One of the Millennium Stage's earliest international musicians and composers, Hamza El Din, friend and colleague to Western musicians including the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, and Kronos Quartet, died on May 22, 2006, in Berkeley, CA. He was to have played at a benefit concert just a few days before. (Listen to an NPR interview from 1999.) Tributes range from Rolling Stone Magazine to The Times of London (see Press, below).
In December 2005, I wrote a letter to Ustadh Hamza, of which the following is excerpted:
It is a great honor to write to you. I have been listening to your Escalay album since I was about ten years old... "I Remember" and "The Water Wheel" are two songs that play in my head as naturally and pleasantly as the sound of water in a stream. Since then, I went on to study the Middle East region and even went on a fellowship to study Arabic... Last year, I joined the Community Advisory Board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with a mission of reaching out to the communities of the Middle East and Central Asia... When I compiled the new portal for Middle East and Central Asia performances at the Kennedy Center, I found that you, ya Ustadh, had been the first performer from the region to grace the Millennium Stage. If I may suggest, I believe that the Kennedy Center is overdue for your return performance... 2006 marks the 35th anniversary of Escalay as well as the seventh year since you played here... are you interested?... Regardless, again, it is an honor to write you. I am listening to your Millennium Stage performance at this moment, but I started this journey years ago with Escalay.
CLICK HERE to watch and listen to Hamza El-Din's Performance on May 4, 1999, from the Kennedy Center's Video Archive.
(Hamza El-Din's nephew, Karam Mirad, performed on the Millennium Stage in June 2006.)
The San Francisco Chronicle ran this obituary:
The New York Times wrote:
Hamza El Din -- Nubian musician who played with Grateful DeadJesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
Hamza El Din, oud virtuoso, set out to preserve the music...
Hamza El Din, the celebrated Nubian musician whose rich fusion of Arabic and Nubian sounds entranced audiences worldwide and inspired colleagues like the Grateful Dead and Kronos Quartet, died Monday at a Berkeley hospital from a gallbladder infection. He was 76.
A longtime Oakland resident, Mr. El Din was a subtle master of the oud, the Arabic precursor of the lute, and the tar, the single-skinned drum that originated in Nubia, the ancient upper Nile land that was largely submerged after the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s. Mr. El Din sought to preserve his native culture, singing Nubian songs and stories in a warm, reedy voice that merged with his instrumental overtones to create music of quiet intensity and beauty.
"It was mesmerizing. Hypnotic and trancelike,'' said Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. "Hamza taught me about the romancing of the drum. His music was very subtle and multilayered.
"He was a deep listener,'' added Hart, who practiced daily for six years to master the tar Mr. El Din gave him. Sometimes the music they 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.''
Mr. El Din, who created music for The Black Stallion and other films, first played with the Dead in '78 at Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza and joined the band a few months later at San Francisco's Winterland with a group of Sufi drummers. He was a serenely joyous man whose glowing black face was framed by his flowing white garb and headdress.
"He was sweet, gentle soul,'' said Hart, who recalled that night at Winterland when Mr. El Din had the whole crowd clapping the 12-beat rhythm of the Nubian number "Olin Arageed.'' "If you took the time to visit his sonic universe, he'd welcome you with open arms. It was a joyous experience. Jerry (Garcia) just loved to play with him.''
So did Joan Jeanrenaud, the cellist who first met Mr. El Din in the 1980s when she was a member of the Kronos Quartet. It was in Tokyo, where he was living and teaching at the time. He played his signature composition "Escalay: The Water Wheel'' for the group. "It was a heart-touching experience,'' said Jeanrenaud, who played with Mr. El Din many times, as a member of Kronos -- which featured "Escalay'' on its hit 1992 recording "Pieces of Africa'' -- on Mr. El Din's discs and on her own.
"He put himself into the music so completely that when he played, it would take you away to another place. You went on a journey to this very peaceful, emotional, beautiful place. He was a mentor to many of us.''
Born in Toskha, Nubia, in Egypt, Mr. El Din began playing oud while studying engineering at the University of Cairo. He also studied at the King Fouad Institute of Middle Eastern Music. Learning of plans to build the Aswan Dam, he quit his engineering job in Cairo and set off to preserve Nubian music before the people were dispersed. With his oud, an instrument unknown in Nubia, he traveled from village to village by donkey, gathering songs. He was playing in traditional Arabic style; it wasn't until his music acquired a distinctly Nubian flavor that it caught on.
"One day I felt the oud had a Nubian accent,'' Mr. El Din told The Chronicle in 1995. "I played for people in my village and they were mesmerized. I knew I had something.''
He had studied Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome, expanding his sense of harmony and musical form. After moving to the United States, he taught at various universities and then settled in the Bay Area. At Mills College, he met the esteemed composer Terry Riley, who learned something about understatement from a comment Mr. El Din made to him about singing softly.
"Through very simple means, Hamza could create a spell on an audience. His music spoke directly to the heart,'' said Riley, whose groundbreaking minimalist music has some of the same hypnotic quality. "Audiences leaned in toward his music," he said. "It wasn't in their faces.''
Riley introduced Mr. El Din to Kronos. "He opened doors for a lot of people, doors between different forms of music,'' said Kronos violinist and founder David Harrington. "We lost a great musician and a great man.''
Mr. El Din is survived by his wife, Nabra, of Oakland. A musical tribute is pending.
He made quite a musical dinBy Jon Pareles, The New York Times
Hamza El Din, an oud player and composer who reinvented the musical culture of Nubia and carried it worldwide, died Monday in Berkeley. He was 76.
The cause was complications after surgery, said his wife, Nadra.
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.
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 El Din's hometown, Toshka, was flooded after the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. He studied electrical engineering and worked for the national railroad in Cairo, Egypt.
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. 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.
Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead produced El Din's album Eclipse (Rykodisc); El Din helped arrange for the Dead to perform at the Great Pyramids in Egypt in 1978.
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 Bejart 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.
He had stints teaching ethnomusicology at Ohio University, the University of Washington and the University of Texas. During the 1980s, with a grant from the Japan Foundation to work on a comparative study of the Arabic oud and the biwa, a Japanese plucked lute, he moved to Tokyo, where he lived until the mid-1990s.
El Din collaborated with ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, which recorded an arrangement of Escalay in 1992. When he returned to the United States, he resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area.
His most recent album, A Wish (Sounds True), was released in 1999, but his wife said that he had recently completed recording a new album.
Rolling Stone Magazine
Global Rhythm Magazine
San Francisco Chronicle
New York Times
Long Beach Press Telegram (New York Times)
Los Angeles Times (online edition)
San Jose Mercury News (AP)
World Music Central
Inside Bay Area
Music of Nubia (1964)
Al Oud (1965)
Escalay: The Water Wheel (1971)
The Eclipse (1982)
Songs of the Nile (1982)
A Journey (1990)
Nubiana Suite: Live in Tokyo (1990)
Lily of the Nile (1995)
Available Sound: Darius (1996)
Escalay: The Water Wheel (1999) [digitally remastered]
A Wish (1999)
Official website: hamzaeldin.com
David Chambers is a member of the Community Advisory Board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts