Hamza Eldin: A Memoir, Tar Beat & Nubian Melody

Hamza Eldin: A Memoir, Tar Beat & Nubian Melody


Reston, USA (Sudanow) - International standards in music and melody fields are, at their best, in need of review. It is flatly true to state that judged by those standards, great damage has befallen Arab and African singers and composers as well as their counterparts from remote regions in Asian and Latin American regions.


One aspect of this damage is the fact that our melodies, even some masterpieces, are presented, under such standards, as folk music of our culture, which would implicitly mean that our music is less creative, as judged by western modernistic thematic standards. Such misjudgment might only be matched to the prejudice once adopted by our own centralized thematic musical standards against a whole lot of marginal traditional tribal melodies of the Baggara, Abbala and Shaygiya tribes as well as the expressive melodies performed by Adam Shash of the eastern region of Sudan, where all those melodies happened to be categorized, for some time, as exclusively separate forms of folk melodies of their tribes, and were broadcast through a specific radio program called in Arabic: “El-Ribou”, i.e. “Melodies of Rural Areas”, outside Sudanese Radio’s (Huna Omdurman) official broadcast hours.


On the other hand, centralistic Arab musicians’ thematic standards have also excluded the Sudanese pentatonic musical scale and accordingly ranked the Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu as the foremost Arab singer, although the creative genius melodies of Mohammed Wardi, Mohammed Alamin and Abdelwahab El-Dokali, for example, overbalance the melodies of all Gulf singers and composers taken together. We, on our part, moved by national ethnicity have crowned Mohammed Wardi as Africa’s foremost singer, though Wardi well deserved such title if African musical standards were applied to determine the impact and effect of African singers, not in the musical field alone but also in the way they benefited from western artistic modernism and in the role they played in social, cultural and political change within their communities. It is, of course, common knowledge that art is not exclusive of human social, cultural and political endeavors of any nation or group of people, worldwide.

Mohammed Wardi
Mohammed Alamin


It is evident, then, that in the field of melody, there is significant impact and weight of scholar, political, cultural and economic centralist thematic supremacy, as briefly illustrated above, and as well noted by many critics. However, if Nobel artistic and scientific standards have already recognized the genius artistic achievements of third world writers such as Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Amado, Borges, Marquez and Chinua Achebe, whose novel “Things Fall Apart” has been translated into twenty languages, where the same goes for Tayeb Salih’s novel “The Wedding of Zein”, as well as scientific achievements of Ahmed Zewail, it is incomprehensible why international musical and melodic standards should stay locked and entrapped within the supremacy of American and European centralistic thematic standards for ever, especially when musicians and composers such as the Malian singer Farka Tore’, the Colombian Shakira, the Ethiopian Aster together with a number of desert musicians, as well as the Nubian Hamza Eldin, the Malian Salif Keita and his fellow citizen Fatoumata, and the Gambian Sona Gobarteh have already captured international attention and starred as exceptionally gifted singers and musicians. It then quite possible that more third world creative and talented singers and music composers will, over time, influence the western music standards and reach out to attract international attention, appeal to western audience’s taste and even win Nobel awards in the same style as their above named predecessors from the third world have done.


It is noteworthy that western prejudice is not only confined to our melodies and music, but goes on to cover all aspects of our fine art. African paintings and sculptures are known for their varied shapes and colourful styles, and the few that managed to plow their way through to international forums have been applauded and celebrated by great western audience, though shyly recognized by peer artists in Paris, Frankfort and New York galleries.      



In a meticulously written article, Ambassador Abdelmajeed Ali Hassan states that “Hamza Eldin has played a prime role in opening international forums for the expressive style of Nubian music and melodies. Through his mesmeric quavering voice and subtle music he managed to make a break-through and penetrate the thick wall of universality, equipped only with his well-tuned Oud and Nubian Tar beats (a single-skinned drum). In 1965, one of the most renowned American music-production corporations, Vanguard Records, produced Eldin’s first album “Music of Nubia”, to be followed, in 1971, by his second album labeled “Escalay”, a word that stands for “the water wheel” in Nubian language. Those two albums met with astounding success, as they brought about to the western arena quite a new and amazing style of music at the time. It is then no wonder that Eldin’s Nubian music and melodies attracted the attention of international musicians and composers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others”. Ambassador Abdelmajeed also adds that: “Eldin’s fame surpassed the USA, and went far beyond the Atlantic Ocean , where he participated in international music festivals. Hollywood was also to benefit from his outstanding musical talent, as he composed music that appeared in some movie soundtracks such as “The Black Stallion’ by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola. He also composed soundtrack music and participated in a number of documentaries on Nubian culture and region. Hamza Eldin visited Sudan in the nineteen seventies and performed at the then House of Culture. I remember having read an article by Sudanese musician and composer Anas El-Aqib, who attended that party, commending the talented play style of the Oud by Hamza, where he admiringly stated; “All through my life, I have never seen such magnificent mastery of Oud play by anybody”.


