If there is a way to correlate music from the Egyptian golden era with American jazz from the same period, bringing an exotic sound with a contemporary message, Ahmed Harfoush has the best answer.
Born in a family of diplomats and living between Washington DC and Cairo during his childhood, Ahmed was exposed to both worlds at an early age. Once an Egyptologist then an administrator living in Luxor in the late 90s and later as a United Nations staff member in Cairo, Ahmed refined – over the years – his side passion for music until it became his true calling.
Harfoush was classically trained a tenor performing with a few choirs in Cairo, then switched his interest to jazz. He started a jazz band in 2002 and co-founded the Cairo Jazz Festival in 2009 as well as producing jazz shows at esteemed Cairo music venues. After moving to London in 2014, he joined the local jazz scene and, with a taste for experimentation, brought to life a genre everyone loved unconditionally and a concept welcomed by everyone, The Egyptian Jazz Projekt.
In a time when the Middle East is associated with somber clichés in western media, Harfoush launched this new concept. It is a stellar musical statement where creativity joins worlds apart, keeping their identities alive and mixing them harmoniously. The concept involves modern jazz arrangements of 1950s and 60s Egyptian pop songs adored by many across the Middle East and mixing it with American jazz standards from the same era.
This launched a manifesto about identity and cultural cross-pollination that skyrocketed his band to international stardom and sold out concerts including ones at Royal Albert Hall, the London Jazz Festival, The Egyptian Art Academy in Rome, the Manasterly Palace in Cairo and Dubai Opera. His disarmingly beautiful, delicate sound gives you goosebumps and touches souls universally; a healing powerhouse of music and a shining mirror for a brighter future.
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOUR SOUL SING? WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
Listening to music, traveling, meeting new people, and entertaining them while on stage. When you are facing an audience, it is your responsibility to transport them to another world of art, magic, and peace. Singing is therapeutic, it makes me feel might better. After a concert I feel refreshed and energized, making me fight negativity and life problems.
A CHILDHOOD STORY THAT ANNOUNCED THE CREATIVE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY
I was born in Cairo and started my education at a British private school. My father was a diplomat, and in 1980 we moved to the United States for several years. At home, my mom made sure to talk to me in Arabic while dad spoke in English making me bicultural/bilingual.
If listening mindfully is a creative act, then I remember my childhood long car trip from DC to Florida, in the backseat, listening to the radio with my dad. I was in a very musical and artistic home environment. Back in Egypt we were the magnet for family parties and dinners. We all loved to dance – my aunt taught me the Cha-Cha. My parents always encouraged me to follow my inner voice and making my own decisions. I remember wanting to play the flute, and a few weeks later I had a flute teacher at home. Besides music, I had a soft spot for drawing. I remember an art competition in 5th grade at our county, outside of Washington DC. I won first prize and my painting was displayed at Kennedy Center. Later on, the drawing skill served me well in my Egyptological career, copying temple wall drawings and hieroglyphs. My tour guiding days improved my communication and hospitality skills. It showed when I was the administrator of Chicago House, the headquarters for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Luxor, where we received visiting dignitaries and reputed guests such as Paloma Picasso and Givenchy.
BEST CONTEXT EVER FOR INSPIRATION WAS
Attending live concerts of my music idols including George Michael, K D Lang, Sade, Simply Red and Kurt Elling. They were a major inspiration and push for me. Their passion and musicality majorly influenced my music work.
THE PROJECT YOU LOVED MOST
Apart from my Egyptian Jazz Projekt, I was a producer of a show that took place in 2009 in Cairo. It was a music night collaboration between my band and a singing/dancing group from Barcelona who came through the Embassy of Spain. A 1950s themed night with beautiful decor, in the heart of Downtown Cairo.
THE PROJECT OTHERS LOVED MOST
An evening of celebration of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin) with my band, The Riff Band, at El Sawy Culture Wheel in Cairo. The curtains opened with me singing riding a 1940s car on stage. It was a memorable show with dancers and exciting big band arrangements.
THE BEST THING ABOUT EGYPTIAN CREATIVITY IS
The sense of humor.
ADVICE FOR INTERNATIONAL HEADHUNTERS, RELATED TO EGYPTIAN CREATIVES
There are few resources they can use to be able to find talent in Egypt – a brand new Facebook group called The sync community has 32k members and full of creatives from all walks of life: musicians, graphic designers, online content and advertising.
