Author: Jeff Kaliss
Hamza el Din has been exporting the ancient musical culture of his native Nubia, ever since the Aswan Dam threatened to drown it in the 1960s. “Now I am home wherever I am,” Hamza says, referring to his global touring. But there’s something specially nostalgic about his current residence, close to the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland.
“When I come from my house,” explains Hamza in charmingly idiosyncratic English, “the little opening between two streets, there it will show me like a piece of the River Nile.”
That’s what Nubia used to look like, on the border of Egypt and the Sudan, before it was submerged under Lake Nasser during construction of the Dam.The Nile is also the setting of Hamza’s best-known composition, “Escalay,” which means “throwing water” in the 7,000-year-old Nubian language. The title track of Hamza’s 1971 album on the Nonesuch label, Escalay was an early world music hit. Performed by him on the 12-string oud, the song (on which he also sings briefly) evokes the daydreams of a young boy tending a water wheel, used for irrigation on the banks of the river.
“Escalay” experienced something of a recent revival in the last decade. First, Hamza rearranged it to accompany a scene of the resurrection from the dead of the title Persian king in “Darius,” an opera produced by Peter Sellars in Europe. The song and its composer were later incorporated in the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa, a surprise cross-over success on both world music and classical charts in 1992.
Hamza’s own boyhood was spent under the watchful eye of his grandfather, who prepared him for life beyond the solid but insular society of the Nubians. He recalls that his elder “raised me by, accept whatever you find wherever you go, because if you don’t, you will not find anything.” Nubian music wasn’t written down, and made use of only voice, hand-clapping, and a hand-held frame drum called the tar. But it served as what Hamza calls “the bridge between the Middle East and Africa,” with the microtones and ornamentations of the former and the percussive momentum of the latter.
A move to Cairo resulted in Hamza’s introduction to the oud, “the grandfather of all plucked instruments” including lute and guitar, and to formal Middle Eastern music. In the big city, Hamza also learned “sophistication, how to live within a huge different group of culture people and be balanced,” but he retained close contact with the Nubian expatriate community, entertaining at “tribal gatherings, social things like when you have newly-weds you take care of, to give them a good time for a week or so in their new house.” His contemporary Mohi el Din Sherif set poetic lyrics to Hamza’s compositions, a novelty in their community.
Although he pursued schooling in engineering at his father’s request, Hamza’s musical curiosity won out and transported him to Rome, where he studied Western classical music at the Academy of Saint Cecilia. An American friend there facilitated a connection to the Vanguard label, which invited the oudist to come record in 1964. Hamza took up residence in New York City, sharing an apartment with innovative guitarist and banjoist Sandy Bull, who also recorded for Vanguard. They and labelmate Joan Baez were booked at the Newport Folk Festival.
On stage at Newport, “I closed my eyes, and in the middle of my piece, 34,000 people are quiet,” Hamza recalls. “So I thought, either those people fall asleep, or left, or they are trying to make joke on me. But then I felt their appreciation, and since then, I am comfortable to just play for myself, in front of people.”
Four years later, in 1968, Hamza moved across the continent to Mill Valley, California. He found plenty of like-minded world-conscious musicians there, among them practitioners of Sufism, the peaceful, arts-loving sect of Islam in which he’d been raised (the “el Din” in his name means “defender of the faith”).
“I learn about my religion more here than when I was there [in Nubia and Egypt],” remembers Hamza. Sufi teachings, he says, helped him and other music-makers understand “that the whole thing is oneness, and that you harmonize. . . The vibration is tuning you.” He discovered that the Bay Area, in general, “is people who are interested in music and in colors and paintings, so they are generous to make me feel like what I’m doing is right.” Arrayed in flowing white robes and turban, spinning out his energizing melodies on his dazzlingly decorated oud or tapping the tar, Hamza was a favorite at hippy gatherings in Golden Gate Park and elsewhere around the San Francisco Bay.
Hamza’s voyage of discovery led him on to the Division of Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and to many years in Japan, where he met his wife, Nabra. He continued touring widely during this period and after he returned to the Bay Area in 1978. Locally, he taught at San Francisco State and at the Dominican College, and provided music to LINES Contemporary Ballet. The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart stepped in to produce Hamza’s albums, and avant-garde composer Terry Riley introduced him to the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, who surprised Hamza with their faithful and respectful approach to “Escalay.” “Someone from my world heard that, and refuse to believe that those are Western musicians,” testifies Hamza.
In the Bay Area, Hamza performed with ex-Kronos cellist Jean Jeanrenaud, as well as with Sufi compatriot Allaudin Matthieu and his vocalist wife Devi Matthieu, and Mill Valley-based world percussionist Ian Dogole. This same group performed Hamza’s compositions with him in 2003 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, days after the invasion of Iraq. “It felt to me so perfect to be playing Hamza’s music, which I find as healing as any music I’ve ever heard,” Dogole reports. “People needed to feel warmth, and our group had a multi-cultural feel to it. The crowd was hungry for that kind of interaction.”
“Lately I feel that the rhythm of the world is agitated, and need to be calmed down,” says Hamza. “I think politicians failed, army failed, religious leaders failed, and what is left is the arts. God cannot change within people if they do not change within themselves.” Like most Sufis, he embraces the teachings of many faiths. “I don’t understand this idea that there is a god for Muslims and a god for Jews and a god for Christians,” he says. “If there are two or three gods, there will be a war there. Each one want to show off..”
Seventy-five years old this summer, a century younger than his oud, Hamza expects to continue to invoke images of a peaceful, borderless home wherever he goes. “My audiences are spread around the world, and any place I go is a full house,” he points out. “There is no difference between playing in Oakland and playing in Paris. . . and there is no difference when I play for one child, or a whole kindergarten class, or a concert. Because when I play, actually I’m not the player. The instrument is playing me.”
[This article was originally published two years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle. It is reproduced here courtesy of the author, Jeff Kaliss].