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

Life and Style
LifeReddit asked a simple question with infinite answers this week
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice