Many people are not familiar with the internationally recognized Egyptian Free Jazz Ensemble, which was active for most of the second half of the 20th century. Even fewer people know that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie – three of the best jazz musicians of all time – visited Egypt to perform and meet local artists, including the Free Jazz Ensemble founded by the famous composer. and drummer Salah Ragab.
“Not many people know that jazz music was a really important part of Egyptian musical culture in the 20th century,” says Amr Salah, a professional Egyptian jazz musician who recalls a prominent dance scene that revolved around the jazz. Sadly, this is a genre that has been somewhat lost due to poor documentation of events, as well as the continued exodus. [of musicians] since 1952.
Although the popularity of jazz has suffered somewhat, those who remember it and still play, namely students of former great Egyptians and Westerners, are extremely passionate about the genre and hope to revive jazz culture.
This is why in 2009, Salah founded both the Jazz Society of Egypt and the Cairo Jazz Festival – two essentials of the current Egyptian jazz scene – to wave a flag and bring together jazz lovers, old and new.
The Egyptian Jazz Society still does not have a seat, so the focus has been on using social media and internet platforms to bring people together and attempt to re-cultivate a local scene.
The president of the company, Ahmed Harfoush, said that one of the most important parts of this is to create awareness and accessibility, and to provide educational programs for those who are curious about the genre.
“We offer lectures and classes, provide access to music and also organize screenings of documentaries on jazz,” says Harfoush, who is also the lead singer of the local jazz group. The riff band.
In June, the company hosted “The Jazz Biopic Week,” a documentary series featuring famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Nat King Cole, at the Darb 1718 Cultural Center, accompanied by talks with Harfoush.
But the society is also thinking bigger, as its members lobby the education ministry to at least have jazz mentioned in school curricula, both as an art and as part of the story. They also aligned themselves with the Musicians’ Union. But Harfoush says it does more harm than good because the union usually seeks money from musicians.
“We have tried to develop our own union with equal rules and standards. But the musicians are still not united in Egypt, which is what we are also working on, ”he says. “Basically we are trying from all angles to transform jazz from nothing into a normal, accessible part of Egyptian culture.”
But society members and jazz musicians say the greatest success has been bringing jazz fans together to meet, jam and form groups, which ultimately led to an increase in live performances. across the country, with greater attendance at concerts – the biggest event being the annual Cairo Jazz Festival held in March at El Sawy Culture Wheel.
“I’ve been really impressed with both the turnout and the performances this year, which means the scene is growing and the efforts are paying off,” said Adam Miller, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in the US. United who performed as part of the Adam Miller Group at this year’s festival.
Miller, who is now a member of the society, came to Egypt a few years ago to teach music at the American University in Cairo, not really expecting to meet jazz musicians.
“But I did it, quickly, and they’re generally driven, really good and not jaded by everything like a lot of people back home. It’s a little inspiring, ”he says.
Ahmed al-Sherif, a first-time visitor to this year’s festival, admits to having recently fallen in love with jazz, always thinking the genre negatively until he attended the live performances.
“It’s completely different when you can see what each person is actually doing,” he says.
This year’s festival was also the first time the company has presented the Jazz Nino initiative, a project to encourage children to come to the festival and interact with jazz musicians and their instruments.
“It is important to sow the seeds for children to experience these beautiful art forms in life on their own, which is something crucial that I think is lacking in Egypt,” says Harfoush. “A lot of kids may not even hear a lot of music or see an instrument until they’re older and already involved in other things, which is a shame. “
However, despite the growing success of the company and the festival, Harfoush believes it is important to continue to grow and diversify.
To do this, the jazz society hosts a weekly jazz show every Monday on the online radio station Sound of Sakia. The program offers music and information on appreciating jazz.
Additionally, in an attempt to expand the live performance material, Harfoush said that one of his recent projects was to incorporate old Arabic classics that have not been forgotten, such as Bob Azzam’s “Mostafa” into jazz arrangements, with the aim of bridging the gaps between generations. and genres.
“A lot of times people don’t realize that they even know a certain melody that’s in their head, like a tune a grandfather used to play,” says Harfoush. “Jazz music allows a lot of improvisation and the incorporation of many melodies into one piece. I think it will work well to expand the audience even more. “
Harfoush says it’s not difficult to survive as a jazz musician in Egypt, adding that performing at weddings and private parties is a necessity. Salah adds that recently two jazz shows have sometimes had to be booked on the same night as the first one is usually overcrowded.
For now, the Jazz Society of Egypt still does not have a head office, but hopes to settle soon in Darb 1718, whose founder, Moataz Nasr El Din, is very fond of the initiative. The jazz company is also working to create a large online jazz music library, where users can share music and order specific jazz records and classical ensembles.
“It is growing at its own pace, but I am very optimistic that jazz will become an established genre in the future of Egypt,” says Harfoush.
Miller, who is also pushing for jazz history classes at AUC, adds that “jazz is music born of hardship, created by people living under fire.”
“And given the ongoing political difficulties, this can serve as real good music for liberation,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the weekly Egypt Independent print edition.