Hamza El Din, 76; Musician Popularized North Africa’s Ancient Traditional Songs

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Hamza El Din, considered the father of Nubian music who helped expose the sounds of his North African homeland to a worldwide audience, has died. He was 76.

El Din died May 22 at a hospital in Berkeley of complications from a gallbladder infection.

A composer and master of the oud, El Din became known to American audiences in the mid-1960s when he performed at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded two albums for the Vanguard label.


His music drew the attention of such musicians as folk singer Joan Baez, the classical Kronos Quartet and the rock band the Grateful Dead. He collaborated with the Kronos Quartet on the album “Pieces of Africa,” and played with the Grateful Dead during its show at the Great Pyramids at Giza in 1978.

Other collaborations followed, including one with director Peter Sellars for a version of the Aeschylus play “The Persians” at the Salzburg Festival. Hamza’s compositions also were performed by several ballet companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart called El Din’s music “mesmerizing, hypnotic and trance-like.”

“Hamza taught me about the romancing of the drum,” Hart told the San Francisco Chronicle. “His music was very subtle and multilayered.”

El Din, who taught ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, Ohio University and University of Texas, lived for a time in Japan to study the biwa, a Japanese lute.

Born in 1929 in the former Nubian town of Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan, El Din was an electrical engineering student at what is now the University of Cairo when he took up the oud, an instrument similar to the lute, and the tar, a single-skinned frame drum from the Upper Nile.


At the news that his homeland would be part of the area to be flooded by Lake Nasser on the completion of the Aswan High Dam, El Din quit his engineering studies and traveled the region by donkey to warn his people of the dislocation that would come about from the dam project.

He also acquired material for many of his songs. He wrote about love, childhood memories, a wedding and the water wheel in his home village.

By playing the oud, not a traditional Nubian instrument, he found ways to expand the boundaries of his native music.

He returned to Cairo to study Arabic music and later studied classical guitar and Western music in Rome at the Academy of Santa Cecilia.

Since the late 1960s, he has lived much of the time in the Bay Area and toured extensively. He offered quietly intense solo concerts and appeared at major festivals throughout the world. He performed dressed in white robes and wore a white turban.

Critics say his most significant recordings were “Escalay: The Water Wheel,” released in 1971, and “Eclipse,” a 1982 release. His most recent album, “A Wish,” was released in 1999.


El Din’s survivors include his wife, Nadra.