Salah Ragab & The Cairo Jazz Band :: Egyptian Strut

How would you felt if someone was telling you that there is a record that can be described somehow like “Leftfield space age jazz with a marvelous Middle Eastern feel played by a big band!” – Can actually something sound like this? The answer is a positive yelling and the name of the record is “Egyptian Jazz” made by Salah Ragab and The Cairo Jazz Band.

The Cairo Jazz Band was Egypt’s first big band, mixing American jazz with Arabic music, combining jazz instrumentation and musical style with indigenous melodies and instruments, like the baza (ramadan drum) and nay (bamboo flute). The coordinator of the band was Salah Ragab, drummer and multi-instrumentalist, a central figure in the history of jazz in Egypt. A Major in the Egyptian Army through the 1960’s and Jazz aficionado.

Ragab first attempted to form a jazz band in 1964, with American saxophonist Mac X. Spears. The group didn’t really got far, as Spears left Egypt right after its formation. In December 1966, Ragab met Hartmut Geerken and Eduard Vizvari at a reception following a Randy Weston Sextet show. The three decided to form the Cairo Jazz Band.

Ragab was soon, (early 1968), appointed chief of Egypt’s “Military Department of Music” and had at his disposal a vast staff of musicians, almost three thousand, all versed in the aural language of marches and national anthems, but with little knowledge of contemporary jazz.He had to choose around thirty or so musicians and held crash courses in jazz history for them – while Geerken and Vizvari would arrange and compose for the group. From the drums’ stool he directed the newly formed orchestra and with his co-founding of the Cairo Jazz Band created a sonic canvas which on the one hand was the traditional of big jazz bands and on the other, was the tradition of Arabic music. Such musical crossover was not unusual in itself. American musicians from Sun Ra to Yusef Lateef had long been fascinated by the music of Islam, incorporating the musical forms of the Arabic world into their work. But here the angle of view he created is quite different, the West does not go to the East but the opposite. Cairo’s Jazz Band stands firmly on its feet and finds the way through a topsy-turvy perspective. The mood is a religious tract with Islamic hymns and spiritual approach and the sound full of pattering rhythms, stomping percussions, ribald horns, throbbing brass. The band weaves a magic carpet full of arabesques that is ready to take off on an astral journey through space and time.

Cairo Jazz Band’s debut performance occurred at Ewart Memorial Hall of the American University in February 1969, and included compositions from all the founders of the band as well as arrangements of works by Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and more. There were many other concerts in various prestigious places such as the Old Opera House, The University of Alexandria and appearances on Egyptian TV Jazz Club Weekly. The group drew large audiences in Alexandria and Cairo, and with Ragab drumming, they recorded in the early ’70s, including Ragab’s compositions such as “Oriental Mood” and “A Farewell Theme” which was a tribute to Gamal Abdel Nasser. Songs included in “Egyptian Jazz” were recorded in Heliopolis Egypt between 1968 and 1973.

Ragab met Sun Ra on Arkestra’s first visit to Egypt in December, 1971. Sun Ra had come at Geerken’s invitation, and his performances included a session in the host’s living room. When Sun Ra returned in May 1983, Ragab joined Arkestra on drums and congas and recorded two of Ragab’s compositions named “Egypt Strut” and “Dawn”. The Sun Ra Arkestra was back next year, and Ragab sat in on their performance at the Il Capo Jazz Club and accompanied the great band on a tour in Egypt, Greece, France and Spain in 1984. The live performance on Praxis festival in Athens, in February 1984, imprinted in three records. Arguably, one of the best and extraordinary concert of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, with the Greek audience going crazy.

Salah Ragab died in July 2008 in Cairo at age 72.