For over three decades, Hamza El Din was known as the foremost exponent of the oud, the principal instrument of Afro-Arabic music. His 1971 album remains a high point in the Explorer collection, featuring the sensuous, rhythmic music of the Nubian culture of the Upper Nile.
Originally released in 1971 as Escalay (The Water Wheel): Oud Music from Nubia
Nubia is a region of northeast Africa situated along the Nile in both southern Egypt (south of Aswan) and northern Sudan. Toshka, the village in which I was born and spent my early years, is in Egyptian Nubia, near the village of Abu Simbel, where the famous temples of Ramesses II were located prior to their being moved during the construction of the High Dam. As a boy I was sent to live with my father in Cairo, where I studied oud and began my musical career.
At a certain point I found the life and situation of the Nubian community in Cairo too restricted and burdened by the surrounding milieu and so I emigrated to Sudan to partake of the Nubian artistic scene that was happening then in Khartoum. This was during the 1950s, when Egypt was under the political authority of Nasser’s regime, which was very dry artistically (especially for Nubians and other minority groups). Sudan, on the other hand, offered a very free and relaxed environment, where Nubians had a real cultural presence. In 1959, when I went to Italy to further my musical studies and launch my career as an international artist, I traveled under the documents of the country to which I had emigrated, i.e. Sudan.
However, musically speaking, I am first and foremost a Nubian musician, heir to a culture that is common to both Egypt and Sudan, and exclusive to neither. My music has both Egyptian and Sudanese influences and elements, with each piece perhaps weighing more in one direction or the other, but I think that on the whole it is more Egyptian. My first two albums of Nubian music contain some songs (e.g. Nabra) where the scales are typically Nubian, in which two of the quarter tones of the seven-note scale are sparsely used so that the remaining five tones give the piece a distinctive pentatonic flavor, typical of Sudanese music. On this album, however, the Egyptian influence is more strongly felt: the piece Remind Me was originally composed for and sung by the great Egyptian diva, Um Kulthum; and The Water Wheel I composed using the scales typical of Egyptian music.
—Hamza El Din, 2002
In order to provide a historical context for this recording, the liner notes that accompanied its original release have been reprinted in full below. The text has not been edited to reflect changes in general cultural perceptions or specific factual information that may have occurred since then. —Ed.
All too often we in the West tend to think of the musical traditions of Asia and the Middle East as static and unchanging. In fact, however, modifications and changes of emphasis in a musical style may produce enormous differences in musical tastes between one generation and another. Perhaps because the subtleties of Eastern music are less familiar to us, changes and developments in style seem less obvious to us than those dramatic stylistic changes that have occurred in the history of European music.
In the East as in the West, changes in musical style occur because certain musicians have something to say in a new way: a current tradition is expanded, and such changes are imitated and standardized by later musicians. It is particularly difficult to observe these changes in our own time, both in the East and West. We are too close to see the emergence of new tendencies in familiar traditions and, in the East, many of the traditional forms are giving way to the overwhelming prestige and all-pervasiveness of Western popular culture.
Once in a great while a musician appears who does more than simply keep alive the flame of some tradition. Hamza El Din is such a man. Born in Nubia, he grew up in a culture rich in the sensuous, rhythmic music of the people of the Upper Nile. During the time he was studying engineering in Cairo, Hamza took up the oud (pronounced ood), the principal instrument of Arabic classical music. The oud was not used by the people of Nubia; in fact, in Nubia’s strict Muslim society the idea of music as a profession was practically unknown. Nevertheless, while holding down full-time jobs, Hamza began studying music formally at the Conservatory of Music in Cairo. During this time and during subsequent study in Rome, he began to evolve new musical forms by drawing the moods and colors of Nubian music into the vast technical and aesthetic structure of Arabic classical music. The result is not a loose amalgamation of two variant forms of music but an entirely new mode of expression. What is especially significant in Hamza El Din’s work is his full command of the technical possibilities of the oud combined with new musical patterns and ideas, growing out of the vocal music and drumming of traditional Nubia.
The best example of Hamza El Din’s unique style is the haunting and compelling Escalay or Water Wheel. To the rural peoples living along the banks of the Nile where temperatures can rise as high as 140°, no life is possible without water. The narrow fields along the banks of the river are irrigated by large wooden water wheels, turned by oxen. In order to keep the oxen moving, someone must sit behind them on the wheel and periodically urge on the animals in the heat, a task that most often falls to young boys or old men.
Water Wheel is a complete description of the experience of the boy who keeps the water wheel going. He rises early, before dawn, and begins, sleepily, to hitch up the oxen, adjusting the tension so that both animals are pulling equal weight. As the wheel slowly begins to move, the huge wooden gears of the wheel creak and groan. Gradually, lulled by the warmth of the morning sun, the movement and the sound of the wheel, the boy tending the oxen begins to hum to himself. As the wheel turns more quickly and strongly, he begins singing more loudly, merging the sound of his own voice with that of the wooden gears. Eventually even his song is lost in the drone of the wheel. One gear, like one note, meshes with the other gears, and increasingly complex overtones develop like the movements of a great fugue. And the fugue grows, like waves from a pebble dropped into the water. The waves move out, touch the shore and return, making new waves until all the water is ruffled and moving. Soon the boy sitting on the water wheel becomes entranced, hypnotized by the insistent song of the wheel and he sits staring vacantly into space, only awakened from his trance by someone calling to him to keep the animals moving. In this work, Hamza El Din demonstrates clearly his mastery of the oud and his innovations in the use of this instrument. Note especially that while he plucks the bass string continually in one rhythm, he hammers with the left hand on two other strings, and uses alternatively the remaining strings to set the pattern of the melody against the other rhythms. This creates a harmonic whole, which describes perfectly in musical terms the hypnotic humming of the water wheel.
Remind Me is the original title of a melody composed by the famous Egyptian musician Mohammed Abdul Wahab for Um Kalthoum, the great matriarch of Arabic song. Mohammed Abdul Wahab intended his composition to be an example of the new popular music of Egypt, and he thought of it in terms of new instrumental combinations using electric guitars. In this recording of the melody, Hamza El Din is attempting to tell his friend and mentor that the old classical style of the oud is still the best setting for his songs.
The last selection on the record, Song with Tar, is drawn from the traditional folk music of Nubia. In its traditional setting in Nubia, a group of men would gather, accompanying their singing with intricate hand-clapping patterns and with tars – the large single-headed hoop drums, much like large tambourines, which are indigenous to Nubia.
The song is set in the style of Nubian popular music of about 60 or 70 years ago, which most Nubians think of as a time of peace and remember with much fondness. In this particular song, popular in those times, one’s beloved is compared to a gay and colorful parrot.
—ELIZABETH WARNOCK FERNEA, 1971
Originally released in 1971 as Escalay (The Water Wheel): Oud Music from Nubia (H-72041).
Producer: Robert Garfias
Recording Engineer: Daniel C. Grinstead
Coordinator: Teresa Sterne
Produced with the cooperation of the Archives of Ethnic Music and Dance, University of Washington, Seattle
Re-mastered by Robert C. Ludwig
Design by Doyle Partners
Hamza El Din, voice and oud