Salah Ragab: military commander by day, jazz musician by night

Salah Ragab: military commander by day, jazz musician by night

Members of the Cairo Jazz Band with Salah Ragab. Source: Interstellar medium

Imagine someone walking into a music store, grabbing “Ramadan In Space Time” and getting into the shazam.

For someone who doesn’t know who Salah Ragab is, his music would probably paint the image of a laid-back, liberal, young artist – someone who was inspired by Western music, but who is also adventurous enough to merge with Egyptian folklore.

That’s what makes music so exciting; you listen to a piece and visualize your own perception of who the artist is, what they might sound like, and how they came to produce these melodies, only to have your expectations shattered by reality. This is the case of Ragab. You certainly wouldn’t imagine him as a military commander who led troops in North Yemen and fought in the wars of 1967 and 1973.

Ragab exemplifies that there is always more to people who serve in the military than just being patriotic. This is specifically reflected in the intersection between holding a rank in the military 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 military during one of the most turbulent chapters in Egyptian history. ‘Egypt.

Following in his family’s footsteps, Ragab enrolled in the Egyptian Military Academy and began serving in the military in 1957.

Being a military officer and a jazz drummer were not mutually exclusive aspects of Ragab’s life. This also extends to his gang, which is made up mostly of soldiers. It is fascinating to explore the sounds and melodies created by the group given the military backgrounds of its members.

The Cairo Jazz Band is known for fusing American jazz tunes, Islamic speaking traditions (such as the dawn call or public wake-up call by Mesaharatis in Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan) and Egyptian folk music, creating lo-fi, relaxing and culturally rich beats. .

Most popular songs performed by the Cairo Jazz Band

The music tracks 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 the Cairo Jazz Band in Egypt in 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 pride in his culture through jazz. He 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 celebratory, celebratory sounds).

In ‘Nevain‘, the emphasis was more on the flute. It left more room for solos, but it still harmoniously echoed the upbeat melodies with the rest of the instruments.

Ramadan in space‘, however, is the most distinctive composition of the group as it begins with the Ramadan call for the ‘suhoor’ made by the ‘mesaharati’ (a speaker responsible for public wake-up calls in the streets to wake people or reminding them to eat and drink before the fast begins at dawn) using his drums. Then it smoothly transitions into an upbeat mix of percussion, trumpets and choral music. The piece begins with a tribute to Egyptian culture and traditions before turning into a jazz festival filled with the sounds of different instruments.

The history of the formation of the group

The history of the band’s formation is just as eclectic as Ragab’s. He went through phases of mastering jazz until he landed his first performance in 1969 at the American University of Tahrir.

According to Band Camp, due to the growing number of African-American Azhar scholars teaching music alongside, jazz became popular in Egypt, growing in popularity alongside genres like Tarab, which was popularized by Abdelhalim Hafiz and Umm Kalthoum during this period.

The group was not assembled all at once. Ragab first attempted to form the band with saxophonist Osama Kareem, also known as Mac X. Speers. Kareem was an African-American saxophonist who left the United States due to rapid violence and racism at that time. They managed to perform in different places. However, this collaboration was short-lived due to growing anti-Americanism after the 1967 war, which caused Kareem to leave Egypt as being American in Egypt at that time was not welcome.

However, when Ragab was appointed head of the army’s music department in 1968, he decided to channel his resources into creating the band again. Ragab handpicked 20 soldiers to learn and practice jazz at a military house in Heliopolis. With the help of Hartmut Geerken, a German musician who worked at the Goethe Institute and a friend of Ragab, the band learned a lot about jazz in theory and practice.

According to Band Camp, the band members were ordered to master jazz and given the choice to excel at it or go to jail. It almost sounds like Whiplash was based on the history of the formation of the Cairo Jazz Band due to the rigor of the learning process 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.

Over the years, the Cairo Jazz Band continued to play and perform until the death of Salah Ragab in 2008. The band’s journey is widely regarded as one of the catalysts that paved the way for the rise of the Egyptian jazz.

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