'Too few like him': Remembering Halim El-Dabh, Egyptian ethnomusicologist and pioneer of electronic music

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 30 Sep 2017

Halim El-Dabh died on 2 September at the age of 96. He is hailed for the music he created and his thoughts on this art form, as well as his unique outlook on life

Halim El-Dabh
Halim El Dabh (Photo: Dawn Carson)

Egyptian-American ethnomusicologist and pioneer of electronic music Halim El-Dabh died on 2 September at the age of 96: a long life filled with passion for music and sound.

His creative journey began in his home country but it flourished on his move to the USA, which placed him among international music figures and pioneers of electronic music.

Though he rose to fame in the USA, El-Dabh was born in Egypt, on 4 March 1921. A few of his works were indeed being performed in Egypt, more frequently in the past. Now they return on occasions like the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (which he attended) in 2002 or as part of a chosen concert’s programming or a special events showcasing contemporary Egyptian composers. Be that as it may, he lives on in the collective memory of Egyptian musical circles, and his continuous presence is marked by orchestral-choral composition performed daily since 1961 during the sound and light show at the Pyramids of Giza.

In 1932, El-Dabh attended the Cairo Music Congress organised by King Fouad. He was barely 11 – and already experimenting with composition – but he met Béla Bartók, the Hungarian composer, pianist and an ethnomusicologist; Jaap Kunst, the Dutch ethnomusicologist; and Paul Hindemith, the German composer and violist, among other big names. The event would strongly impact the boy’s thoughts on music and musical documentation, both domains being at the core of the congress’s heated discussions.

The experience also introduced El-Dabh to new recording technologies, infusing in him an interest in experimentation rife in the musical West. His maturing mind and early intellectual curiosity also pushed him to read Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Aldous Huxley, all of whom contributed to his way of thinking about the human mind and human experience. His interest in literature brought him close to works by Naguib Mahfouz and other Egyptian and international authors.

Even so, El-Dabh followed in his father’s footsteps by studying at the agricultural engineering faculty of Cairo (then Fouad I) University, which was to become a temporary path facilitating his living needs while he explored music.

Halim El-Dabh
Halim El Dabh in a YouTube video titled "My Life is Vibration" - Halim El-Dabh, composer" (Photo: still from the video)

With El-Dabh’s preliminary interest being sound, he looked into folk traditions and worked with manipulated wire recordings and capturing the sounds of Cairo and villages’ environments, creating multiple effects and becoming particularly fascinated by zaar ceremonies. Without realising the gravity of his experimentations, El-Dabh was in fact becoming a pioneer of what was soon to be called electronic music, and one of the most important documenters of Egyptian musical wealth.

Until the late 1940s, El-Dabh’s compositions such as The Expression of Zaar (1944), or It Is Dark and Dump on the Front for solo piano referencing the Nakba of 1948, made a strong impact on Egypt’s musical life of the time. The latter composition was a turning point in his career and in 1950, El-Dabh was offered a Fulbright Music Grant to study music in the USA where he had among his renowned professors Aaron Copland, the influential American composer, composition teacher and conductor.

Studying in the USA not only provided El-Dabh’s experimentation with a solid academic backbone, it also made him an active member of New York’s community of musical thinkers and one of “Les Six d’Orient”, representing the vanguard of contemporary composers inspired by Eastern music.

In the 1950s, he served as Igor Stravinsky’s assistant at the first Aspen Music Festival. A few years later, El-Dabh already had several pieces of electronic music in his repertoire including the musical drama Leiyla and the Poet (1959). Inspired by a love story from seventh-century Arabia, Layla and Majnun, composed during El-Dabh’s work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and released as the centre’s LP record in 1964, the work has become one of the classics of the electronic music.

El-Dabh’s explorations included many trips during which he studied the musical traditions of different countries and cultures, including Ethiopia where he also served as an associate professor of music at Addis Ababa (then Haile Selassie I) University, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Zaire, Brazil and others. Starting in 1969 and for over two decades he was a professor of music and pan-African studies at Kent State University and continued to lecture in African studies, on a part time basis, until 2012. Amal Choucri Catta wrote about the composer in Al Ahram Weekly in 2007, listing among his works opera and ballet scores, four symphonies, concertos and orchestral works as well as film scores, chamber and incidental music.

In a chapter on El-Dabh in The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity, Michael Khoury writes, “in his compositions, El-Dabh’s recourse to local Egyptian traditions is markedly different from how many Western composers incorporate ‘world’ tropes into their music. His ‘Egyptian material’ refuses to be ornamentation, approximation or ethnic styling that adds tinge or color. His music is a rendering of his intimate experience with people making music on a local level – for instance, by manipulating audio recordings of daily Egyptian life and mixing those sounds with atonal piano chords, rather than playing harmonized ‘exotic’ scales on piano.”

