Hamza El Din

Early practitioner of world music


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.

Ken Hunt

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star