Insight Magazine
The Sound of Jazz

August ‘14
His journey is nothing but the resoluteness and determination of a young boy who once had a dream, and with the power of his magical talent it turned into reality. Not enough words can describe this force, but I was more than honored to sit with the man who changed our entire perspective towards Jazz music legendary Yehya Khalil
I discovered when I was young that you have to stick to what you really want to do. I was always committed to do what makes me feel happy, what makes me feel like myself and I found myself in Jazz.
Yehya Khalil
By Rania Ihab

First, tell us why did you choose the drums?

I saw a movie about the lifetime of Gene Krupa, who became the first solo drummer in the Jazz world. His family didnt want him to play music; they wanted him to be a priest, and in order to make his sick father happy he became a priest. One day, he went to see his friends, they asked him to play and he remembered again that this is what he really wants to do. He left his career as a priest and returned to playing the drums and they show you how hard he worked to achieve his dream. Then he moved to New York and became the lead drummer of Benny Goodmans band. After that he created his own band and became a sensation. Mainly after watching that movie, I wanted to be a drummer.

When I was young, I used to listen to the radio, thats all we had then, especially the directed transmission from Washington DC. There was a program called Jazz Hour presented by Willis Conover, he had a very deep voice talking about Jazz that it touched my heart and soul, I found myself falling for Jazz music and I wanted to be a part of that world with all its different styles, sounds and instruments. When I learned the Gene Krupa story, I said, Tomorrow I am going to buy a drum set and put it in the house. Ever since I started playing every single day, all day and all night.

How did your parents react to your decision?

My parents didnt like my decision at all! My father was not happy about this decision and he blamed my mother for giving me money to buy the drums. He thought that this was the beginning of my rebellious phase. No one in my family is a musician so my choice was very unusual, but eventually they had to accept because that was my choice.

The second disaster came when I told them that I am traveling to the States. I have been working on it for years, I wanted to find a way to be among all the Jazz legends and learn from them. Leaving the country at that time was not an easy thing to do, but during Nassers time we started promoting the idea of Arab nationals leaving their countries. Then they released a law that if you have an invitation from another Arab country you are allowed to travel. Luckily, one of my friends fathers was working in Beirut University, so they gave me my passport for one month and my visa for one week to go to Lebanon. I have been working and making money to save for my big trip since I was 14, and I used to send the money to my friend so when I travel I would have some money in hand. I knew they wouldnt let me take any money with me when I travel because at that time if you had your visa, you were only allowed to leave the country with 5 pounds. I went to Beirut with some money to hold me a little bit and I spent almost a year there playing music. We had a small studio apartment in Hamra and I played in Caf du Bois, Vinicia, Saint George and many nice places. All that time I was making arrangements to move to the states.

When I moved to the states, I was very lucky that I started playing music in less than two months and everything happened to me very fast. I was living in a reservation area and then I moved to Brooklyn, when I arrived I saw a building which was only two floors. I asked the owner to sign for rent, he said, I only have this club down here and I have three apartments, one on top of the club and two upstairs. And he invited me to the club that turned to be one of the most famous Blues clubs in the whole country, where some of the great guys like Albert King, Johnny Hooker play with many others. One day, my neighbor who is a photographer came and told me that a country singer heard me playing and was interested to meet me in person. When I met him, he invited me to travel with him and his band to record an album in Atlanta. I agreed and in a matter of weeks we had a hit track called, Reach out of the Darkness. I was very lucky to have this kind of experience, for I didnt play any rock music before, and I got to experience this powerful type of music that I am not really used to. Suddenly I found myself touring the country, playing with many people. At that time, you would find a lot of huge names at the same concert; we shared the bill with people like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream

You seem really happy talking about this journey.

I discovered when I was young that you have to stick to what you really want to do. I was always committed to do what makes me feel happy, what makes me feel like myself and I found myself in Jazz. Jazz is a way of life; it is a style of living and a philosophy that teaches you things about freedom, respect, organization, happiness and peace. It teaches you to express yourself and to make your own statement in life. I am happy about my career, I am happy about my accomplishments, I made Jazz a popular music and this was part of my mission. For years I have been teaching people about Jazz, its different styles, its history. I had a program called The World of Jazz on Channel 2, it aired from the 90s and stayed for 15 years and it was a big hit back then. I taught Jazz history and its different styles, like the Swing, the Cool Jazz, and the Avant-Garde Then the different styles that came after that, that nourished the theme like the Latin Jazz of Latin America, that became very popular in the 70s, the classical Jazz, which is merging classical music with Jazz. Jacques Loussier in France is specialized in Jazz styling Bach music, he is great.Then I decided to have an imprint in this music by creating what we call oriental Jazz, which is a mix between Egyptian music, Pop music and Jazz.

Like Donia in Rhythm of Soul

Of course, you see the improvising, the saxophone, you have the Egyptian music combined with the feelings, the dancing and the swinging of the Jazz. I also did some medleys for Om Kalthoum, so you hear Om Kalthoum in a modern kind of way that young people would accept to listen to.

What is your next step?

I have an album next season, a festival next season, more festivals and more travelling all around the world, new places hopefully, and some celebration for life that we are still around making people happy and thats what makes us happy.

What did you learn from Roy Knapp?

