Thursday, May 25, 2006

In Memorium, Hamza El Din, Renaissance Composer And Musician

"Hamza El Din, an oud player and composer who reinvented the musical culture of Nubia and carried it worldwide, died Monday in Berkeley, Calif. He was 76.

The cause was complications after surgery, said his wife, Nadra, who survives him.

Mr. El Din's austere, hypnotic music was based on his research into the traditions of Nubia, an ancient North African kingdom on the upper Nile, which was a cradle of civilization.

Accompanying his reedy voice with concise, incantatory phrases on the oud, Mr. El Din created a meditative music that sought a timeless purity. He performed dressed in white, with a white turban. But he was also a cosmopolitan musician who taught ethnomusicology and lived in Rome, Tokyo, and California.

Hamza El Din was born in 1929 in Egypt, in what had been the territory of ancient Nubia, a crossroads of trade that flourished as early as the fourth millennium B.C. Nubia's former territory is now part of Egypt and the Sudan, and Mr. El Din's hometown, Toshka, was flooded after the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960's. He studied electrical engineering and worked for the national railroad in Cairo.

But he was drawn to music, first playing the round hand drum called the tar and then taking up the oud, a six-stringed lute. When he learned about the plans to build the Aswan Dam, which flooded much of ancient Nubia, he grew determined to preserve Nubian culture.

He studied Arabic music at Ibrahim Shafiq's Institute of Music and at the King Fouad Institute for Middle Eastern Music. He also traveled through villages in Egypt by donkey, collecting Nubian songs. With a grant from the Italian government, he studied Western music and classical guitar at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.

He drew on his studies, and on surviving Nubian traditions, to create music that fused rhythms and inflections from Nubia with Arabic classical elements and a virtuosic approach to the oud, an instrument not traditionally played in Nubia. He was reimagining the music of his home.

"One day, I felt the oud had the Nubian accent," he said in a 1996 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle. "I played for people in my village and they were mesmerized."

Mr. El Din performed in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded two albums for the folk label Vanguard in 1964 and 1965. He moved to the United States, where he was a mentor to musicians, including the guitarist and oud player Sandy Bull. He settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1971 his album "Escalay (The Water Wheel)" was released on the Nonesuch Explorer label....

Mr. El Din also made albums for Lotus Records and Sounds True. His music was used for movie soundtracks and for dance pieces by the Paris Opera Ballet, Maurice Béjart Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet; and he composed music for a version of the Aeschylus play "The Persians," directed by Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival." ...

Jon Pareles "Hamza El Din, 76, Oud Player and Composer, Is Dead" New York Times May 25, 2006 via


"What is art? Art is the expression of a human instinct, an irresistible urge of our deepest sensitivities, a fulfillment of our need for harmony and love of beauty. When the first man drew his hands together and clapped in shock or surprise, or felt joy in the movement of his body, he discovered rhythm and dance. Breathing through the throat or lips easily becomes humming or whistling and mimicking the sounds of nature becomes song. When man began to use these skills to express himself and to communicate he became the artist.

Art is born of a certain sensitivity the artist possesses to himself and his surroundings. The artist is the mouthpiece, the prophet, of certain faculties. The painter is the prophet of color harmony, shapes and space. The musician is the prophet of sound vibration and its harmony, the dancer of body movement, and the singer of the delight of the tongue, throat and vocal cords. All these faculties with which we are endowed demand expression and find their fulfillment in the artist’s creation.

I believe that we are endowed by our Creator with a love of beauty and harmony. The Prophet Muhammad said: “God is beautiful and He loves Beauty.” In my music I find a way of understanding and expressing the beauty and subtlety of our existence. My relation to my art has heightened my spirituality while elevating my general humanity. I am humbled by a creative process that I believe originates in a part of myself that we all share and that transcends the individual ego. I am, as it were, merely a trained medium for the transmission of a beauty and harmony that is a part of our higher nature and common inheritance. In music I express what is common to all of us and what is the best in each of us. I find my soul in losing my self, and in doing so I have found a life filled with the warm and loving acceptance and appreciation of people all over the world, regardless of culture, nationality, ethnicity or religious affiliation."

-- Hamza El Din

Renaissance Musician and Composer Hamza El Din

Text and Photo credit: California Arts Council. State of California. With thanks.


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