The stories of music visionaries are very rarely in our culture the product of rigid government directives, but in the case of the rise of Jazz music in Egypt, the greatest pioneer was also a political dignitary who made it part of the national agenda. Salah Ragab was born in Egypt in 1936. By the 1960s, the multi-instrumentalist would be responsible for introducing jazz music to the Afro-Arab world, aligning himself with the compelling currents of American jazz music and to later be revered as the Godfather and pioneer of Egyptian jazz music. Strangely, very little has been written about his upbringing and the factors leading to this very important historical phenomenon.
The 1960s was a dynamic decade in the world of artistic innovations and social movements. In the height of bebop, American jazz artists like John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were increasingly drawn to the world of Islam and the Arab-African nations. This was the time of social unrest in Africa stemming from the mass rejection of European colonization, leading to bloody revolutions everywhere in the global South throughout Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.
Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser led Egypt through a victorious revolution in 1952. Nasser was a proponent of cultural nationalism as a means to political independence. His strong stance against European imperialism appealed to marginalized Blacks in the U.S. who looked to social movements abroad to fuel their own fight for gaining civil rights at home. Similarly in Algeria, another North African country in political turmoil, the FLN (National Liberation Front) brought Algeria to independence against its former French colonizers a decade later in 1962.
Salah Ragab was appointed the head of the Egyptian Military Music Department in 1968 under Nasser’s presidency. That same year he co-founded the Cairo Jazz Band with members of the German intelligentsia Hartmut Geerkan and Eduard Vizvari, as well as the Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble. The mechanics of cultural nationalism as a political agenda seeped into the implementation of jazz music being developed in Egypt, where most professional musicians were formerly employed only by the military. Ragab hand selected 25 musicians in a pool of thousands to assemble into the first big band that Egypt would ever have. He diligently initiated them through a grueling academic syllabus of jazz study, used the military budget to gain access to traditional jazz instruments, and appointed them members of the Cairo Jazz Band. Egyptian musicians knew little more than military marching music, which was rigid and precise. A significant part of Ragab’s music education agenda was based in improvisation, the crux of jazz music. The result was beautifully crafted blend of traditional North African music and jazz.
Establishing national arts, language, and music was not uncommon in the liberation movements throughout the world. Aligning one’s people behind a national aesthetic was a means to unify the people. More often than not, the newly formed government would initiate the new national arts by rigorously teaching the masses. Ragab drilled his 25 hand-selected musicians through jazz history and theory until they were able to play together coherently. Though Ragab’s jazz education approach was more regimented and linear than how American jazz musicians are typically trained , he taught his Egyptian musicians to play in a year what many aspiring jazz musicians elsewhere would wish to play in a lifetime. Again, Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism was being enacted at every segment of the country, including through the music and arts. The Egyptian permutation of jazz music would be the music of the new Egyptian nationalism. The Cairo Jazz Band, only a year in, debuted to the public at Ewart Memorial Hall in 1969 at the American University.
The Arab-African/African-American cultural/political alliance was the underlying force that made jazz possible in Egypt in the first place. Salah Ragab’s first attempt at bringing jazz into the country was in 1963 with Malik Osman Karim Yagoub, an African-American saxophonist from Kansas City who also went by the name of Mac X Spears. It is reported that Ragab studied jazz theory with him, and the two started a quintet and recorded with the Radio Service of Cairo. Not much has been written about him either, but it would be interesting to trace the history of his name, and see whether or not he was a newly converted Muslim during this time, as so many other jazz musicians did. Their union was short lived when Spears decided to return to the U.S, but the seed had been planted and Ragab would continue to collaborate with notable Western musicians throughout the following decades, including the German group Embryo with Abdullah Ibrahim and Mal Waldron, further developing the Egyptian permutation of jazz music until his death in July of 2008.
One of the reasons that Salah Ragab is still little known is due to the fact that the first introduction of Egyptian jazz to American listeners was not until the beginning of the 21st century, about four decades after the initial recordings of Ragab’s original ensemble. Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band Presents Egyptian Jazz was released on Art Yard in 2006, as one of the largest collections of Ragab’s work made available to the public outside of Egypt. The album carefully blends the usage of traditional North African instruments, including a Ramadan drum, the Baza, a bamboo flute also known as the Nay, with an amazing orchestration of piano, bass, drums, percussions, four trumpets, four trombones, and five saxophones. Though it is clear on the recording that the compositions and arrangements on the album were greatly informed by American jazz, a reverse phenomenon was evident in The States. Indigenous African instrumentation in general was also increasingly heard on American jazz recordings as spiritual jazz and free jazz innovators started diverging from the bop. Sun Ra of course was one of the biggest proponents of this.
Ragab’s most notable collaboration was with Sun Ra, an American keyboardist/synthesizer player/composer/band leader. Hartmut Geerkan invited Sun Ra and his Arkestra to Egypt in 1971 (Read more in Sun Ra in Egypt). They returned twice more in ’83 and ’84. The collaboration between Ra and Ragab are some of the only documented examples of this unique cultural exchange at the time. Ra sought the knowledge of ancient Egypt, as his spiritual identity was tied in with the mysticism surrounding esoteric Egyptian teachings. Ra is therefore imprinted in history as one of the legendary figures responsible for the development of Egyptian jazz. Of the three albums available to the West of Ragab’s discography, Salah Ragab Meets Sun Ra in Egypt was a compilation of music from a studio session at Geerkan’s home and a live recording with Ragab playing with the Arkestra. Another reissue after the 2006 Cairo Jazz Band Presents Egyptian Jazz was A Tribute to Sun Ra/Latino in Cairo that was released in 2007.
Sun Ra’s ideas were dismissed as odd back then. Generations later, Ra’s legacy would be unearthed as one of the most fascinating jazz musicians in history, as his creative concepts have proven to be leaps and bounds ahead of his time. Similarly Ragab’s name is beginning to hold greater weight in world jazz history as we dig deeper into these important and fascinating trans-Atlantic alliances, and understand the relationships and cultural exchanges that have developed the world of jazz to where it now stands. Salah Ragab’s Egyptian jazz is the perfect marriage of music on opposing hemispheres, melding socio-religious beliefs, cultural customs, and the ideas of political liberation.
Words by Boyuan Gao