'Bluzapalooza' sets Cairo Opera House on fire

Chitra Kalyani
6 Min Read

When the US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey says a band has a “nice mojo, you better take her word for it.

When blues artist Billy Gibson repeatedly sang “I like my mojo, pushing Scobey throughout the evening to dance, the American ambassador finally relented with the compliment at the evening’s finale.

A collection of blues award nominees from Memphis were presented last Friday at the packed open-air theater at the Cairo Opera House under the umbrella of “Bluzapalooza III.

“I choreograph them so that the energy keeps building, said producer Steve Simon, who sported a maroon suit with a diamond-studded “BLUES lapel-pin.

Simon, who also performed on the clarinet, told Daily News Egypt that the line-up intended to “honor the fact that [ambassador Scobey] was born and raised in Memphis.

Presented by the Armed Forces Entertainment, an agency of the American Defense Department that provides entertainment to overseas US military personnel, the performance was customized to the taste of the self-confessed “bluesaholic ambassador to Egypt.

“Blues began in the Mississippi Delta as an American form of music, the ambassador said, “but derives from the religious and spiritual music of Africa. Memphis, Tennessee, and Beale Street especially, remains a center for the blues.

Hitting the right notes from the get-go, the band Delta Highway set the vibe for an energetic evening.

Opening with a bang, upbeat numbers and wah-wah harmonica and guitar, the four-piece band performed songs like “The Devil Had a Woman (That Looked a Lot Like You) and “23 Hours, to the beat of Keven Eddy’s drums.

Delivered with the deep toned harmonica and vocals of Brandon Santini, alongside the skillful guitar solos of Justin Sulek – the two original founders of the band, Delta Highway also featured a mean-looking, chapeau-toting bassist Paul Chase who kept tempo with the smooth side-to-side motion of his head.

“The songs are all formatted, but solos are all improv, Sulek told Daily News Egypt. “Depending on what kind of crowd you have, what kind of feeling you get, you do different things. So tonight was a good one.

“If you enjoy it, said Sulek, who has played the guitar for an umpteen number of years, performing on your instrument is “pretty much vacation.

Eden Brent then struck down on her piano, the expressions on her face showing puzzlement then delight as she improvised on both her music and her lyrics. Her boogie-woogie number thus became a dedication to her teacher – “I’m crazy about Bugaloo Ames, she said – while the Nile River ran through another song lyric.

While “Fried Chicken brought home the “most delightful, quite exciteful, very inviteful food, her sing-along Ray Charles’ number was not much success, and the audience didn’t have much to return to her “What do you say? call.

Harmonica artist Billy Gibson was the incontestable show-stealer, pumping an upbeat, staccato and fast-paced harmonica and singing naughtily and earnestly into the microphone.

Known as the “Prince of Beale Street, the street where blues is said to be born, Gibson said he thinks it was the harmonica that chose him.

The Beale Street Entertainer of the Year, who has been “carrying the harmonica around since he was eight, said he carried it with “no expectations, no weight. It was just fun. I just enjoyed playing. And then I’ve just been playing ever since.

“To be able to come all this way, and share music “is wonderful, but that is where the work comes in. “The work is not in the performance, not in the playing. One of the larger challenges was travel.

“What people see at the concert is just the result of a lot of people coming together to make something great happen. This is the work, he says, pointing at people moving equipment.

“I thought there was a lot of joy in the room, said Gibson about the revelry that broke out as the audience willingly danced and sang along to “Why Don’t You Love Everybody? or the repeated “I like my mojo.

“Most of the time I kind of get lost, said Gibson about his best moments, “The best times are just when I let myself go.

“The music fills me, fills the house, fills everybody else, he said, noting reverberation of enthusiasm as young and old danced uninhibitedly.

“I felt so much joy and energy. I got fired up. Then the band got fired up. And then, said Gibson, “the house was on fire.

But then Beale Street and Memphis Bluesapalooza blues could – and did – really set the Nile on fire.

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