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African Legends

Hamza El Din

By Stacy Meyn
Published November 14, 2006

Hamza El Din was the first to compose for the oud as a solo instrument, and became the “father of Nubian music."

Imagine the destruction of your hometown. Not by an act of God, nature, or what-have-you, but by humans. Such was the case in 1964, when thousands of Nubians watched their home villages disappear beneath the waters of the Aswan High Dam project. Effectively wiping out this Nile River area’s 9,000-year history, that manmade decision propelled a single engineer into devoting his life to the preservation of his native culture through music.

One of the lost villages in Egypt was Toshka, birthplace of Hamza El Din, the “father of Nubian music.” He studied at Ibrahim Shafiq’s Institute of Music (Shafiq was a master of Arabian music and Muwashshah rhymes) and the King Fouad Institute for Middle Eastern Music. El Din became a master of the oud (a 12-string forerunner of the lute) and the tar (an Upper Nile single-skinned frame drum), as well as a compelling vocalist.

He was the first to compose for the oud as a solo instrument. On a grant, he studied Western music and classical guitar at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. Upon immigrating to the U.S., El Din taught ethnomusicology at several universities before heading to Tokyo on another grant. His music career spans over 40 years, starting with the Vanguard label and performances at the UN Human Rights Day and Newport Folk Festival.

The septuagenarian musician has worked with the Grateful Dead, Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet, and has composed for ballets and film scores, including The Black Stallion, You Are What You Eat and The Passion In The Desert.

Blending Nubian tradition and Middle Eastern classicism, along with the precision of his 14 years of music training in Japan, Hamza El Din tells tales of traditional Nubian life. Inspired by the positive poetry of Rumi, and a “loose” Islamic upbringing, El Din also promotes his desires for tranquility, beauty and peace. Of course, above all is El Din's ongoing personal plea for the healing of his homeland.

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