A Journey: An Education… Yehya Khalil

Posted: February 3, 2007 in Uncategorized

Holding on to your dream: A journey

Born in Cairo and living his childhood and adolescent years in the same neighborhood he grew up in, sitting in his studio in his Heliopolis residence, Khalil remembers that; “ there was a lot of desert and villas and a few houses here and there. It was pretty quiet.” For many foreigners, Heliopolis was the residential district of choice. “It was very unique, yet also very European. I had a great time growing up here.”


Music has always attracted me, since I was almost four years old..

What attracts you to music

I am immediately attracted to anything that sounds good.. I like many different kinds of music. Not one specific form. It’s like people, I like all kinds of good people. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from, if they’re nice people then they’re nice. If they’re shitty people it doesn’t really matter where they come from. it’s the same with music, all the different types of music help open your mind, like talking to many people with a nice insight into life. Music energizes me, gives me life, gives me ideas, opens up my mind as well as my spirit. I love it!

When I was young I was really attached to jazz. I wanted to play it. My basic inspiration was Voice of America’s jazz hour show, it was only a one hour weekly, but I’d record those shows and listen to them over and over. I’d pick up the names of the artists, and I bought one of those Cairophone record players, the only one available [at the time], and I went to the Columbia store downtown and bought all of the jazz records they had left after they stopped importing, and started listening to them. I remember being a 14 year old kid who walked into the American embassy here telling them listen I really like jazz and they said there’s a monthly magazine we get called ‘Downbeat’ so if you pop round during the middle of the month everyone would have read it and you can have it… And that’s literally what happened every 15th I’d find them saving me the month’s copy of Downbeat. So thanks for what I could get.

So I followed through both the radio and records and through the releases and articles in the magazine what was happening in the music scene. Then it was a matter of getting people who traveled a lot to try and bring these records over with them. And so it grew-

I started playing when I was 14. With people like Labeeb Hunein, an excellent drummer and great friend, who collaborated with the likes of Dalida and Azzam, the guy who wrote Mustafa ya Mustafa.. I learned a lot from Adeeb. I also learned a lot from Giovanni Almonza, I used to travel to him in Alex every week to receive my tuition.

I played around, created the first jazz group in Egypt from1962 to ‘66. I had a jazz program on the radio in 64 when TV was still black and white..

And how old where you..

I was 18.

You were 18 and had your own radio show?

Yes and everybody was saying that I was the best, when I was thinking how I knew nothing. So I went to the states to study and meet all these great musicians I was fascinated by, and try to absorb from them life, not simply music, because I thought they were very special. So I went to New York, then went to Chicago and joined the Roy Knapp school pf percussion, which was a relief to finally find a place to study after all that searching. All of this came in the search of where to go and what the right path or approach would be.. Then I got a break when I was taken in by the legendary Gene Krupa, the first star drummer ever in the 30s and 40s.. The guy who taught all my idols. I followed him around for ages, as I was told that if he likes me he’ll teach me. He taught one or two guys a year, because he doesn‘t want to teach anymore. One day he finally turns and smiles and we laugh and he tells me to bring my stuff and start next week. I stayed with him for five years. He was just such an amazing guy, such an amazing amount of knowledge, he knew everybody and anybody. He knew what they were like. He’d just be talking, making an example and the names he’d use were so big. It’s like someone telling you what the pharaohs were talking about! He taught me about life.. About humans. He taught me how music can make you a better person.

I had a wonderful experience playing music with a lot of different bands in the 60s. I played jazz, rock, country, soul. I did small bands, big bands. Everything.

Which were your favorite moments

From day one to my last day there it was always divine. It was always new, always good.

…The first time I played a stadium in Detroit with over 55,000 people, that was an experience! Just the crowd breathing felt like standing next to an airplane. We were told we’re opening up for a band. They had a hit on the air- white room that was getting a lot of air time. They told me the three guys from England were jack goose on bass and ginger baker was on the drums and Eric Clapton on the guitar. The band was called cream.

One main hope I always had was to try and popularize jazz music. I believed that through jazz I could share all the wonderful moments in my journey- all the good dreams, the good feelings and experiences.

His dream was to establish a jazz school into the framework of the institutions cared for by the Cairo Opera House on their spacious grounds. His dream is yet to be realized as the building allocated was used to accommodate the new security offices. It would have been Egypt’s first jazz school- still would be. ..

At a time I thought I could the jazz school was a possibility, but then the administration changed. they took the premises dedicated to the jazz school for some other function. Even TV, they would never air any jazz. And then one day the faces change and the people that held the cards would be like ‘oh my child has just been to see you at so and so‘.. And slowly I got my chance to air the first jazz program on Egyptian TV.

Through studies, travels, reflections and attempts to educate the masses, Yehya Khalil demands respect from one and all. His journey has been an eventful one, and paths have crossed with many a legend, jazz or otherwise : Oliver Jones, John Lee, Van Freeman, Hendrix, Chicago, Al Di Meola, The Who and Dizzy Gillespie -to name a few. Since volumes would be needed to encompass his world, we would just like to take the opportunity to express wishes for a continued magical journey, and our thanks for our time in the hospitality of the Jazzman, and all the inspiration he provides to us.


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