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5.0 out of 5 stars superb Nubian music culture ! Hamza el Din is a worldclass oud-player, 18 Aug 2008
This review is from: A Wish (Audio CD)

Performing brilliantly on the Oud (the precursor of the lute, pipa and biwa) and the Tar (the ancient single-skinned drum of the upper Nile), along with haunting voice and spellbinding compositions, Hamza el Din combined the pleasures and subtleties of Arabic music with his indigenous music of his native Nubia. In his masterful hands, the oud became a virtuoso instrument as well an accompaniment to his gentle and hypnotic singing. He single handedly created a new music, essentially a Nubian-Arabic fusion, but one in line with both traditions and informed by Western conservatory training. His music has captured the interest of millions of listeners from Europe, Japan and North America.

First discovered by Western audiences through his performance at the Newport Folk Festival and Vanguard recordings in 1964, his 1970 Nonesuch recording, Escalay: The Water Wheel is legendary among musicians and connoisseurs. His best known recording in the U.S is Eclipses, produced and engineered by Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart. Hamza's music has also appeared in movie soundtracks such as the Francis Coppola film Black Stallion, You Are What You Eat and the Robinson's Garden of Japan. His latest releases (on Japanese labels) include: Nubiana Suite "Live in Tokyo", a King recording Songs of the Nile (on the JVC World Sounds series), and a re-release of Journey, a companion to his best-selling album of the same title, (Nile no Nagareno Yoni) Chikuma Shobo Publishing, Tokyo, Japan. Hamza appeared regularly with the Kronos Quartet, which includes Escalay: the Water Wheel on their chart-topping Pieces of Africa album (Elektra/ Nonesuch, 1992).

Hamza el Din was born in Nubia, along the Nile River near the southern Egyptian border (Aswan). He grew up in a culture rich in melodious and rhythmic music. While studying engineering in Cairo, he took up the oud, a principal instrument of Arabic classical music. Later, while holding down full-time jobs, he began studying music formally at the Conservatory of music in Cairo. During this time and during subsequent study at the Academy of St. Cicelia in Rome, his work began to combine elements of Nubian and Egyptian traditional music within formal structures. In 1964, he made his first recording, Music of Nubia, for Vanguard Recordings. In the same year, he embarked on his first concert tour of the United States. Since then, he traveled, performed and taught music in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. In 1981 he went to Japan to make a comparative study of Biwa and Oud (funded by a Japan Foundation grant). Impressed with the country and its peoples, he performed there frequently. Until his death on May 22, 2006, in Berkeley, California, from a gall bladder infection, he resided in the Bay Area and continued to play, teach and record his music around the world.

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, May 22nd, 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.
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