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The King of the Kazoo

We all have memories that make our toes curl in embarrassment. Here's one of many that I have......

It was such an incongruous sight that I stopped dead in my tracks. There, in the middle of Tahrir Square, within the busiest roundabout in Cairo was a fair-headed westerner calmly preparing a meal on a stove with his tent erected behind him.

More than a hundred Egyptians stood or squatted around him watching his every move.

I darted among the five lanes of honking traffic them pushed my way through the throng to say hello, and he looked up with a charming smile on one of the most open, clear-eyed faces I’d ever seen.

‘Just in time,’ he said. ‘Coffee will be ready in a couple of minutes.’

He busied himself with the preparation, flicking his long hair back over his shoulder with tosses of his head.

Philip was American, just up from a long camel trek in the desert, and on his way to the Sinai ‘and India maybe, not quite decided yet.’

As we sipped our drinks, I felt oppressed by the crowd that watched our every move. If only they had asked us questions or talked among themselves, it would have been tolerable. But they just watched impassively, settling down on their haunches on the sparse grass. Most were smoking. All were men.

‘Hotels are pretty cheap. Mine costs only five dollars a night,’ I said. ‘Do you need some money?’

‘No, honestly I’m fine,’ he said, ‘but thanks all the same. I’ve spent six weeks camping out under the stars and I can’t take those airless rooms any more.’

‘Won’t you get robbed here?’

‘Hasn’t happened over the past three nights.’

‘Police not moved you on?’

‘They come by from time to time and check my passport, but they stopped hassling me after I’d signed a piece of paper saying that if I was murdered or robbed, it wouldn’t be their fault!’

‘Oh, that’s all right then! Very comforting.’


I noticed a guitar poking out of the tent door, and he told me that he’d got a gig playing in the cocktail lounge of the Hilton every evening.

‘Ten dollars, two drinks and a big sandwich is my pay. You should come along tonight and I might be able to get you a drink.’

‘Don’t think I’m dressed for a cocktail bar,’ I replied with a laugh.

‘I don’t think they care much. I turn up like I am now, just jeans and a T shirt.’

‘Ah, but you’re the troubadour!’

‘Ever played a Kazoo?’ he asked.

‘A what?’


‘No.’ I’d never heard of them back then.

‘Bet you can hum though, can’t you? Hum Happy Birthday for me.’


‘Go on. Just a few bars of the tune.’

I did, and he smiled merrily.  

“Very tunefully too. So you can play a kazoo no problem.’

He stuck his head into the tent, and after rummaging around produced a little metal trumpet that he put to his mouth and played a jazzy rendition of ‘Summertime.’

The Egyptians stirred to attention, but no-one spoke or smiled.

Handing it to me, he instructed  ‘Hum down it not blow,’ and I experimented with a few snatches of melody.

‘That’s good. Keep practising today, and come along with me tonight.’

‘Nah, I don’t think so.’

‘Just to sit and watch me. I might not be able to get you a drink or food, but the manager can’t object to you sitting there.’

‘OK.’ I finished my coffee, and stood up. ‘Got to check my mail at American Express. What time shall I meet you at the Hilton?’

‘5.30 in the lobby?’

‘Fine. See you then.’


We met in the lobby of the Ramses Hilton, a skyscraper on the banks of the Nile. I’d tried to smarten my appearance as this was not my usual class of haunt, but I’m sure I still looked scruffy. The manager agreed to me entering the bar, but asked me to sit at a table almost behind Philip. The place was busy with a mix of ex-pats, travelling businessmen and westernized Egyptian couples.

Philip played a selection of songs – Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, and the like, plus some classical pieces. He had a pleasant easy manner, and made some self-deprecating jokes that got a few chuckles, but generally he was ignored as all cocktail bar musicians tend to be.

A drink had appeared in front of me. Free, I hoped, as it probably cost a usual day’s budget, and I was relaxing and enjoying myself, when I heard Philip say.

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen. I have a special treat for you tonight! All the way from England….’

‘Philip! No! Don’t do this man!’

He smiled mischievously, and I saw that 3 empty beer bottles were on the table beside him.

‘All the way from England, I have John on Kazoo. So put your hands together and give a warm welcome to this fine musician!’

I had to stand and shuffle forward, and pull up a seat alongside.

‘Fuck Philip,’ I whispered. ‘What did you do that for? I haven’t practised it since I saw you earlier.’

‘Oh dear. All my music pupils back home were the same. Never practised as they should!’

‘I’m going.’

‘No, don’t go. All you have to do is tootle along a little accompaniment. Like a rhythm and bass line, especially in the choruses.’

The patrons might have wondered what a kazoo was, and I expect they were disappointed in this approximation to a comb and toilet paper, but I did as he suggested for a couple of songs, keeping a low profile and trying not to wreck his music.

I could see the manager standing at the bar, staring intently at us.

Then Philip dropped me in it again. Half way through a jazzy instrumental, he turned to me and said loudly “Take it away John!’

Well I tried to do a long sort of saxophone solo that killed the conversation dead. I trilled and ripped up and down the scales, and Philip merrily tried to pursue my racket with chords and arpeggios.

We finally came to a stop, to a deafening absence of applause. I mopped the sweat of embarrassment off my forehead, and looked up to see the manager leaning furiously over us.

‘Philip,’ he hissed. ‘Who’s this clown? Get him off the stage. Now!’

He turned to me. ‘Just get out of here. This is a sophisticated bar, not some primary school. That was an excruciating racket.’

Philip still had a devil-may-care twinkle in his eye, but he shrugged an apology and said ‘see you tomorrow’ before he launched into another song.

I slunk out the back door.

When I went to see him at the roundabout the next morning his tent was gone and I never saw him again.