A renowned African composer and performer, Hamza El Din, died last week in Berkeley, California, from complications following a gall bladder operation. He was 76.
His memory has been lauded by press reports from around the world. The Los Angeles Times labeled him “the father of Nubian music, who helped expose the sounds of his North African homeland to a worldwide audience.”
El Din was born in Toshka, a village in Old Nubia, in 1929. He was studying electrical engineering at the University of Cairo when he took up the oud, a six-stringed musical instrument similar to a lute, and the tar, a drum with a single skin. When he heard the news that his native land would be flooded by Lake Nasser, formed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the early 1960s, he returned to his homeland.
He traveled about by donkey, warning the Nubian people about the upcoming dislocations and collecting musical materials for his songs that would become world famous. It was his way of preserving the culture of his native land. He studied music at Ibrahim Shafiq’s Institute of Music and at the King Fouad Institute for Middle Eastern Music. A grant from the Italian government allowed him to study classical guitar and Western music at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.
He performed, always in white robes and wearing a white turban, at many prominent concerts worldwide. He gained international fame at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and, four years later, at a Grateful Dead concert at the Great Pyramids in Egypt. His quiet, intense songs, labeled “austere, hypnotic music” by a New York Times reporter, focused on love, weddings, and his childhood memories in Old Nubia. The water wheel, which played an important part in fostering the peaceful stability of Old Nubian society, was also featured in his songs.
Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, described El Din’s music as “mesmerizing, hypnotic and trance-like… Hamza taught me about the romancing of the drum … His music was very subtle and multilayered.”
El Din recorded albums for the Vanguard and Nonesuch labels in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently recorded about 20 CDs. Critics indicate that perhaps his most significant recordings were “Escalay: The Water Wheel,” in 1971, and “Eclipse” in 1982. He released “A Wish by Sounds True” in 1999.
His works were performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, the Maurice Bejart Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and others. He also performed at a variety of major music festivals, such as those at Salzburg, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh, Barcelona, and Los Angles.
He taught ethnomusicology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the University of Washington at Seattle, and the University of Texas, Austin. He has composed music for various ensembles including the Kronos Quartet. He lived in the Bay area for nearly 40 years. Much as the death of Ali Farka Toure nearly three months ago saddened fans of his Malian music, so the death of Hamza El Din will affect those who appreciate the music and the Nubian roots of El Din.