Encouraged at 17 by his father to join a choir, Ahmed Harfoush joined a formation called the Cairo Singers. Rehearsals held at the Italian Cultural Center taught him how to read sheet music, and exposed him to choir singing and performing on stage. Gaining confidence in his singing ability, Harfoush formed a band called 12 Strings with a few guitarists and it was at a show at the American University in Cairo that he caught the ear of the university’s Music Department Head. Larry Catlin invited him to join his student choir, the Osiris Singers, an opportunity that introduced Harfoush to musical theatre and jazz singing. This really ignited his interest and love for jazz, a form of music he had admired since the days of his childhood in the United States.
In 2001 Cairo Jazz Club opened, and by attending events at the club and rubbing shoulders with fellow musicians, Harfoush was introduced to a group called Riff – a band he later joined. They rebranded to The Riff Band and started booking gigs all over town. Fast-forward 16 years later, Ahmed Harfoush is now a full-time entertainer living between Cairo and London. He fronts The Riff Band in Cairo and The HarfousH Jazz Band in London. He also recently launched the Egyptian Jazz Projekt, spreading his unique mixture of classic Egyptian songs and jazz to music festivals across Europe. Cairo West Magazine caught up with this busy man to learn more about his inspirations, plans, and projects for the future.
A.H: Yes, because I grew up in a very musical house. My auntie was into rock n’ roll, my mother taught me the cha-cha and Tango dancing, my dad bought me a keyboard when I was a kid and encouraged explore melodies on my own. Dad always had the radio on and I grew up on The Carpenters and Neil Diamond, so I’ve always been drawn to this era.
What do you love the most about working with music?
I’m an entertainer more than a singer. When you’re a good singer and a good entertainer, it makes all the difference. What I love doing is including everybody in the room with me. I love the fact that the fans come to my shows and know what to expect, but every time is different because it depends on the energy of the room on that night. When they give me energy, I give it back. It’s all about reciprocity.
What are your favorite songs to perform on stage?
I love performing jazz, which is my thing and my first love really. But what I also really love is performing Motown, like The Drifters, The Temptations, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. Because of my childhood in the States, there is a bit of me that resonates musically with Motown. It brings back memories, and it’s very personal. Jazz is not personal, but Motown is. I love performing “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder, and basically anything by Cole Porter like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – a song most people associate with Frank Sinatra. My favorite jazz standards to sing are Cole Porter songs.
Do you prefer singing solo, in a duet, or part of a larger ensemble?
I love it all! They all have different vibes though. I’ve done 70-piece orchestras, I’ve done Big Band, I’ve done quartets, duos and solos. All have a different effect on the audience. Singing with an orchestra though is a dream, the arrangement of the strings drives me crazy, I find it very nurturing to the soul.
How is the holiday season special in terms of music?
Again, it goes back to my childhood, the minute I start hearing Christmas songs, it strikes a chord. It’s just a happy time. I add on a selection of fun, classic, upbeat Christmas tunes to my singing repertoire of course!
What do you have coming up this season in terms of events?
It’s going to be a mix of performances in London and Cairo. On December 17th, I’ll be in Cairo performing with The Riff Band in Cairo Jazz Club, celebrating our 15 years together as a group. We’ll also be doing some gigs around Christmas time, so stay tuned to our social media for announcements. In London, I’ll be singing with a 70-piece jazz orchestra to celebrate the New Year – which is already sold out!
Tell us more about some of your new projects.
I’m releasing a brand-new original song called Sweet Little Sin, it’s a mix of electro-swing, Tango, Sade, Simply Red and Broadway – people are responding really well to it! It should be out on iTunes in January. I’m also touring music festivals in Europe with The Egyptian Jazz Projekt. I wanted to create some arrangements that fused the era of American Jazz with the era of classic Egyptian tunes from the 50s and 60s. Think Abdelhalim Hafez, Farid el Atrash, and Fayrouz “jazzified”, fresh and new. We performed in Paris and London in October, Berlin in November, and we will be performing in Lebanon in January and Amman in March – it’s only the beginning. I want to spread this across the world!