In a country that values all genres of music, it's no surprise to find a wholeheartedly steady following for Jazz. With all its different sub-genres, the popular music style has been gaining ground in Egypt since the fifties and musicians like Salah Ragab and Yehya Khalil proved to the world that Egyptians can pioneer and develop this style of music just as much as anybody else. We Egyptians tend to smother just about everything imported from the West with our flavours, from traffic laws to pizza. In the case of Jazz, it seems, unlike traffic laws and pizza, that Egyptian touch has been mostly welcomed.
The genre utilises some of the same instruments as classical music, just like in a symphony orchestra, Jazz ensembles usually include string, wind, and brass instruments. The piano and keyboard also play a large role, and have been gaining more prominence as lead instruments, where in that context we would usually see the trumpet, clarinet or saxophone playing that role.
Egyptians who admire Jazz are more in numbers now than ever before, yet many of them don't know a lot about the genre's history and sub-culture. Many have been inducted into this type of music only recently in response to the massive surge in bands fusing Jazz with other genres like rock, oriental folk, and even reggae - only getting small bits and pieces, with no chance of full immersion into the iconic sound that made this type of music what it is today. In an absence of old style big band Jazz outfits, it's no surprise we observe the above stated - one man is bent on changing that.
Hesham Galal is a music major who specialised in studying big band ensembles. Upon his return to Cairo from Sydney, Australia, after completing his studies there, he realised the need for a proper big band Jazz ensemble playing old style compositions from the golden era of the genre. Galal started the Cairo BigBand Society during 2016 and has been performing regularly ever since.During an impromptu rehearsal, we catch up with six members of the band that usually consists of 15 to 16 musicians - the rest were playing a concert in Port Said. In their rehearsal studio, we meet with the artists and discuss several factors of the local jazz scene, where we learn from the band's tenor saxophonist, Professor Amr El-Zonfolly, that in the earlier days there wasn't a lot of Jazz bands in the country. "It wasn't until the late 90's that we started to see a lot of new bands playing the cross over genres that became popular lately," he tells us.
Cross over Jazz is the fusion of the genre with different styles like reggae, rock, and folk - something that has been happening a lot lately. "The rise in cross over jazz in Egypt, is in my opinion owed to the fact that most musicians in Egypt that love jazz also love other genres," Mohamed Labib, the band's alto saxophonist says. "In my case I love reggae and when I play it I find myself incorporating different elements of jazz, due to the fact that I also love jazz and grew up playing and listening to it."
The recent rise in cross over may make it seem like old style is dead, but it's not. That move towards fusion won over the masses, and brought them into the genre forever, making them more susceptible to more refined tastes, like old style and classical Jazz. The Cairo BigBand Society plays old style compositions that will make you dance just as much as any contemporary or cross over composition. The perk? You get to see a full 16-piece ensemble perform in concert on stage - something that is now rare due to the high cost of booking such an act, which for most promoters doesn't make sense since it can be avoided, and booking a two or three-piece band would usually be enough.
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