BEST PLACE IN CAIRO
Cairo Jazz Club is one of the top venues for live entertainment and dancing.
Another place is Room Art Space and Café, hosting more niche live performances. I have performed there once – very cozy, warm, intimate.
BEST PLACE IN EGYPT
I am biased about Luxor, because I’ve lived there and know many people there. Luxor has a lot of positive vibes, filled with energy and recently has a terrific art scene.
Nun Art Gallery is recommended. Owned and run by Said Qinawy, a great supporter of the arts.
While in Luxor, I recommend visiting the West bank. The East is more touristic, with its airport and the bustling city noise. You cross the Nile and it’s another dimension. On the West bank there is Marsam, my favorite hotel, on the edge of the green fields meeting the mountains of Luxor – a place to escape everything and meet a great world of wonderful individuals. Here you can have lovely dinners and amazing conversations with painters, musicians and intellectuals of all kinds. Every single year on January 2nd, I give a free concert at Marsam. I once met an older man who was walking with his rababa, a local string instrument. He was singing and inventing lyrics and music on the spot. I invited him to the concert and he showed up and sang for the whole expat community. It was a beautiful mix between local and international. Marsam means atelier and it used to be the destination point for Italian painters in the 60s when visiting Luxor. Until now, Marsam still has 2 rooms with walls decorated from the 60s, an Upper Egyptian Montmartre. The place belongs to the Sheikh Ali family, a descendent of the famous Abd El Rassools. In the lobby, there is a picture showing Sheikh Ali as a boy wearing one of the pendants unearthed from the tomb of Tutankamun, when he worked at the tomb with Howard Carter. In Marsam you are part of a living history and what I love about the place is that it never evolved into an over-touristic or a posh location, abusing its identity. Marsam never lost its identity and loyalty to its history.
MOST DISTURBING CLICHÉ ABOUT EGYPT, IN THE MEDIA OUTLETS OF THE WORLD IS
The camel in front of the Giza Pyramids scene. There is so much the media is missing out on – Sinai, the mountains, the oases, the natural reserves, the Red Sea; so much variety. There is so much to talk about and share.
Egypt is full of hidden gems. An example is the amazing Temple of Serabit El Khadem, built on a mountain near the old turquoise mines in Sinai. The temple is dedicated to Hathor, the Lady of the Turquoise, the goddess of music and maternity. If you don’t have a local guide, you will never be able to find it. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There is a family living around that area, hosting visitors, where you can spend the night, climb the mountains at sunrise for the temple, with wonderful breaking scenery. Egyptian texts often speak of the manifestations of the goddess as the “Seven Hathors” so I asked 6 other friends to join me. We climbed, the seven of us, bearing gifts for the goddess – wine, beer and water. It was a beautiful, almost mystical experience. And places like the Serabit Temple are all over Egypt, so much to discover and see. This is why the camel in front of the pyramids is such a cliché.
EGYPT SHOULD BE KNOWN FOR
For being cosmopolitan.
In Egypt diversity is king, one will find different kinds of people, different architecture and food. Downtown Cairo has also so many hidden gems. Ice-cream parlours, cafes, glorious art deco cinemas, art nouveau gates, clubs from the 40s. The local Egyptian bar scene is another dimension – while in Cairo try to visit Carol, Estoril and The Grillon – meeting places of intellectuals, artists, musicians and writers while having a beer. Carol has been beautifully transformed from an old, sleazy bar into an modern vibrant place with fantastic international dishes reinvented by adding an Egyptian touch.
YOUR VIEWS ON MONEY
Without it you can’t survive, you need to work and make a living – But you must always follow your passion and cleverly use your talent to market yourself and earn a living. Ideally your passion should provide for your living.
AN INSPIRATION SOURCE YOU RECOMMEND FOR A YOUNG CREATIVE
One of the people that have actually inspired and moved me is the director Peter Sellars and his analysis of art, film, and theatre. Search for him and find out how charismatic he is. He is a big inspiration, many creatives need to listen to him.
As for destination and a source of inspiration in Egypt musicians hang out in Ras Sheitan, close to Dahab, on the Red Sea. It is a very interesting place where creatives meet to play music on the beach.
16. AN EGYPT BASED FEMALE TALENT THAT DESERVES TO BE PROMOTED AT INTERNATIONAL LEVEL, AS EXPONENT OF LOCAL CREATIVE SPIRIT
For me, definitely Basma Hamdy.
If you want to read more about Harfoush and listen to his glorious music, take a peak here, on his site.