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Jazz In Arabic Culture

by Howard Lawes



Part 1

As befits a major international festival the EFG London Jazz Festival gives audiences the chance to hear music from all over the world. During the 2018 Festival, Arts Canteen promoted a series of concerts at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch featuring artists from the Arab World. Arts Canteen is an organisation that specialises in giving emerging Arabic artists a platform for them to gain exposure while also bringing enjoyable and enriching experiences to audiences and in 2017 it won an award from the Arab British Centre.  

The first concert introduced the Harfoush Jazz Band which is based in London but Egyptian jazz vocalist Ahmed Harfoush sings some of the great songs from 1950s and 1960s Egypt adding swing and latin jazz rhythms, as part of the band’s music project titled ‘The Egyptian Jazz Projekt‘.  The band recreates timeless classics from a golden age by Egypt’s most popular performers such as Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim, their repertoire also includes favourites from the great American songbook. Ahmed Harfoush is a very charismatic performer with a touch of the Sammy Davis jr about him and the sold out audience responded enthusiastically with dancing and applause.

Here is a video of the HarfousH Jazz Band performing the classic Kan Agmal Yome by Egyptian composer/singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab in 2016. The band includes Ahmed, Harfoush (vocals); Alex Bryson (piano); Ian Marcus (double bass); Gethin Jones (drums); Simon Marsh (clarinet). Arrangement by Rami Attallah.




Egypt has a long history of enjoying popular music. A 2017 article in Al Jazeerah World reports that more than 150 years ago, a musician started a band in Cairo's Mohammed Ali Street, a hub for Arab musicians, belly dancers and instrument makers, near the Mohammad Hasaballah's brass bandopera house, cinemas and theatres. Mohammad Hasaballah's brass band became so popular that it gave birth to an entire musical genre, which still resonates with Egyptians today. 

Hasaballah was a clarinet player in a military band at the time of Abbas Helmi, a Khedive of Egypt under the Ottoman Empire. He was taught by Italians and when he retired from the army, he set up his own band.  Celebrated as "the people's music", "Hasaballah was an important development," says Mohammed Shabana of the Popular Performance Department at the Academy of Arts. "They transformed music from its formal, western-style into popular music."  

A new generation of musicians has picked it up and found new ways to keep Hasaballah alive by adapting it with new instruments and rhythms. It keeps the street style but gives it a modern twist.  "We adopted the [Hasaballah] line-up of trumpet, trombone, bass and snare drums … but have just added the jumble", says Abdel Azim Mohammed, a member of the Hasaballa Marching Band. "Everything we play is jazz. Different rhythms create different styles of music, like funk and salsa. We play funk and salsa". Shabana says that the legendary Hasaballah "managed to carve his name and his band into the collective Egyptian, artistic memory".  


Here's a video about Mohammad Hasaballah's brass band and how it influenced the music that followed.




The King of Jazz in Egypt (as he is affectionately known) is Mohamed Mounir, a singer of classical Egyptian, Nubian and blues as well as jazz, his lyrics are noted both for their philosophical content and for their passionate social and political commentary.  Mounir's collaborators Behdad Babaei and Navid Afghah photo Rasa-Rezaniainclude band-leader Yehia Khalil, poet Abdel Reheem Mansour and the Nubian musician and singer Ahmed Mounib and they are credited with introducing jazz music to many Arab listeners. 

The Persian Duet gig at Rich Mix featured Iran’s most innovative tombak (goblet drum) maestro Navid Afghah and seh-tar (four string lute) master Behdad Babaei, the performance included parts of the duet’s latest album, The Silver Stream of Moonlight. Navid Afghah's creativity and pioneering style of playing poly-rhythmic patterns on a single-headed drum has made him one of the most sought-after tombak players of Iran while Behdad Babaei is one of Iran’s leading seh-tar players.


Behdad Babaei and Navid Afghah


This music, apparently some of which was improvised, is rather exotic and unusual to western ears but nevertheless fascinating, there were many Iranians in the audience who clearly enjoyed it while the skill and dexterity of the musicians was mesmerising.



Navid Afghah and Behdad Babaei playing in Belgium in 2013.





Karaj Collective


Another gig featured further Iranian musicians but this time the music fused Persian tradition with modern styles. Artists were Pouya Mahmoodi with Karaj Collective, Parham Bahadoran and Shohreh Khaatoon, Tannaz Abbassioun and special guest Hamed Nikpay.  Pouya Mahmoodi is an Iranian singer and guitarist based in London whose music highlights the influence of West Africa, Afghanistan and India on Iranian regional traditions.


Karaj Collective


Karaj Collective present improvisation and fuse jazz and blues with Kurdish, Azeri, Afghani and Armenian folk music.  Hamed Nikpay is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who has re-arranged traditional Persian music into flamenco and jazz styles.




A video of Sari Galin based on an ancient Azeri/Armenian melody played by Pouya Mahmoodi with the Karaj Collective.




Sudanese-Italian singer Amira Kheir is based in London and sings in Arabic, English and Italian, Kheir has brought her unique style of 'Sudani Jazz' to some of the world’s biggest festivals and stages including the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival. As a singer and songwriter, Kheir draws from her own multicultural background to create music that explores themes of home, belonging, love, human evolution and transcendence. Her music and latest album, Mystic Dance, is a spiritual journey, evocative of Northern Sudan’s desert landscape and a celebration of its ancient culture, but cognisant of the necessity to build bridges between different communities, it is also an urgent call for peace, love and unity.  On the same bill Yara Lapidus, a singer born in Lebanon but now living in Paris, performed songs from her new album Indefiniment, which was recorded at London's Abbey Road studios with 43 musicians.


Amira Kheir singing Kullu Wahid for BBC News Africa in 2010.




Lebanon has proved to be fertile ground for nurturing musicians who have been drawn to jazz. Lebanese saxophonist and percussionist Toufic Farrouhk was a musician in his native country, moving to France to study in 1985 while continuing to collaborate with compatriots Ziad Rahbani, his mother the singer Fayrouz and Marcel Khalife. In 2001, he formed his first group, Toufic Farroukh and the Absolut Orchestra, composed of 9 musicians of different nationalities, with whom he performed in prestigious festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland and others. 


Video excerpts from Toufic Farroukh and The Absolut Orchestra's performance at the Dubai International Jazz Festival.




In 2015, the website carried an article where they said: 'During the Cold War (1946-1991?), the world was engulfed in an ideological and political stand-off while the United States struggled with its pro-democracy image abroad. Perceived by many countries as  a culturally bereft, segregated, military giant  the United States needed some major damage control for it’s image; and something powerful to combat the perceived threat of communism in the middle east. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the United States representative from Harlem and a jazz fan, came up with  a brilliant act of foreign diplomacy to show the world the “real Americana.” Instead of symphony orchestras and ballet companies to represent American culture abroad, why not send jazz bands on international tours?'

'They didn’t send just any bands; they sent Dizzy Gillepsie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and a host of other brilliant and influential Jazz musicians. These musicians were inspired by the culture of the region and worked local flavor into their performances and even in subsequent recordings.  People in the region noticed and warmed to the Americans and the inclusivity and open minded nature of their music. Thanks to these creative artists, “Jazz Diplomacy” movement was a swinging success globally, but especially in the Middle East .....'

To be continued next month ...



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Other pages you might find of interest :

Philip Larkin's Jazz
Free Improvisation - Pyne and Grew
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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