In 2000, while residing in Washington, I was lucky enough to attend a party where Hamza Eldin together with Sudanese singer Mohammed Wardi performed. Hamza was introduced to perform before Wardi. But while he was performing two Nubian songs, and to the apparent dismay of most audience members, the sound system volume rose suddenly to quite a disturbing pitch sound, and with that Hamza Eldin left the podium and refused to perform again despite all efforts by event organizers. Then Wardi went on stage to perform. Later, I acquired Edin’s “Escalay” CD album at $12.00 from a famous CD shop in Washington DC.


Hamza Eldin had always lived with a mixed identity (Egyptian-Sudanese); but he has internationally starred as Nubian singer and composer. His music notes are subtle, yet strong. He doesn’t use lengthy musical overtures as accustomed by some Sudanese singers and composers such as Mohammed Elamin and Buraei. On the whole, Hamza Eldin has left behind many CD albums that await analytical critique by specialists, on both sides of Egypt-Sudan border. However, there are two parallel tracks, in my opinion, along which one can read Eldin’s work: 1- the chemistry of Eldin’s artistic work and 2- the relation of Eldin’s melodies to his Nubian heritage and memoirs. If critics were to merge these two tracks in one unit while analyzing Eldin’s works, I think they would be doing a great harm to his artistic experience and heritage.          


It is also unfortunate that journalistic interviews with Hamza Eldin on Arabic press are very rare, if any at all. Such interviews could have been of great value to assess and evaluate his artistic experience. When I asked his permission for an interview in Washington, I meant, in the first place, to explore his philosophy and school of thought as a singer and composer who had been recognized internationally, and in the second place as a Nubian musician and composer. I also intended to ask him to recount his experience as a notable Oud teacher in the USA and Japan. But unfortunately his stay in Washington lasted only for that single night.



Hamza Eldin’s national identity had been subject of controversy all along. But it is certain that he was born on 10th June 1929 in the village of Toshka along the upper Nile, in Egyptian Nubia. His village was tragically over-flooded, together with other villages in the Nubian area, when Egypt’s Aswan High Dam was constructed. Most probably, that Aswan Dam catastrophe was a great motive for Eldin to work towards preserving the Nubian culture and musical heritage from extinction. It is undisputed fact that, after the Aswan dam catastrophe, Eldin set off on donkey back from village to village in the Nubia region gathering Nubian songs and melodies for fear they might get lost and dispersed with people. When asked about his national identity, Hamza Eldin usually replied: “I am Nubian in the first place, but I am also Egypto-Sudanese on equal basis”.


As stated on his webpage, Eldin studied electrical engineering at King Fouad University (now Cairo University), where he graduated as electrical engineer and worked for Egypt railways for a while, but his passion for music prevailed and he left his job to join Ibrahim Shafiq's Institute of Music. Later on he also joined the King Fouad Institute for Middle Eastern Music to study the Oud and Arabic music. With a grant from the Italian government, Hamza moved to Italy to study Western music and classical guitar at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. Then he got a grant to study western music at the USA.


In the USA, Hamza Eldin signed a contract with Vanguard Records, upon which his world-renowned debut recording, Music of Nubia, was released on Vanguard label in 1964. In the same year, Hamza Eldin embarked on his first concert performance at the United States. In 1968 he also published his second notable Album “Escalay-Water Wheel”, which gained great publicity in the west. Eldin also composed the musical soundtracks for the famous movie “The Black Stallion” by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola.


It is always rich experience to discuss great geniuses such as Hamza Eldin. I hereby invite all critics and interested persons to study the heritage of Hamza Eldin objectively. It is a pity that many Sudanese, even media channels, still mix up Hamza Eldin’s name with that of Sudanese musician Ela’adin Hamza. Eldin’s long absence away from Sudan since his last visit in the nineteen seventies might have contributed to this mixing up of names, but I think Eldin’s notable efforts in expanding and introducing to international forums the Nubian musical heritage and melodies, on both Egyptian and Sudanese sides of Nubia, are quite worthy of appreciation.




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