Heaven knows we could use a lift after last week's tragic events. And the music of Hamza El Din is all about buoyancy and tranquility -- words that also apply to his way of living. He's carried the music from his birthplace in Nubia, in what is now the Sudan, across North Africa, Europe and the U.S., and on to his current residences in Japan and Oakland, Calif. This week, he'll carry the music to Emory University's Performing Arts Studio as part of the Universal Waves Series.
"Take some rest first, he advises as I arrive for an interview at his breezy Oakland home, filled with the recorded woody sound of his principal instrument, a 12-string short-necked lute called an oud. The nearby view of Lake Merritt reminds Hamza of the River Nile as it ran through Aswan, before water diverted by the High Dam swamped much of the countryside, displacing much of his people's culture in 1964.
It was an Islamic culture based on a benign melding of different elements, all of which are beautifully apparent in Hamza's original compositions.
"Our place of living [in the village of Wadi-Halfa on the Upper Nile] is the center between Asia, with its quarter-tone music, and the African connection of pentatonic [five-tone] music. And we have this ear to enjoy these and our own traditions, says Hamza in his idiosyncratic English. "So I deal with the spirit of that Nubian setting and flavor it with the system of the West, of how to introduce a strange thing to somebody and make him accept it.
Spending part of his childhood in Cairo to the north, "I learned sophistication, how to live within a huge different group of cultural people and be balanced.
Hamza also studied electrical engineering, taking up the Middle Eastern oud as a hobby. Music became more valuable than technology when Hamza returned to Nubia in an effort to explain the impact of the Aswan Dam to the people who were once his fellow villagers.
"Normal people do not believe that the water will come up to the hills, Hamza says. "So somebody came and said, 'Sing it!' and I start to sing what I want to tell them about the dam. I thought about using the folk tunes to attract them, to hear the rest of what I want to say.
The medium worked, and Hamza found himself heavily in demand for weddings and tribal association gatherings, sometimes performing on the tar (a sort of large tambourine), and with Western string instruments and choirs. He went on to musical studies in Rome, where he connected with folk-friendly Vanguard Records. He had his excuse to travel to the U.S.
Rooming with visionary guitarist Sandy Bull in New York City, Hamza was booked as a solo act at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, sharing the bill with such Vanguard artists as Joan Baez. "When I was playing, he recalls, "I closed my eyes. And in the middle of the piece, 34,000 people are quiet. So I thought one of three things is happening: Either those people fall asleep or left, or they are trying to make joke on me. Then I felt their appreciation. And since then, I am comfortable to just play for myself in front of people.
After several Vanguard albums, Hamza recorded Escalay for Nonesuch in 1970, his vocals, delivered in the 9,000-year-old Nubian language, accompanied by a tar. The album's title track used oud to evoke the rhythms of a water wheel from his native land. A trippy hit among early world music aficionados (and part of his program at Emory), "Escalay was revived in 1992 as a track on the Kronos Quartet's best-selling Pieces of Africa and in 1998 as a CD reissue of the original LP, both on Elektra/Nonesuch.
Hamza has been warmly accepted by both of his adopted homelands. His JVC Japan albums sell well in that country, and the Bay Area's Lines Contemporary Ballet has employed him as composer and accompanist. He's recorded his next album, which showcases new compositions, Egyptian songs, duets with shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), and even transcriptions for oud of some Bach cello suites. His current tour will allow him to, among other things, celebrate the spirit of Rumi, a 13th-century Muslim mystic whose embrace of music and acceptance of other faiths distinguish his followers from the hardline Islamic stereotype associated with last week's carnage in the U.S. and other acts of terrorism.
"It is not necessarily that God created a group of people, all of them together in the same direction of one thing or another, says Hamza in explanation of his own relationship to Allah. "The first word from the creator was 'Be', and the harmony of the vibration within the 'Be' is what is holding creation like you see it. If music is within this quality, it is the perfect thing to communicate with people. Music as a language doesn't have a border.
Hamza El Din performs Sat., Sept. 22, at Emory University Performing Arts Studio, 1804 N. Decatur Road. Show time 8:15 p.m. $15. 404-727-5050.