Hamza El Din
Early practitioner of world music
Friday 26 May 2006
Hamza El Din, oud and tar player, composer and engineer: born Wadi Halfa, Egypt 10 July 1929; married; died Berkeley, California 23 May 2006.
In 1978, the Grateful Dead pulled off one of their most spectacular feats. They obtained permission to play three benefits at the Great Pyramid of Giza that September.
The location was fit for purpose. As the Dead's bassist Phil Lesh wrote in his autobiography Searching for the Sound (2005), it was "the greatest of all places of geomantic power and numinous mystery". The moveable caravanserai encamped at Giza included members of California's rock aristocracy including the concert impresario Bill Graham and the writer Ken Kesey, an assortment of well-heeled American rug-rats and desert Bedouins who drifted by, and the Nubian master musician Hamza El Din.
The final night coincided with a total lunar eclipse. Shortly before the eclipse, El Din and his troupe began singing and playing frame drums. The moon began to disappear, the stars got brighter and local villagers began playing kitchen percussion and singing, as Lesh wrote, "to sing the moon back again". In an almost imperceptible coup de théâtre, "at the deepest point of the eclipse" one by one the Egyptians slipped off the stage as the Dead traded places with them. "The moon in the desert," Hamza El Din said,
is just like a cloudy sun. You could see clearly. Jerry [Garcia, the Dead's lead guitarist] was so excited, so me and my Nubian friends had to open before him, just before the eclipse.
During the first half of the 1960s, Hamza El Din had been one of the first practitioners of what would later be sold as "world music" in that wave of post-sitary interest in the music of other cultures. His primary instrument was the oud or 'ud, a short-necked lute with six courses of paired strings that was traditionally plucked with an eagle-feather quill. El Din was born in Wadi Halfa, a now displaced community sunk beneath the Aswan Dam, near the Egypt-Sudan border. He had an Islamic upbringing. It was, he said, "not really strict, not really orthodox, it was loose". The engineering feat represented by the hardly remembered Aswan Dam - the one that preceded the Aswan High Dam - coloured his imagination. As did Cairo, where he went to study electrical engineering at the university:
There I discovered the student musical association. I was able to enter that room and feel and touch those instruments for the first time in my life. Because in my culture, music is unheard of. It is not Nubian. My parents would never allow it. That was how I was introduced to the oud.
He graduated in 1948 and worked for the Egyptian railways but, as his awakened passion for music grew, he began studying music at the Institute of Music in Cairo. Pursuing his happiness he moved to Rome, where he fell in with a crowd of expatriate Americans. Serendipitously, one of them, Geno Foreman, was part of the East Coast folk scene. A tape Hamza had made of himself reached Joan Baez and she passed it to her record company, Vanguard. It set in train events that unfolded at a bewildering pace.
El Din arrived in the United States in October 1962 and began feeling his way around. Nineteen sixty-four proved the key year. He happened to collar U Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in the lead-up to the 1964 Human Rights Day. (The way he described it sounded so matter-of-fact and unimaginable in today's era of high security.) "I introduced myself," he told Folk Roots,
and they tried to refuse me because they only played classical music. I asked, "What do you mean? Who said only western music is classical?" . . . He said, "Who said that?" I told him the gentleman running the office. He called him, introduced me and I played the Human Rights Day.
That year he also played the Newport Folk Festival, North America's most important folk festival and appeared on the commemorative album Newport Folk Festival 1964: evening concerts as well as débuting with his first Vanguard album, Music of Nubia (1964). This was also his début playing the tar, a traditional frame drum and an important factor in bringing him to the attention of the Grateful Dead's percussionist-drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Al Oud (1965) followed.
Hamza went on to record extensively. Certain projects, however, stand out. Escalay ("Water Wheel", 1971) remains a pinnacle and its title track was included on the Kronos Quartet's Pieces of Africa (1992) - on which El Din played tar.
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