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Salah Ragab: Military Commander By Day, Jazz Musician At Night

June 20, 2021
Salah Ragab the founder of Cairo Jazz Band. Source: BandCamp Daily
Members of Cairo Jazz Band with Salah Ragab. Source: Interstellar Medium

Imagine someone walking into a music shop, catching ‘Ramadan In Space Time’ and proceeding to shazam it.

For someone who does not know who Salah Ragab is, his music would probably paint a picture of an artist who is laid back, liberal, and young – someone who has been inspired by western music, but who is also adventurous enough to fuse it with Egyptian folklore.

This is what makes music so exciting; you listen to a piece and visualize your own perception of who the artist is, what they might look like, and how they came to produce these melodies, only to have your expectations upended by reality. Such is the case for Ragab. You would most certainly not imagine him as a military commander who led troops in North Yemen and fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

Ragab sets an example of how there is always more to people who serve in the army than merely being patriotic. This is specifically reflected in the intersection between holding a rank in the army and simultaneously leading Egypt’s first jazz band.

Born in 1935 in Hadayek El Kobba, Ragab founded the Cairo Jazz Band and pioneered Egyptian jazz while serving in the Egyptian army during one of the most eventful chapters of Egypt’s history.

Following in his family’s footsteps, Ragab enrolled in Egypt’s Military Academy and started serving the army in 1957.

Being a military officer and a jazz drummer were not mutually exclusive aspects of Ragab’s life. This extends to his band as well, which consisted mainly of soldiers. It is intriguing to explore the resulting sounds and tunes created by the band given its members’ military backgrounds.

The Cairo Jazz Band is known for fusing American jazz tunes, Islamic oratory traditions (such as dawn calling or public waking by Mesaharatis in Egypt during the Holy Month of Ramadan), and Egyptian folk music, creating lo-fi, chill and culturally rich beats.


Most Popular Songs Performed by Cairo Jazz Band

The music pieces recorded by Cairo Jazz Band are all recognized for their innovation and musical ingenuity, transporting listeners to elements of Egyptian culture with every blue note.

Sun Ra performing with Cairo Jazz Band in Egypt 1971. Source: Open Culture

Egypt Sturt’, for example, was one of the band’s collaborations with Sun Ra Arkestra, an iconic African-American jazz musician who expressed his anti-racism activism and his pride in his culture through jazz. It mixed The Sun’s jazzy keyboard tunes with ‘zaffa’-like melodies (‘zaffa’ refers to Egyptian musical marches at weddings, which use drums and horns to create festive and celebratory sounds).

In ‘Neveen’, the focus was more on the flute. It gave more room for solos, but it still harmoniously echoed upbeat melodies with the rest of the instruments.

Ramadan in Space’, however, is the band’s most distinctive composition since it starts out with the Ramadan call for ‘suhoor’ done by the ‘mesaharati’ (an orator responsible for public waking calls in the streets to rouse people or remind them to eat and drink before the beginning of the fast at dawn ) using his drums. Then, it smoothly shifts to an upbeat medley of percussion, trumpets, and choral music. The piece starts out with an homage to Egyptian culture and traditions before morphing into a jazz festival filled with the sounds of different instruments.


The Story of How the Band Was Assembled

The story of the band’s formation is equally eclectic to Ragab’s background. It underwent phases to master jazz until it landed its first performance in 1969 in the American University in Tahrir.

According to Band Camp due to the growing number of African-American Azhar scholars who taught music on the side, jazz became popular in Egypt, its popularity growing in tandem with that of genres like Tarab, which was popularized by Abdelhalim Hafiz and Umm Kalthoum during that period.

The band was not assembled in one go. Ragab first attempted to create the band with the saxophonist Osama Kareem, also known as Mac X. Speers. Kareem was an African-American saxophonist who left the US because of the rapid violence and racism at that time. They managed to perform in different places. However, this collaboration was short-lived because of growing anti-Americanism after the 1967 war, which pushed Kareem to leave Egypt since being an American in Egypt during that time was not welcomed.

However, when Ragab was appointed as the head of the army’s music department in 1968, he decided to channel his resources to create the band again. Ragab handpicked 20 soldiers to be taught and practice jazz in a military house in Heliopolis. With the help of Hartmut Geerken, a German musician who worked in Goethe Institute and a friend of Ragab, the band was extensively taught jazz in theory and practice.

According to Band Camp, members of the band were given the order to master jazz and given the choice to either excel at it or go to prison. This almost sounds like Whiplash was based on the story of the Cairo Jazz Band’s formation due to how strictly rigorous the process of learning was for the band.

As a result, they started recording music and performing in many places, such as the American University in Tahrir Square. Over time, they gained popularity and toured Europe in the 1990s.

Throughout the years, Cairo Jazz Band kept playing and performing until Salah Ragab passed away in 2008. The band’s journey is widely considered one of the catalysts that paved the way for the rise of Egyptian jazz.

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