Hamza el Din - oud, vocals
The pioneering Sudanese musician, Hamza el Din, was born in 1929 in Toskha, Nubia. Raised along the Nile River near the southern Egyptian border, Hamza grew up within a culture rich in melody and rhythm, where music was essentially a communal activity of singing and percussion, as villagers gathered to celebrate important events such as births, deaths, weddings, and harvests. During the 1950s, while studying to become a certified engineer, Hamza became aware of plans to build the Aswan Dam, which was intentionally designed to submerge the land of Nubia. Upon discovering this (which indeed happened in the early 1960s), he decided to devote his life to keeping the musical legacy of his soon-to-be flooded homeland alive. As an engineering student in Cairo, he self studied Arabic classical music and began playing the oud, a lute-like fretless stringed instrument. While working as a full time engineer, he enrolled at the Conservatory of Music in Cairo and began formal study of the music he loved. During this time and through subsequent study at the Academy of St. Cicelia in Rome, Hamza began developing a distinctive style of his own, by combining Nubian and Egyptian traditional music within formal structures. He became a master oud player in addition to mastering the tar, a single-skinned drum that came from his native region. His world-renowned debut recording, Music Of Nubia, was released on the Vanguard label in 1964 and to promote it, Hamza el Din embarked on his first concert tour of the United States, which included a performance at the high profile Newport Folk Festival.
During these early forays to the United States, he fell in love with North America. By the late-1960s, he had settled in Oakland, California and began teaching music at Mills College, while continuing to serve as an emissary, bringing Arabic music and the traditional folk music of Nubia to new listeners. In 1971, he released the album Escalay: The Water Wheel, which to this day remains legendary among musicians and connoisseurs. By this point in his career, Hamza was essentially creating a new original form of music, a sort of Nubian-Arabic fusion that retained the traditions of his homeland, but was also influenced by his Western conservatory training. This remarkable live performance at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles captures Hamza el Din at this point in time, performing before an intimate and appreciative audience.
The second of two sets that evening (the 1st set is also available here in the Concert Vault), this recording captures Hamza elegantly combining the pleasures and subtleties of Arabic and Nubian music into something uniquely his own. The set begins with a lengthy improvisation on "Grandfathers' Stories," a meditative composition dating back to Hamza's debut album. Based on his Sufi background, and the teachings of his grandfather about Rumi and other famous Sufi mystics and poets, Hamza's rich and beautifully resonant tone is warm and inviting. The music shifts from somber and contemplative to lively and exotic over the course of its 15+ minutes.
This is followed by what is essentially a medley of various traditional Nubian folk songs strung together. During the intro, Hamza explains that this piece is based on traditional Nubian rhythms and melodies that have never changed from generation to generation, but that the singing is spontaneously improvised around the melodies. Spare and passionate, this is a fascinating encapsulation of Hamza's earliest musical influences, culminating in a sequence of music played only when a Nubian boy asks for a Nubian girl's hand in marriage.
Despite being incomplete, the highlight of this recording is a live reading of Hamza el Din's most celebrated composition, "Water Wheel." Although only the first half of this lengthy musical excursion was captured before the tape stock ran out, the combination of el Din's playing and singing is simply mesmerizing here. One can almost hear the Nile as it dictates the rhythm of life in northern Sudan. The song is indeed based on life along the Nile, where a young boy tends to the cattle who power the water wheel, which in turn irrigates the land. The boy gradually falls under the spell of the water wheel's hypnotic rhythm and loses himself. Using oud and voice alone, as he does throughout this set, Hamza evokes the tidal ebb-and-flow of life along the Nile.
Since his death, Hamza el Din is best remembered by North American audiences for his collaborations with the Kronos Quartet and the Grateful Dead, most notably during the Dead's legendary 1978 performances in Egypt. His greatest achievements, however, are still to be found within his own recordings, of which, this is a fine newly discovered example. Traditionally, the oud is an accompanying instrument and before Hamza, the instrument was rarely ever played by itself and was never used for improvisation. It is a testament to Hamza el Din's talent and vision that he always maintained the integrity of his traditional musical heritage while being an innovator at the same time.
Written by Alan Bershaw