Band Revives 1950s Egyptian Songs in Jazzy Way

Egyptian Jazz Projekt band performing at the American University in Cairo’s Cultural Center.  Credit: Salwa Samir
Egyptian Jazz Projekt band performing at the American University in Cairo’s Cultural Center. Credit: Salwa Samir

Band Revives 1950s Egyptian Songs in Jazzy Way

The London-based Egyptian Jazz Projekt band founded by Ahmed Harfoush has recently held a concert in downtown Cairo.

Majalla attended the event and interviewed Harfoush about his band’s mission.

He founded it in London in 2015 to spread the Egyptian musical heritage to the non-Egyptian audience in a new, creative way.

“It is a unique project that revives the good old days of the 1950s and its songs. I make arrangements for Latin and Latin Jazz for most of the songs as if they were foreign,” Harfoush said.

Harfoush was born in 1974 and is a Jazz vocalist with his band consisting of Italian and English musicians. When he came up with the idea of founding a band focusing on Egyptian Jazz, his team was astonished at first.

“They told me that they have never listened to this kind of music before. They were thrilled by the songs,” he said, adding that they strongly encouraged him to form the band.

Harfoush said that some Egyptian songs of the 1950s and the preceding years already had jazz and Latin music, which facilitated his mission to turn the Egyptian song into a jazz song with western arrangement.

“There is jazz music in some songs of Abdel-Halim Hafez (1929-1977), Mohamed Abdel-Wahab (1902-1991), Farid El Atrash (1910-1974), among others. So I want to say that Egyptian music is universal. It resembles the importance of American songs in the same period of the 1950s.”

He selected to highlight the songs of the 1950s because “films in which these songs were performed are well known to many people, not just Egyptians, but Arabs as well.”

“In my concerts, where the Arab community are among the attendees, I notice how they interact with the songs. Sometimes they cry, especially if they haven't visited their homelands for thirty or forty years,” he said. “They feel nostalgia.”

At his recent concert, which was held at the American University in Cairo’s Cultural Center, Harfoush performed songs by Abdel Halim’s like Kont Fein Wana Fein, Ya Alby Ya Khaly, Ana Lak Ala Toul, and Shaghalony.

Together with his band, consisting of drummer, bass guitarist, pianist and clarinetist, he also performed songs by El-Atrash like Albi w Moftaho in swing jazz.

Shadia’s (1931-2017) song En Rah Menek Ya Ain, and Laila Murad’s (1918-1955) Abgad Hawaz were also among the songs he performed.

Harfoush also combined English and Egyptian songs into one. He performed an English song in which he used the first part of it as an introduction to the Egyptian song, such as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ which he used to introduce Hafez’ Ahwak.

The audience of all ages, including children, interacted with Harfoush by swaying to the tunes and dancing in couples in an area near the stage.

Wessam Shaker, one of the audience, told Majalla that although she heard these old songs dozens of times, she feels as if she heard them for the first time at this concert.

“I really like the idea of the band,” she said. “The songs are more youngish and jazzy.”

Since its establishment, the band had previously performed in Egypt three times, and this one is the fourth.

“In fact, I give concerts abroad more than here in Egypt. My mission is to highlight the beauty of our musical heritage to the foreign audience.”

When he performs a concert abroad, the people who attend for the first time ask what Egyptian Jazz is.

“But when they attend, they interact by dancing and swaying to the songs despite the fact that they don’t understand Arabic,” he said.

The Egyptian Jazz Projekt band gave concerts at many international festivals and famed venues including the Royal Albert Hall, London's most iconic venue on whose stage many celebrities performed, such as American singer Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). The band also performed in the Dubai Opera House, as well as Egyptian embassies abroad such as in Austria, Germany, Italy and Australia.

The band performed twice at the London Jazz Festival and will take part for the third time in the edition due in November.

It will also participate this year in Canada’s Festival of Arabic Music and Arts in Toronto.

“Jazz music touches the heart and soul without any language barriers,” he said.

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