Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hamza El Din: Escalay (The Water Wheel)

The great Hamza El Din (1929-2006) was born in a small village along the Upper Nile River in Sudan that was buried underwater during the construction of a dam.  Hamza went to Cairo to study engineering, but wound up also taking an interest in the Arabic classical stringed instrument, the oud, which he studied at several musical institutes.  He also was an adept performer on the tar, a hand-held drum from his homeland.

Notably, the Muslim society of his home country did not allow for professional musicianship, but Hamza became a master of his instrument and also developed a style of composition and performance that made him renowned for the mixture of Nubian music from his home with the rich and broad history of Arabic classical traditions.

After performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Hamza was signed to the folk and blues label, Vanguard Records, and issued two albums, including Music of Nubia and The Oud.  But, after he signed with Nonesuch Records, he released his best-known album, Escalay (The Water Wheel), which came out in 1971 on that label's staggering Explorer series.

The title track is an epic 21 1/2 minute piece that depicts aurally a boy who works a water wheel, one of the vital functions of life in the Nubian desert that revolved around the Nile River.  Hamza's hypnotic playing of the oud mimics the functioning of the turning of the wheel and he utilized a drone and harmonic strumming while occasionally singing wordless calls that might be Hamza recreating the boy's vocalizing as he works at the wheel throughout a blistering day in the desert.

The second track, "I Remember," is from the famed Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdul Wahab, whose music will be the focus of a later post on an album by Simon Shaheen on the groundbreaking Axiom label run by Bill Laswell.  Wahab, like Hamza, was focused on creating new music using the tools of tradition with modern ideas and wrote this piece with the electric guitar in mind.  Hamza utilizes the tradition oud and the piece is a fantastic showpiece for his playing.

The album ends with the aptly-named "Song with Tar," in which Hamza shows his facility on the drum, as hand claps embellish his vocals.  It's a great way to end an excellent album in which Hamza reveals his many talents perfectly.

This blogger's first experience hearing Hamza was about 1990 when the album Eclipse, produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who issued many excellent world music albums for Rykodisc's 360 series, was purchased.  Not long after that, sometime in the mid-1990s, Hamza played the intimate back room at McCabe's Guitar Shop (Bill Frisell was another phenomenal performer that I saw there--click here for more about McCabe's and its upcoming concert schedule) and it was one of the highlights of my concert-going experiences.  His mastery of the oud, evocative reedy singing, and his gentle humor as he talked about his music made it a special experience. 

Hamza El Din has been dead for five years now, but his music lives on for those who want an unforgettable journey into new variations on ancient Arabic, Egyptian and Nubian musical traditions.

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