Riad Abdel-Gawad was born May 9, 1965 in Cairo, Egypt. He composes music and performs on the violin, which, although does not fit easily into any “box” or genre, points towards likely frontiers that music has taken and will take in the 21st-century. Having composed in three very distinct styles of composition: “contemporary and avant-garde”, “polystylistic postmodern”, and “international authentic world”, his music crosses and fuses a variety of Western and Eastern genres and canons.
Having immersed himself for over a decade in a unique guru-based artistic school in Cairo, Riad Abdel-Gawad is considered among his peers to be one of the finest artists of his generation whose linage to a remarkably distinct school of Arab music and a mastery of its improvisatory practice is undisputed.
This unique Arab music school was developed by Abdo Dagher, legendary violin accompanist to Egyptian singer Um Kulthum, the “Incomparable Voice” so-named by Maria Callas. Riad Abdel-Gawad links and preserves a tradition whose roots reach to the Medieval Arabic writers’ and practitioners’ old sources. This school, is the only such teacher-disciple school to develop in recent (c. 100 years) documented Cairo history. Baghdad experienced the development of a similar unique stylistic school, (of Mouneer Basheer) c. 30-40 years ago that focused on ud “lute” performance. This Iraqi school now has a small number of renowned second-generation performing artists (e.g. Naseer Shamma, Adel Salameh).
Riad Abdel-Gawad is a graduate of Harvard University. Mr. Abdel-Gawad also spent one year of study with Frederic Rzewski at the Conservatoire Royal de Liege in Belgium.
Thus, Mr. Abdel-Gawad’s current “postmodern” and “authentic” compositional styles cross-fertilize – mutually from the “East” and the “West” – musical techniques and forms. Presently his music is currently being programmed and listened to on US, Canadian and European radio programs that spin such so-called musical genres as “new age meditative/world beat” and tarab—“enchantment”. In fact, his CD titled, “El Tarab El Aseel” literally translates as autochthonic enchantment. Autochthonic means “formed or originating in the place where found; native or indigenous”.
On this album, which debuted in April 2007 at No. 7 on the NAR Top 100 New Age/Ambient/World Beat Chart, you will hear the classical Middle Eastern ensemble, known as takht, a Persian word, which literally means: platform on which (fin de siecle 19th century) Cairene musicians performed. Mr. Abdel-Gawad’s band members, some of the best musicians today in Cairo, are masters of their respective instruments: qanun (trapezoidal zither), nay (Arab flute), ud (Arab lute) and riqq (Arab tambourine).
Riad describes that this platform or dikka (as it was also known in Arabic) was a raised stage area for musicians to entertain listeners in cafes during the era of Mohamed Ali. He said, “the tekht musicians at the turn of the 20th-century usually consisted of singer, qanun, as well as the indigenous two-stringed instrument called the kamangah.” But this instrument soon fell out of use in favor for the Western violin. Subsequently, the violin appropriated the term kamangah as its own cognomen in Arabic perhaps in deference to its predecessor.” In this particular CD, the takht features instrumentalists.
After graduating from Harvard with a Ph.D. in music composition, Riad Abdel-Gawad principally resided in Belgium, Egypt and Germany and traveled to France and Italy all the while gaining professional music experience. He even worked, iconoclastically, as a street musician in Brussels, Liege and Paris. Having championed the idea that trans-national composition and performance would be one of the frontiers of music in the twenty-first century, Riad Abdel-Gawad strived to authenticate and work towards this idea in his own musical art. From that viewpoint, as Riad elucidated to me, as a young man he sought professional musical experience that would have been difficult to know had he entered the world of academia upon graduating from Harvard.
Shuttling “nomadically”, between Europe and Egypt Riad Abdel-Gawad assisted Abdo Dagher in masterclasses, and performed with him in festivals, on CD recordings, and in tours, and appeared in television and in a documentary film and in performances in Belgium, Egypt, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Switzerland. Having a wonderful camaraderie with Abdo, Riad and he once took a train from Marseilles to Munich all of the while practicing their violins in a semi-enclosed train compartment “enchanting” the other passengers and the train staff. They were on there way to tour in Germany with Roman Bunka.
Riad Abdel-Gawad has also performed his own compositions as a violinist in festivals, workshops, tours in Belgium, Cameroon, Congo (Democratic Republic), Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Riad Abdel-Gawad’s compositions have been broadcast worldwide on radio, as well, have been commissioned, featured, and played at international music festivals, competitions, and venues including: the Mediterranean Composition Competition in Greece, the Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music, and the Palais des Beaux Arts for the Ars Musical Festival in Brussels.
Commissions, performances, commercial recordings and publications of Riad Abdel-Gawad’s compositions have come from: Future Classics Label, Meet the Composer, Oxford University Press, and the Princeton Composer’s Ensemble Series. Honors, awards, fellowships and grants have come from including: ASCAP, the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, BMI, Harvard University, and the MacDowell Colony.
Riad Abdel-Gawad traveled to Cairo to record Words of Peace (2019). In Egypt he worked with local musicians and singers, combining western traditions with Egyptian and Nubian elements.
Profile by Mohamed A. Mostafa, journalist for El-Gumhuriyya and el-Nagm. Edited by Angel Romero.