Hamza El Din -- 1929-2006Hamza El Din, the celebrated Nubian musician whose rich fusion of Arabic and Nubian sounds entranced audiences worldwide and inspired colleagues like the Grateful Dead and Kronos Quartet, died Monday, May 22nd, at a Berkeley hospital from a gallbladder infection. He was 76.
A longtime Oakland resident, Mr. El Din was a subtle master of the oud, the Arabic precursor of the lute, and the tar, the single-skinned drum that originated in Nubia, the ancient upper Nile land that was largely submerged after the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s. Mr. El Din sought to preserve his native culture, singing Nubian songs and stories in a warm, reedy voice that merged with his instrumental overtones to create music of quiet intensity and beauty.
"It was mesmerizing. Hypnotic and trancelike,'' said Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. "Hamza taught me about the romancing of the drum. His music was very subtle and multilayered.
"He was a deep listener,'' added Hart, who practiced daily for six years to master the tar Mr. El Din gave him. Sometimes the music they played together was so soft "we could hardly hear ourselves. He'd just suck you into this vortex, and all of a sudden what was quiet seemed loud in its intensity. He suspended time.''
Mr. El Din, who created music for "The Black Stallion" and other films, first played with the Dead in '78 at Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza and joined the band a few months later at San Francisco's Winterland with a group of Sufi drummers. He was a serenely joyous man whose glowing black face was framed by his flowing white garb and headdress.
"He was sweet, gentle soul,'' said Hart, who recalled that night at Winterland when Mr. El Din had the whole crowd clapping the 12-beat rhythm of the Nubian number "Olin Arageed.'' "If you took the time to visit his sonic universe, he'd welcome you with open arms. It was a joyous experience. Jerry (Garcia) just loved to play with him.''
So did Joan Jeanrenaud, the cellist who first met Mr. El Din in the 1980s when she was a member of the Kronos Quartet. It was in Tokyo, where he was living and teaching at the time. He played his signature composition "Escalay: The Water Wheel'' for the group. "It was a heart-touching experience,'' said Jeanrenaud, who played with Mr. El Din many times, as a member of Kronos -- which featured "Escalay'' on its hit 1992 recording "Pieces of Africa'' -- on Mr. El Din's discs and on her own.
"He put himself into the music so completely that when he played, it would take you away to another place. You went on a journey to this very peaceful, emotional, beautiful place. He was a mentor to many of us.''
Born in Toskha, Nubia, in Egypt, Mr. El Din began playing oud while studying engineering at the University of Cairo. He also studied at the King Fouad Institute of Middle Eastern Music. Learning of plans to build the Aswan Dam, he quit his engineering job in Cairo and set off to preserve Nubian music before the people were dispersed. With his oud, an instrument unknown in Nubia, he traveled from village to village by donkey, gathering songs. He was playing in traditional Arabic style; it wasn't until his music acquired a distinctly Nubian flavor that it caught on.
"One day I felt the oud had a Nubian accent,'' Mr. El Din told The Chronicle in 1995. "I played for people in my village and they were mesmerized. I knew I had something.''
He had studied Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome, expanding his sense of harmony and musical form. After moving to the United States, he taught at various universities and then settled in the Bay Area. At Mills College, he met the esteemed composer Terry Riley, who learned something about understatement from a comment Mr. El Din made to him about singing softly.
"Through very simple means, Hamza could create a spell on an audience. His music spoke directly to the heart,'' said Riley, whose groundbreaking minimalist music has some of the same hypnotic quality. "Audiences leaned in toward his music," he said. "It wasn't in their faces.''
Riley introduced Mr. El Din to Kronos. "He opened doors for a lot of people, doors between different forms of music,'' said Kronos violinist and founder David Harrington. "We lost a great musician and a great man.''
Mr. El Din is survived by his wife, Nabra, of Oakland. A musical tribute is pending.
Jesse Hamlin, SF Chronicle - Friday, May 26, 2006