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Yehya Khalil celebrates jazz at Sohar music festival

Dressed in an all red ensemble — nothing too formal, just jeans, t-shirt and a cap — he walks onto the stage. There are no dramatic entrances or spotlights for Yehya Khalil as he casually takes his seat. But when the music starts playing, he lights up and is transformed. Khalil suddenly becomes energetic and passionate. He walks around the stage between songs and jokes with his band and audience. He is in his element. And his concerts seem more like a jamming session between friends than an actual performance. 

“I only do what I like. There are no rules for what I do. I am at a stage of my life where I do what I enjoy,” says Khalil.

In Pursuit of Jazz

Khalil was born with a love for music and describes his child-self as a noisy kid that banged on every surface he could find. He grew up listening to the jazz music hour on the radio channel Voice of America and that’s when he knew he’d fallen in love. 

“Jazz is different and enchanting and there is something that draws you to it, it reaches directly to the soul,” Khalil says. “It affected me more than anything else. I heard it and my heart fell. The effect it had on me, my soul and my emotions was incredible.”

In 1957, at the age of 13, he wasn’t playing soccer and contemplating crushes like his friends. Instead he was forming the first jazz band in the country: The Cairo Quartet.

The band took the music scene by storm and had many fans, but Khalil wasn’t content to rest on his laurels. Despite family objections and the hardships he knew he would face travelling (due to the country’s instability at the time) in 1965 Khalil left the country and his band behind to study jazz in the US. 

Khalil lived in the US for 15 years, dedicating all his time to studying and practicing music. He began his journey to mastering jazz music in New York in 1966. Shortly after, he moved to Chicago, where he met and performed with many of his music idols, including James Brown, Four Tops and Friend and Lover. 

Still unsatisfied, Khalil decided to ratchet up his performances by studying at the American Music Conservatory for two years and later with the Dean of Percussion, Roy Knapp. 

Knapp had taught jazz legend and Khalil’s music idol, Gene Krupa, who was also the driving force behind Khalil’s decision to become a full-time jazz player. Suffice it to say, Knapp’s wealth of knowledge inspired Khalil to even greater heights and gave him an opportunity to perfect his passion.

“We became friends and we would go out for lunch and walks and he told me all about his experience with musicians. I admired and respected him a lot,” remembers Khalil.

Introducing Jazz in the Land of Oriental Music

In 1979, Khalil decided to take what he had learned and move back to his homeland. His return marked the debut of modern American jazz for Egyptian listeners. But Khalil wasn’t worried about whether people here would like it.

“I was sure that just like the music had drawn me to it, more than any other genre, people would like it and be drawn to it. I always wanted to share this passion 

 “I am not there to present myself. I want to transfer the beauty of what we do to

people,” he insists.

so people could enjoy it like I do,” he says.

The local scene wasn’t hard to penetrate because the music “enchanted them” just like it had enchanted Khalil. Through a series of concerts at the Cairo Opera House, cultural centers and the television show ‘The World of Jazz’, jazz became quite popular.  But Khalil, also the show’s host, didn’t stop there.

After introducing jazz to the Egyptian music scene, Khalil took things up a notch by experimenting with something he calls Oriental Jazz. The new music genre took its listeners by surprise. Though people were confused at first when they witnessed a trumpet player use taqaseem (improvisation in oriental music) or violinists playing their instruments like an oud (lute), they quickly became fans of the unique interpretation. 

Even though the fusion of violins, piano, electric guitars, drums, tablas, accordions and kanouns (an instrument that resembles the shape, form and sound of a harp) is an unlikely one, the result was a smashing success. The audience loves it when Khalil puts his unique spin on songs like the old folkloric song Ala Remsh Oyonha (On her Eyelashes). Crowds also go wild as the band jazzes-up tunes such as like Besame Mucho (A Spanish song that means Give Me Many Kisses).

His repertoire blends genres, languages and nationalities. “It was a dream for me, for a long time, to have an Egyptian imprint on this international genre. So when I went back to Egypt and introduced it [...] I thought that it was [also] a good time to introduce this fusion. It was easier for a lot of people to grasp and I traveled to many countries and festivals and took my music there,” he says.

The Leader Behind the Drums

The spirit on stage is harmonious, and Khalil assumes the role not of a star, but of a mentor to band mates and other musicians alike. Anyone who has seen Khalil perform knows that he lets every performer shine. Unlike many other artists, each musician, himself included, receives an equal share of the spotlight. 

Every band member gets a solo as well. “I am not there to present myself. I want to transfer the beauty of what we do to people,” he insists. Khalil goes on to add that he has to give his band mates a chance to express themselves.

“I don’t want to play and have the others around me not doing anything, it isn’t like they are just helping out, this isn’t art and this isn’t me at all. If they have it, they will have the chance to show it,” he adds.

And every member is there to impress. “The members have to be talented and creative, and they have to be artists and have a passion for music; they are very hard to find.” According to Khalil, they are even harder to manage. “You could put very good people together but they might sound terrible,” and this is where his team-building skills were put to the test. 

“When I played with the great guys, they taught me discipline, organization and respect [...] If I took space and didn’t fill it up right I will look like an idiot compared to others. I have to remove the insecurity from them [...] they have to be intelligent to understand me from just a look and be willing to learn,” he says.

Throughout his 50-year-old musical career, he has introduced jazz to Egypt, performed in over 20 countries, hosted his own television show and founded Oriental Jazz. Now at the age of 66, Khalil still plays his drums with an ease born of an unquenchable passion for music and performing.

Egypt Today