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Jazz In Arabic Culture

by Howard Lawes



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 .....'

From its beginnings, Jazz has reflected many influences of different genres and cultures. Lebanon has proved to be fertile ground for nurturing musicians who have been drawn to jazz. Violinist and composer Layale Chaker performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival with the Sarafand ensemble playing music from her debut album Inner Rhyme which celebrates Arabic poetry, unveiling musical threads woven by the rhythmical cycles of the twelve classical Arabic poetic meters.  Inner Rhyme is improvised music while Layale Chaker is a classical violinist, however she has performed with the Academy Inegales and noted "What I love about working with Inégales is that I can be all that I am at the same time. I don’t have to choose between being a classical musician, an Arab musician, an improviser or a composer".  Interestingly Club Inegales has just announced the formation of 'The Third Orchestra' which will perform music from around the world and includes Syrian oud player Rihab Azar.



Layale Chaker and Sarafand playing Relentless from Inner Rhyme.




Ahmad Kaabour is also from Lebanon and a prominent cultural figure in the Middle East; his 1975 hit Oundaikom became the anthem of the Palestinian struggle. In 2012 he released Abou Afif which has been described as encapsulating "the feel of modernist 1970s jazz with bright-toned funk-inflected keyboard and a chorus of female backing vocals". Ziad Rahbani also pioneered an oriental jazz movement, which singers, including Rima Khcheich, Salma El Mosfi, and (on occasion) Latifa, have popularised.

A subsequent Arts Canteen event in London celebrated the Arab Christmas which according to the Julian calendar falls on 7th January and is still observed by Orthodox and Coptic Christians.  This celebration of Arabic music at St Martins in the Fields was compèred by Reem Kelani, a Palestinian singer, musicologist and broadcaster who was born in England, brought up in Kuwait and now lives in London. Reem is currently working with classical and jazz pianist Bruno Heinen on a special duo project, that includes new arrangements of Arabic and Western Jazz songs. Reem Kelani also worked with Gilad Atzmon on the tellingly titled album Exile, an album that also featured Tunisian singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef.  This inspirational album uses jazz and the music of the Middle East, highlighting the similarities between the music and the experiences of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.


Listen to the track Dal'ouna on the Return from the album Exile.




Three jazz musicians with Arabic heritage, Yazz Ahmed, Ibrahim Maalouf and Dhafer Youssef, have enjoyed particular success well beyond the Arab world.  Yazz Ahmed is a British Bahraini trumpet and flugelhorn player. Her music, through which she seeks to blur the lines between jazz, electronic sound design and the music of her mixed heritage, has been described as ‘psychedelic Yazz AhmedArabic jazz, intoxicating and compelling’. Her 2017 album La Saboteuse was one of the 'albums of the year' while in 2015, Yazz was commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors, with support from PRS Women Make Music, to write a suite inspired by courageous and influential women. Polyhymnia was premiered at the Purcell Room by a special all female ensemble at the WOW! Festival in March 2015. Yazz is currently working on completing the recording of her third album, Polyhymnia, due for release in 2019. 


Yazz Ahmed


Yazz Ahmed and another trumpeter, Lebanese born Ibrahim Maalouf use micro-tone instruments that give the ability to play maqam, which is the basis of Arabic music.  Since 2007, Maalouf has produced, composed, arranged, and recorded seventeen albums, composed more than ten classical symphonic works, and created original scores for several films. Ibrahim remains the top-selling instrumentalist in France, Europe, and the Middle East, and after performing for more than 1,000 concerts and five world tours, he became the first jazz artist in history to sell out France’s largest concert hall, the AccorHotels Arena in Paris-Bercy. The historic concert Ibrahim gave there on December 14th, 2016 sold out eight months in advance. In addition to setting performance records, Ibrahim won four Victoires de la Musique awards in France; the ECHO Jazz Award in Germany in 2016; was nominated twice for Best Original Music for the César Awards; and won the César Award, along with the Lumières Award for In The Forests of Siberia in 2017. 






Yazz Ahmed playing The Space Between The Fish and The Moon and The Lost Pearl at the Turning East festival in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in November 2017.





Dhafer Youssef is a highly successful jazz musician with 16 albums to his credit. As a young man he studied music in his native Tunisia but decided that his destiny lay elsewhere and moved to Austria.  In Vienna he met local musicians with whom he formed Dhafer Youssefhis first band, Zeryab and in 1996 the first album, Musafir, followed. Dhafer Youssef's career has been marked by various collaborations with musicians from Europe and beyond, all of which have fed his insatiable desire for new sounds and musical projects.


Dhafer Youssef


In 2013 Dhafer Youssef released Birds Requiem,  an album immediately praised by critics and which he followed with a triumphant international tour of about 100 concerts, over 50,000 records sold and performances by several orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra. Constructed as a film soundtrack, Birds Requiem is a very personal album that was recorded at a turning point of the artist's life. Dhafer Youssef's voice accompanies the clarinet of Husnu Senlendirici and the Kanun of Aytaç Doğan. He also collaborates again with his companions Eivind Aarset on the electric guitar, Nils Petter Molvaer on the trumpet, Kristjan Randalu on the piano, Phil Donkin on the bass and Chander Sardjoe on drums. Birds Requiem is ranked among the ten best jazz albums in France and elsewhere, and included in the list of "Best 20 male vocalists" by DownBeat Magazine.


Dhafer Youssef playing Fuga Hirundinum from the Birds Requiem album




The Arab world has from very early times enjoyed music, developed instruments and styles of singing and chanting that were very different to those in Europe. An article in the September 2010 edition of Jazzwise magazine by Stuart Nicholson suggests that Arab culture was responsible for introducing stringed and plucked instruments such as the banjo to Spain during the period of Moorish domination and that blue notes and musical structures that are very prevalent in jazz are part of the Arab musical tradition. 

It seems likely that jazz music has profited in the past from Arab culture  but modern Arab musicians are proving that there is so much more to enjoy and while an article such as this really only scratches the surface of what is a very large field of ethno-musicology it is hoped that it will encourage some to look further into a fascinating area.  For those interested in Arab culture the Shubbak Festival is a window on Arab culture and will be held in London from 28 June to 14 July (click here for details). Lots of further information about Arabic music can be found here.


Ibrahim Maalouf playing Beirut. One commentator on Youtube says: 'Saw him live a couple of times, and people were actually crying when the lights went on after the show. This is what music is about; communication on a different level'.





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