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The Riff Band brings old musical hits back to life

“The Riff Band,” the eight-member jazz group that has made Cairo swing since 2002, is participating in the second edition of Cairo’s Jazz Festival, which will bring together local and foreign jazz musicians at El Sawy Culture Wheel from 11 to 15 March.

Originally simply named “Riff,” in reference to a repeated melodic figure played by rhythm section instruments, the band adapted their name when singer Ahmed Harfoush joined in the late 90s.

“I saw the band onstage for the first time in the mid-90s at what was considered the coolest venue in town, the Cairo Jazz Club,” Harfoush recalls. “I was a guest singer with them for a while until I officially joined the band, and in 2000 I sang jazz in public for the first time.”

The singer’s dedication to the jazz universe grew gradually, cultivated by his vocal teacher and music mentor, Larry Catlin, “the person who ‘made’ Ahmed Harfoush,” says Harfoush.

For the very first time Harfoush was confronted with excerpts from old-school broadway musicals. In order to sing the showtunes, he had to learn to sing differently. “It was really a challenge at the beginning, but I gained confidence over the years,” says the artist, who was greatly influenced by the voice of Nat “King” Cole, a leading jazz pianist who owed most of his musical fame to his soft baritone voice.

Mel Tormé, an American musician known for his jazz singing and nicknamed “The Velvet Frog,” was also a great source of inspiration for Harfoush, who says “he sings jazz in the most ideal way,” attributing his own velvet voice to this early passion.

Larry Catlin followed Harfoush’s debut in the world of jazz very carefully and organised the band’s first stage appearance in 2002 at the American University in Cairo. “That concert is a wonderful memory; the public was thrilled by our performance in which we balanced jazz standards and famous oldies such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis and Ella Fitzgerald,” says Harfoush.

Since this concert, the popularity of The Riff Band grew remarkably as they created their own musical niche. “We are trying not to repeat ourselves," explains Harfoush, "and we want to offer our audience a stage performance that is more refreshing each time.”

The group members have fluctuated since the band’s debut, and today the bands counts six musicians and two singers. In 2008, singer Noha Fekry officially joined the group, introducing a hint of glamour to the band with her ravishing voice and elegant stage presence. The rest of the group is composed of Amr Khairy on drums, Hicham Galal on the piano, Dimitri Dimitrov–best referred to as “Mitko"–on the trumpet, Samer George on bass, Victor Lyskov on the trombone, and Aaron Jakes on the saxophone.

The band plays cover songs from broadway musicals ranging from the 30s to the 60s such as “The Music Man,” “Porgy n Bess,” and “Forty-Second Street,” as well as more modern hits such as “Mamma Mia!”

Harfoush explains that his band is working on a project, to be an integral part of the Cairo Cabaret Cultural Project (CCCP), that aims to revive musical hits from the 40s and the 50s, accompanied by stage performances.

“We participated in the first edition of the CCCP last summer along with the group “Divines” composed of three Spanish singers who also dance on stage,” explains Harfoush. The event brought the full cabaret experience to Cairo. “The audience was dressed in 40s and 50s outfits and it was simply fantastic and crazy,” says Harfoush, adding that the event is likely to be organized again.

“The Riff Band” will perform on 15 March at 9:30 PM at El Sawy Culture Wheel during the closing ceremony of the second Jazz Festival.

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