Halim El Dabh presents Kalimba (thumb piano) in a Youtube video titled "World and Electronic Music Pioneer Halim El Dabh, Reflections" (Photo: still from the video)

Even if El-Dabh never defined himself as an avant-gardist, world music literature classifies him as the father of the Arab avant-garde. However, unlike many experimentors, El-Dabh was never an onlooker who incorporates his findings into creation; he was as embedded in the sounds he produced just as much as he was soaked in Arab and Middle Eastern social, political and creative developments, which he spontaneously and instinctively channeled into his work. It was this amalgam of local traditions and a new musical vocabulary inspired by new technologies coming from the West that formed El-Dabh’s mindset and unleashed his creative power.

At the same time, ethnographic research into African and Afro-Brazilian music is one of El-Dabh’s most important accomplishments alongside his many collaborations with such renowned artists as modern dance icon Martha Graham – for whom he created four ballet scores including the masterpiece Clytemnestra (1958).

It was when he worked on Graham’s Lucifer (1975) that El-Dabh crossed paths with the New York-based Egyptian prima ballerina Magda Saleh.

“He was at the piano when I arrived, though the connection went back further: he was a student of my father’s, Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar Saleh, a pioneer of agricultural education in Egypt,” Saleh listed the many occasions on which they had met since.

El-Dabh was widely loved because to him music was not only his creation but also, or predominantly, a wonderful tool of interaction with people.

In several interviews El-Dabh underlines how he loves to teach, an activity that must have been a natural extension to his passion for interaction, since “he didn’t so much teach as he discovered and learned together with his students,” as puts it Ron Slabe who helped to compose and perform live El-Dabh’s last album Sanza Time in 2016.

At the same time, “he would embrace the new technology, quickly picking up an app on the iPad and working with it, or getting up and looking over my shoulder when I was working with the computer. The whole process unfolded so naturally,” Slabe recalls.

Halim El Dabh enjoys an autumn walk (Photo: Dawn Carson)

Surrounded and loved by people who found in him a valuable academic, and a charming companion, El-Dabh was “open to everyone he met, and interested in their story, and when he was talking to someone, he was never distracted; that person had his undivided attention,” Slabe adds.

Dawn Carson, El-Dabh’s family friend since 1988, recalls how shortly after she joined the Kent State University music faculty El Dabh and his wife Deborah started spending hours in her home, during which time they would engage in conversation on various topics: “we delighted in sharing the stories of our lives. ‘Tell me a story’ was a common request from both of us,” she reveals.

In 2011, Magda Saleh curated El-Dabh’s 90th birthday celebration at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Christine Moore, the American soprano with Egyptian ancestors who contributed by singing a movement of El-Dabh’s Partita Poly-Obligata for soprano, violin and piano, and his Introducing a Newborn, an a cappella ode to El-Dabh’s son Habeeb says “both these pieces touched me profoundly, as they showed not only his wild creativity, but his tender soul”.

Moore goes on to describe El-Dabh as a gifted, unique, curious, humble and engaging personality. Two years later, Moore also presented two of El-Dabh’s works, to much acclaim, in a concert at the Lincoln Center entitled “Nearer to East: Chamber Music from the Arab World.”

A social character, El-Dabh was known to celebrate his birthday with a public performance, an event that included a lot of drumming and dancing. Several such parties were held at the Standing Rock Cultural Arts-North Water St Gallery, a nonprofit art gallery in Kent, El-Dabh’s home city.

In 2015, during the party, El-Dabh did a preview performance of two pieces, The Initiation and In Conversation, from a compilation of electroacoustic-electronic works by and Ron Slabe, part of Sanza Time.

“He believed very strongly in the transformative, magical power of music,” Slabe states clearly. “Over the course of the year that we were working on the Sanza Time release, he said that he hoped that the music would bring peace and understanding to the world, to heal its troubles. He was very interested in current events in the world. Simply incapable of hate, he felt very strongly that the world had gone astray and that the human race needed to come back to a place of balance and to love each other as brothers and sisters.”

El-Dabh is hailed for the music he created and his thoughts on this art form, as well as his unique outlook on life.

“Although the general population will know and remember him first and foremost as a composer, I hope that they can realize that his music emanated from his desire to spread love and joy and to connect those on earth with each other and the universe,” Carson comments.

Indeed, as Magda Saleh puts it, “he was the most unassuming, modest, most gentle artist and above all a great Egyptian. He will be much missed and the world is poorer for his loss. There are too few like him.” 

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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