Hamza El Din, composer, instrumentalist and singer died of complications from a gall bladder infection in Berkeley, California on May 22, 2006. He was 76 years old. Born in the village of Toshka, in Egyptian Nubia along the upper Nile, Hamza El Din ‘s music was rooted in the more than 5000 year-old Nubian culture, but transformed by his creativity into a much-acclaimed and beloved international musical voice.
In a 1996 interview, when asked his nationality, he replied, “[I am] Nubian-Egypto-Sudanese-Italo-American-Japanese. I've lived in all those places. I was a Nubian musician playing for my people; now I'm a Nubian musician playing those same themes for the whole world.' (Jesse Hamlin, San Francisco Chronicle, June 7). In 1999 Hamza El Din became an American citizen, but truly he was a citizen of the entire world, at home everywhere.
Like most Nubian boys, he learned to play the tar, a single-skinned frame drum. Later, while majoring in electrical engineering at Cairo’s King Fouad University, he attended Ibrahim Shafiq's Institute of Music, and learned to play the oud, or short-necked Arabian lute. When he understood that much of his people’s ancient land would be drowned behind the High Dam at Aswan in the rising waters of Lake Nasser, he set himself the task to learn and preserve the melodies, songs and rhythms of his people. Then in 1959, he won an Italian government scholarship to attend the prestigious Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome, where he studied classical guitar and mastered Western classical forms.
He came to the U.S. in 1963 and performed at the Newport Folk Festival the following summer, encouraged by folksinger Joan Baez. His first two albums followed, Hamza El Din: Music of Nubia and Al Oud: Instrumental and Vocal Music of Nubia for Vanguard Records. In 1971 he recorded his landmark composition Escalay: The Water Wheel on a Nonesuch album of the same name. The piece evokes the sounds and rhythms of a water wheel lifting water from the Nile to irrigate the crops growing by the riverside. The wheel is yoked to a cow, which always had to be urged to keep walking, usually by a young boy. That image from his childhood was later revisited with Kronos Quartet on the landmark album Pieces of Africa and more recently with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud on her album, Metamorphosis. Hamza collaborated and performed with the Grateful Dead at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and in U.S. concerts. And Mickey Hart, the Dead's drummer, produced a 1978 album of El Din's music entitled Eclipse.
Hamza spent most of the 1980s and part of the 1990s in Japan, where he compared the Japanese lute called biwa to his understanding of its Arabian counterpart, the oud. Hamza also composed and performed original music for theater director Peter Sellars’ The Persians at the Salzburg Festival and in Paris, and later at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
He composed music which appeared in movie soundtracks as well, including: The Black Stallion, You Are What You Eat, Passion In the Desert and Control Room. His compositions have been performed by ballet companies including: Maurice Béjart Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Molissa Fenley Dance Company and Lines Contemporary Ballet. He performed solo concerts around the world in prestigious locations such as New York’s United Nations General Assembly, Town Hall, Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kennedy Center in Washington, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Vienna Opera House, and Cairo Opera House. He also appeared at major festivals including Edinburgh, Salzburg, Paris, Berlin, Montreux, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Monterey and Festival Cervantino (Guanajuato, Mexico). He released 14 CDs and an autobiography entitled Hamza El<