I learned a lot about Jazz, I learned a lot about music, life, history and different things about my idols because he knew them all. I got to learn about their history, their lives, their personalities and how the things that happened in their lives affected them. There is nothing like this experience, I respect the people who know more than I do, I respect the people who taught me everything, Thats why I dont have any patience with any of my students who doesnt understand the values or the rules. One time I fired someone, two years later he called me and kept saying, Thank you for what you taught me, I pray for you every day, I still live on the values you taught me. Whoever works with me must desire to do something, and value and understand what I am saying and what I am willing to do, because with me they are stars and if you want to be a star you have to respect the audience. Thats the difference between playing Jazz in general and practicing any other kind of Art, because what you get with Jazz is all the rules. With the success of this world many people tend to misuse it, so you might hear a lot of lousy things that fall under Jazz music but they are not.

I traveled around the world and performed in many different countries. We did the Jazz festival in South Africa, then in Victoria University, we performed in Nigeria last year, Oman last year, we went to Italy, Greece, Siberia, Nigeria, this year the world music festival in Vienna was nice, we went to Morocco, Moscow opera house and my concerts here always have a wonderful feedback. Yet, it is important to know that you wont please everybody; if you try to satisfy everybody youll end up satisfying no one at all.

Do you consider Jazz a cultural luxury in Egypt?

No it is not a luxury at all, as a matter of fact, Jazz music came from the African slaves who built the foundation of Jazz. They invented this music to express their anger, sadness and pain asking for their freedom and independence. After that the Europeans added a lot to this African invention that it became a lot deeper and the music started to fill the world. As they say, Jazz is the Africans gift to America and Americas gift to the world. In less than 50 years, Jazz became one of the most famous folk music, something that didnt happen for around 400 years. This shows that there is something magical about this music, because all the people all around the world are touched by Jazz, and thats why it is special.

Does it have a sense of revolution?

Jazz is a revolutionary kind of music, its the African slaves call to gain equality and freedom and thats why people all around the world love it, for it is always evolving and gives whoever stands to say a statement a space to say this statement, it is the reason of the slaves liberation, they were liberated by the sound of Jazz, it is the reason they got everything.

What inspired you to introduce Jazz in Egypt after returning from America, and do you believe Egyptians were ready for such a musical shock?

I dont think that it is a musical shock at all; Egyptians enjoy everything when they get the chance, they are not different. I travelled the world and met a lot of people, I feel that all people are the same; they all want to live a simple happy life. Good music imposes itself anywhere, sometimes we impose bad music claiming thats what people want and thats not true. People want to be happy and they will take what you give them. The more open the society is and the more open the music is, the more we have chances for Art and Culture. Freedom gives us the chance to criticize ourselves so we become better and that only happens with revolution.

I remember when I was in America, when we were playing specifically in the south; we used to see some bars hanging signs saying, No Negros are allowed, now the American president is a black citizen. Here we are moving backwards because the quality people are leaving the country and we have no qualifications at all. People who have aims and dreams travel to foreign countries where they can achieve these dreams.

Then in your opinion what do we lack?

We need to learn to respect each other and to respect our differences. We dont need to have one opinion, we must know that the best thing in life is freedom and we need to gain our freedom without hurting each other. I remember back in the days Egypt was filled with Armenians, Italians, Christians and we all lived loving and respecting each other. Girls used to walk in the streets and no one would dare to look at them, whats happening now is a really bad thing!

Then do you think there is hope?

There is hope of course! The new generations now have technology and they are open to everything. We need unique, different ideas to nourish our country, but we are still living in bureaucracy we dont trust the younger generations.

Bureaucracy or because at the end we are not experienced enough?

Of course, but still we dont value the talents, we tend to cause a lot of problems to whoever stands-alone. We need to give the younger generations their chance to take us to a better place. We have been standing still for a very long time; we still need the time and energy of those who can lead us to a better future. We must have hope; we must be positive that we can do it because we have what it takes and even more.

How can you describe your journey?

I love my journey I am so happy with it, I am not sorry for anything I did; Id do it all over again if I got the chance. I feel like I am just starting my career and for me there is nothing better than that. I was young when I first tasted success, but now I know that it is the real value of life. The feeling that I make people happy cannot be replaced by anything in life. I love my band, I have the top-notch players in the country, we are always travelling around the world, its booming.

How can you evaluate the musical scene in Egypt?

A lot of nonsense everywhere thats for sure, but we are always looking in the middle of all that nonsense for someone who is really talented that can make positive steps.

How does it feel to be Yehya Khalil?

I feel like anybody else! My happiest moment is when I feel I am touching their souls and making them happy. On stage I never plan what to play, I go according to how I feel and I derive these feelings from the audience. I feel that I am special as every one is special his/her own way, I am proud that I touched so many people, that I served the country and the society.

How do you spend the day of a concert?

I wake up, have my coffee and some breakfast, I go to the gym, if were in summer I swim a little bit, if its cold I go to the SPA. I refresh myself then I go straight to the venue, make a sound-check, rehearse with my band and make sure everything is perfect. Then we relax before we go on stage, after that I have dinner with my friends and relax.

How do you prepare for a new album?

I dont prepare for my albums! I experiment, I record and then I collect some of my tracks and release them in an album.

What inspired you to start your foundation for Jazz?

I wanted to create my own albums, do my Jazz festivals and let people enjoy the music. Also if I wanted to release a book, a documentary or anything and to help the young talents. I try to do whatever I can positively to help the country.