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
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Life and Style
Gap announced its same-store sales were down 6 per cent in August, and 3 per cent in September
fashionAlexander Fury explains where Gap is going wrong
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
News
Rainbow List
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Cronenberg: 'Ageing is part of life. There is a beauty to it; you just have to find a way to grasp that beauty'
arts + ents
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

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Legal 500 Firm

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solic...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?