Wednesday, May 31, 2006

PASSINGS: Hamza el Din 1929 - 2006

Long considered the Father of Nubian Music, oud and tar master Hamza el Din passed away on May 23, 2006 in Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, of complications due to a serious disease that is currently being reported as either a gall bladder infection or brain surgery. When Shona marimba master Dumisani Maraire (Dumi) died suddenly in 1999, Hamza , who worked with him in the late 70's in the same prestigious Music Department at the University of Washington memorialized him with these words...

" You may feel sad, but this is actually an occasion of joy, as his soul is released from this world."

The same can be said for El Din himself. Born in 1929 in the Nubian town of Toshka, near Wadi Haifa in Northern Sudan, now located in Egypt, El Din was originally an electrical engineering student at what is now the University of Cairo in Egypt. While in school he learned to play the oud, a fretless direct ancestor of the European lute, and the tar hand drum . He then changed direction and enrolled in the King Fouad Institute for Middle Eastern Music, where be studied his traditional instruments and began composing his own original music. Later, with an Italian government grant, he studied Western music and classical guitar at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. Later still, he emigrated to the U.S. where he lived and worked as a recording and concert artist, and taught as a ethonomusicologist in many schools, including the University of Ohio in Athens, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Texas in Austin. Aided by a grant from the Japan Foundation, he went to Tokyo to make a comparative study between the Arabian oud and the Japanese biwa during the 1980's where he met up and collaborated with the Kodo Drummers.

El Din became known around the world as a composer and master of the Nubian instruments, and became visible to American audiences when he performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. He played an important role in modernizing and popularizing Nubian music, using his work to evoke stories of his ancient pre-Islamic Nubian culture. On a fellowship in the U.S. to study Western classical music he was introduced to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. This resulted in a contract with Vanguard Records. His mid-60's debut recording, Al Oud: Instrumental and Vocal Music From Nubia, was one of the first world music recordings to receive exposure in the West.

In 1971 El Din released his most popular recording, Escalay: The Water Wheel, which is arguably the best-known album of traditional Egyptian folk music in the West. Side one features a 21-and-a-half minute musical composition and poem built on one pulsating drone that rises and falls continually creating hypnotic layers of harmonics with El Din's wordless haunting vocalizations.

The oud's name derives from the word al-oud, which means a branch of wood. The oud has five pairs of strings with each pair tuned to the same pitch, and with a single string, also the thickest and known as the bamteli. The oud, known throughout the Eastern world both from documentation and handed down through oral tradition, is regarded as the king, sultan, or emir of musical instruments and is considered by many to be the principal instrument of the Arabs. El Din is also a master of one of the most ancient of drums - a frame drum - called the tar, the single-skinned frame drum of the upper Nile.

El Din is best-known in the West by helping to organize and playing with the Grateful Dead for their now historic performance at the Great Pyramids at Giza in 1978. He continued to play with and open for the Dead back in the States and worked with the Dead into the 1990's, collaborating with Mickey Hart on a few Rykodisc albums and compilations.

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who practiced daily for six years to master the tar that El Din gave him, says this about him:

"Hamza's music was mesmerizing. Hypnotic and trancelike. Hamza taught me about the romancing of the drum. His music was very subtle and multilayered. He was a deep listener. Sometimes the music we played together was so soft we could hardly hear ourselves. He'd just suck you into this vortex, and all of a sudden what was quiet seemed loud in its intensity. He suspended time.''

In 1992 El Din collaborated with the Kronos Quartet on their album Pieces of Africa, along with such other musicians as the aforementioned Dumi and Hassan Hakmoun. El Din's most recent recording A Wish was released in 1999.

Hamza el Din also teamed up with director Peter Sellars for their version of the Aeschylus play The Persians at the Salzburg Festival. His compositions have been performed by many ballet companies such as the Maurice Bejart Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Molissa Fenley Dance Company, and the Lines Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco. The prolific and always creative Hamza el Din resided in the Oakland, California and continued to perform and teach until his death at 76.

Click here for the Hamza el Din Discography.


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