By Louis Werner
The teeming, neon-lit streets of Tokyo are a long way from the mud-walled village he once called home along the Nubian reach of the Nile. Bur for virtuoso ‘ud player, composer and ethnomusicologist Hamza El Din, the rhythms and melodies he first heard as a child have remained with him on the many stops in his life’s musical journey.
Perhaps it isn’t unusual that, after living in Egypt, Italy and the United States, Hamza would choose Japan as his home for the pat ten years. There he has found a receptive and knowledgeable audience, recording contracts, lectureships and, most important, an opportunity to play with the masters of the Japanese lute, drum and bamboo flute. “The traditional music of Japan,” he says, “has taught me to compose and play my own work with more precision and concentration.”
Hamza is not a strict traditionalist. For San Francisco’s avant-garde Kronos Quartet, he recently rescored for Western string instruments his epic piece Escalay – the world means “water wheel” in Nubian – which he originally composed for voice, frame drum and solo ‘ud, or Arab lute. His long association with rock percussionist Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead resulted in a recording collaboration called Planet Drum.
Hamza’s itinerary through the world’s musical traditions can make the head spin. In Cairo he studied music theory and ‘ud performance at the Arab Institute of Music; in Rome he learned classical guitar and western harmonics at the Academia di Santa Cecilia; and in Greenwich village he played for coffeehouse audiences at the height of the 1960’s folk music revival.
“But my best lesson ever,” Hamza notes, “was to see Umm Kalthoum sing in concert.”
Wherever Hamza performed, he also listened and learned. “When I played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, I was sure that very few people understood me. But because I saw they tried to hard to listen, I realized I too must try hard to understand their music. I opened my mind to whatever was good.”
His music nonetheless remains unmistakably Nubian. Even on his new compact disc, Nubiana Suite, recorded live in Tokyo with Japanese wadaiko and shakuhachi accompanists, Hamza’s soaring lyrics, sung in the ancient Nubian language, and his droning ‘ud hauntingly evoke the spirit of his homeland.
Hamza’s first memories are of his culture’s indigenous rhythms: drum-beating, hand-clapping and chanting. Every event in Nubia, mundane or exceptional, is remembered by its musical signature. “Once a fire broke out,” he recalls, “and we all formed a human chain from the river to the village. Even in such a moment of crisis, we sang and clapped in order to keep the water buckets passing quickly back and forth.”
The fact that a Nubian musician can prosper in Japan should be considered in light of the popularity of the “world music” sound all over the globe. Hamza is quite satisfied to be part of this movement. “I don’t think I play ‘ethnic’ music from Nubia any more than a symphony orchestra plays ‘ethnic’ music from Europe. What I pay is the music of the world.”
From Saudi Aramco magazine, July/August 1991. Reproduced courtesy of Saudi Aramco magazine.