience if they were enjoying their evening. This close attention to the audience is one remarkable aspect of Khalil’s concerts, which has helped to consolidate Khalil’s intimate relationship with his listeners.

Other tunes included: Hakawi Al Ahawi (or “Cafe Tales”), Khalil’s signature composition; the all-time diva Om Kulthoum’s Alf Laila wa Laila (The Thousand and One Nights); and “Give me a kiss”, a Spanish hit composed by a nine-year old girl, who later became a pianist. The latter song, as Khalil explained to his audience, was the greatest romantic hit worldwide. Also performed were a few songs and hits from his latest album, Bahlam fi alam ghareeb (I dream in a strange world).

Khalil’s career as a drummer, composer and band leader has seen many significant events. He played along with Dizzy Gillespie, the late American trumpeter and composer, at the inauguration of the Cairo Opera House in 1989. He played with the most prominent jazz musicians in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, before he decided to return home. Ten years ago, the Yehia Khalil Foundation for the Culture of Jazz Music was established to help nurture young talents in this field. “It still needs funding to play its due role,” Khalil said. “However, it did uncover new talents. And we’re already working with new musicians.”

Starting in the mid-1980s, for some 15 years Khalil presented a weekly television programme, World of Jazz, on national television’s Channel 2, which showcased international musicians as well as his own jazz band. The programme appeared before the time of YouTube and Facebook, Khalil said with the same broad smile on his face, and it helped spread the culture of jazz music to a larger and more variegated audience. Of all musical genres in human history, Khalil is only interested in jazz.

“I fell in love with jazz music when I was a child. I followed the news about jazz, read anything I could put my hands on, studied new records coming from abroad with the parents of my friends,” he recalls at a small café in Zamalek, before the concert.

“When I was a child, every night I used to listen to a programme called Jazz Hour, presented by a jazz icon called Willis Conover – aired from a radio station in Washington. My family owned an old tape recorder, and I used to record jazz music and programmes played on the radio, and listen to them over and over again. There was no internet at the time, of course, so it needed a hell of an effort to be acquainted with the big names in the world of jazz,” he recalled.  

“I remember going to the American Embassy in Cairo as a child, telling the information officer that I had an interest in jazz music and wondering if they could help me,” he recalled, with a lingering smile, “and luckily enough, they gave me copies of a monthly jazz magazine entitled Down Beat. I used to go there every month to pick it up. A few years later, with training, I was ready to play with some British and French bands based in Cairo at that time.

“When I went to New York City, I located the school of Roy Knapp, the tutor of great jazz musicians at the time, whom I was well informed about from the beginning, and I asked him if I could join the Roy Knapp School of Percussion. It took a while but finally, he accepted me, and I studied there for five years. I was also lucky to work with famous bands and musicians through the 1960s and the 1970s in the States, playing different styles of music – not only jazz. I was exposed to country, rock, and the blues.”

Surely managing a jazz band is no easy task, especially with this unique fusion of oriental and western tunes. “Harmony is an asset,” Khalil commented. “There is obviously a problem with team work in Egypt in general, and specifically in musical bands. I formed many bands throughout my life, starting with Jazz Quartet, which I started back in the 1960s. It included the late, famous guitarist Omar Khourshid, and pianist Ezzat Abu Ouf, who later formed the Four Cats band. My precondition has always been love; I cannot work with someone I don’t like, or with musicians who do not understand my language, and the core of jazz music.”

Does it require a democratic approach, then? “Not only democracy; what it requires is  awareness of and respect for each other’s roles – and willingness to learn.” When Khalil started his career in jazz music in the 1960s, most musicians were foreigners. He was the first to form an all-Egyptian jazz band, and the first to create oriental-jazz fusions. “The many years I spent in the States enriched my musical experience. I did so many things that made me happy. In the 1980s, I was already full of dreams to return to Egypt and introduce the culture of jazz music and make it more popular,” he said cheerfully – which, since the 1980s, he has done.

The popularity of his oriental jazz started with Hakawi Al-Ahawi, which was a smash hit at the time. He called his first album, not released until 2008, Rhythm of the Soul. It included such hits as “Amira” and “Without an Address”. His new, 2013 album with the name “I dream” which is a song written by the late Abdel-Rehim Mansur and also includes a song by the legendary vernacular poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, the latter taking issue with the Egyptians inability to be united except at saints’ anniversaries and their tendency to develop contending camps and factions.

But what is the secret of Khalil’s fascination with jazz? “It was originally born in Africa,” he says, “brought to the States by the slaves. And thus it developed as a scream for freedom, justice and noble values – the desire for a better life. This also created a simultaneous mix of happiness and sadness. It is a language, expressing the needs and feelings of contemporary man.”

Khalil’s participation in international jazz festivals around the world further established his credentials, with concerts in South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, France, Serbia, Greece and Austria, among others. Two weeks ago, he returned from the Beat On jazz festival in Bari, Italy, where he played tunes from his second album.

Does he feel the popularity of jazz in the Middle East is on the rise? “Yes. Definitely. Famous jazz musicians are giving concerts in many countries across the region, especially in Tangier, Beirut and Dubai. Let’s not forget how many notable jazz musicians Cairo has received.

“Jazz is a living culture,” Khalil says, “that affects and is affected by different cultures. I thought about it when I was still living in the States. Starting from the 1970s, there were different emerging styles. There was a kind of fusion between jazz and other musical styles. For example, many musicians from South America created a new style called Latin Jazz; in France, there was a guy called Jacques Loussier working as a classic pianist, and he created a style called classical jazz. In the 1980s I had this dream to add an Egyptian stamp on jazz music. Back then, I did not have a clue how to do that, but I knew that once I did it, people would go for it. And here we go, it is now very popular everywhere we go. I am currently working on the composition of a new song by the late poet Salah Jahin, entitled Nass [People], and it will come out in the next album,” he declared.

His plan also includes training a female jazz singer, a surprise for his audience. “It is not easy to find a good female voice, because it is not only about the quality of the voice, it is about her character, and whether she could fit harmoniously with our band. I am working on it, anyway.”

Hundreds of concerts into his career, where does Khalil find his favourite audience? “When I perform here in Egypt, I have more energy than anywhere else. Success in my country has a different taste. My successful concerts all around the world are a great thing, but it usually lacks this intimate vibe and communication with the audience,” he smiles. “My audience are all smart enough. If they were stupid, I don’t think that they would come to attend jazz concerts. My music presents happiness, energy, positivity. It wakes you up, makes you think, feeds your imagination, and gives you a mix of joyful feelings,” he gestures with his hot chocolate.

Khalil doesn’t usually stick to a prearranged programme in a concert. He prefers to let it go with his mood and the audience’s vibe. “I prefer to play in a free spirit. And like in a scout team, I always tell my band members to be ready, as we could change the programme any minute,” he explains. “Behind the scenes, I practice, listen to music, go to the gym. I like to swim and meet with friends, and do things that make me happy.” That is how he stays young. “Success is not easy at all. I’ve had tough times, of course, but I knew from the beginning that life is about making choices. If you want something, and you want it badly enough, you know that you have to sacrifice other things for it. One cannot have everything in life.”

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