When I first heard the music of Hamza El Din, I was interning at Smithsonian Folkways in Washington DC.
As I sat at my computer I heard something that caught my ear immediately. The sound was a cello, yet it was being played like a near Eastern instrument. I immediately went over to where it was coming from, which was the office of the Associate Director at Folkways, Atesh Sonneborn.
When I asked who had written the music, he began describing the composer in reminiscent-laden detail. Turns out, Atesh knew Hamza personally until his death in May of 2006.
Atesh talked about how he had never met anyone who was more in tune with knowing himself- culturally and in an somewhat metaphysical way-than Hamza.
Geographically, Hamza was from the region known as Nubia.
If you’re like me, there’s a good chance you don’t know much about Nubia.
Let’s take a look:
It was here:
Nubia is an ancient culture. People started moving to the Nubia region from what’s now known as the Sahara in 5,000 BCE.
It was a passing hub for products like incense, ivory and ebony coming from sub-saharan Africa to Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Its history doesn’t appear particularly straight forward- it’s been renamed plenty, and split between the north (known as Wawat) and the south (known as Kush to the Egyptians and Ethiopia to the ancient Greeks).
Their past portrays a complex relationship with Egypt to the north. They first lost independence to Egypt in 2950 BCE. However down the road, around 750 BCE Nubian kings became Pharaohs over Egypt, giving archaeologists writings of their culture. Monuments from Nubian rule still stand in Egypt and Sudan.
Regions in Nubia were converted to Christianity around 580 CE and remained that way until the 14th and 16th centuries, giving way to Muslim armies from Egypt.
Needless to say, ancient and modern Nubian politics/religious affiliations aren’t easily conveyed in a sub-par blog about its music.
Much of the Nubia region around the Nile was submerged by Lake Nasser with the construction of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960’s. Various artifacts and temples were saved with efforts from UNESCO and others, however over 90,000 people had to move and many temples and monuments were lost under the water.
This brings us, to Hamza el Din.
Hamza El Din (1929-2006)
Upon realization of the flooding, Hamza quit his engineering job in Cairo and set out to preserve the Nubian culture through music.
Playing the oud (traditionally Arabic), tar, and singing songs in his native Nubian language, Hamza traveled via donkey village to village learning Nubian songs and playing them in a hybrid Arabic-Nubian style.
These excerpts are from the obituary on his website:
“‘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.’’’
-Joan Jeanrenaud of the Kronos Quartet
“’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.’’’
After studying Western harmony and form at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome, Hamza went on to teach at different universities in the US.
Hamza moved to the US in the 1980’s, a time when minimalist music was on the rise. He met with musicians like The Grateful Dead and Terry Riley who introduced him to the Kronos Quartet- the musicians who recorded Hamza’s composition, Escalay (The Water Wheel) on their album Pieces of Africa. For a summary of the piece’s meaning check out the description of the video above.
We’ll never know for certain the degree to which Hamza El Din impacted not only Eastern and Western music in his lifetime, but also the preservation of Nubian culture.
I’m immensely grateful for a world where we can listen to the compositions and recordings of certain individuals who have come and gone. Hamza El Din is one of those individuals.