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Soul Rhythm

Listening to the Jazz Man and seeing him on stage along with his highly talented entourage is akin to entering a world of percussive perfection and culture fusion. Attending the Yehia Khalil concert at the Sawi Culture Wheel was a worthwhile two- hour distraction from the external world, with the audience finding themselves elevated by the performance's vim and vigour and their ears assailed by each unexpected rhythm. As the French artist Henri Mattesse famously said, "Jazz is all rhythm and meaning," and as a composer Yahya Khalil does not waste one cord, creating sheer musical masterpieces. He encompasses unlikely instruments from around the world and puts them in such a relationship that they break the barrier of conformity in beautiful fusion.

Khalil weaves the accordion, piano, violin, kanun (zither), tabla (drum), African drums and tambourine into the fabrics of oriental sounds and jazz melodies, giving birth to an innovative music genre. He has assembled eclectic sounds of diverse cultures and blended them in unison, fashioning a new brand of music. Not only is he arguably the pioneer of Jazz in Egypt, he has conceived something completely novel in the wider world of jazz. In an interview with Daily News Egypt Khalil commented: "Jazz -- it's not just a kind of music; even more than it's a music it's a style. So I figured that if we take some Egyptian music that I think has the feel and the beat and I put an injection of jazz to it, it will sound different

At the early age of four he was already tapping a beat on any hard surface he could find and using his mother's kitchen utensils to strike a rhythm. It is apparent that drumming was ingrained in him from the start. When the majority of children are nonchalantly drifting through school, 13-year- old Khalil had already formed the first jazz band in Egyptian history. This is an astonishing achievement in itself, let alone being achieved by a boy in the first year of his adolescence. With his deep-set yearning to master the drums and his absolute conviction that he would dedicate his life to jazz, in 1965, at the age of 21, he packed his bags and moved to America to pursue this vision. He enrolled at the American Music Conservatory for two years, and was then tutored by the distinguished percussionist Roy Knapp. It is a tribute to his talent that he has played with some of the most distinguished fathers of jazz such as Oliver Jones, Dave Young, John Lee, Van Freeman, James Moody and Dizzy Gillespie, and has toured with the bands Friends and Lovers, Rasputin Stach and Richard Berry . When he returned to Egypt in 1979 he began to sift out the finest musicians from around the country and form a band that would infuse the sounds of Jazz into Cairo and impart the sound of the orient out into the world. Collectively they have played in more than 20 countries and 100 cities, acquiring and implementing the music of each place they visit.

Each member of the 10-man band raises the bar for talent.

As performers, each member appreciates the solo acts of the others as though hearing them for the first time, and the manner in which they deliver the music generates an unscripted looseness. Each instrument plays a solo at some point throughout the performance, Khalil conducting them with strong eye contact and constant drum beat. As the central player he denotes the importance of every instrument; everyone leads, everyone has a moment in the limelight coupled with respect for each others' acute talent. It makes for an exceptional show.

The concert may have been advertised as a Yehia Khalil performance, but each and every musician played with definite gusto, passion and total aptitude in absolute concurrence with his instrument. The man who highlighted the stage with his genius was Ali Shaker, a 20-year old kanun player, a new addition to the band. I sat there in admiration of his agile string plucking; in awe of the moments his metal studded fingertips rose into speedy crescendos, performing with effortless dexterity.

The American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing during the Jazz age of the 1920s, remarked in his acclaimed book The Great Gatsby 'Though the jazz age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth. The sequel was like a children's party taken over by the elders." This may be a reflection of his era, but certainly not of Wednesday's concert in which more than half the audience were in their prime. Youth or otherwise, the seats were comprised of head- bopping, foot-tapping, beat-clapping jovial spectators engrossed in the drumming cadence. The musicians' elation when performing, and their fervent reverence for music, was reflected in the audience's enthusiastic applause.

Surrounded by nine talents, Khalil as positioned centre stage behind his idiosyncratic red glitter-encrusted drum kit which he struck with flamboyance. All these elements combined to create an outstanding performance accompanied by talent-fused melodies that should not escape any music enthusiast.

John Philip Sousa believed that "Jazz will endure just as people hear it through their feet instead of their brains," This is precisely what your toes demonstrate when you are at a Yehya Khalil live performance

Lou Reed once commented, "It's more than cords, it's jazz." By naming a recent (2009) composition "The Rhythm of the Soul", Khalil touches on just that with his admirable drumming, which impinges on all the senses. His panache on stage instills flair and buoyancy amongst the audience. Listening to his prominent pieces, "Donya", "Umm Kalthoum", "Amira" and "Espania" via a CD player does not give enough credit to the band's proficiency as when watching their musical interaction on stage. They are a band devoid of lyrics, yet their music speaks louder than words.

Not long ago foreigners dominated the Cairo Jazz scene, and now it is time for Yehya Khalil not only to pervade the Cairo scene but also the wider world of jazz.

Al Alhram Weekly