As the world watches the events unfolding in Egypt, among those paying close attention is Halim El-Dabh, the great Egyptian-American composer, performer and ethnomusicologist. I spoke with El-Dabh on the occasion of his 90th birthday, which is being commemorated with a tribute concert on Thursday evening at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
El-Dabh is unable to attend the event but we had occasion, as Egyptian Americans, to speak of our shared grief watching our ancient land struggle with a key moment in its modern history. El-Dabh says he is always hopeful and is "sympathetic with the Egyptian people who have a great desire for change." He hopes for a "Democratic government where people will be allowed to show their integrity."
“Egypt will rise again; it’s a muscular and strong country,” he added. "Everything in me is Egypt.”
Halim El-Dabh is from an Upper Egyptian family that was steeped in the most Egyptian of pursuits, agriculture. By rights, he should have gone into the family trade but instead he was drawn from an early age to classical Arabic music and particularly to folk music and its infinite variety. He says “music in Egyptian villages changes every ten miles, offering a different musical expression.” He eventually abandoned his agricultural career in favor of composing and soon his music was being heard on the radio and in the concert hall. A cultural attaché of the American embassy was impressed by what he heard at a concert by young Egyptian composers and suggested El-Dabh apply for a Fulbright to pursue his musical studies in the United States.
El Dabh came to the U.S. in 1950 and studied variously with Ernst Krenek, Aaron Copland and Irving Fine. He joined the avant-garde school of musicians of the time which included John Cage, Edgard Varese, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness and Peggy Granville Hicks. His primary instruments are the piano and the darabukha, which has a baked clay body. His Fantasia-tahmeel for darabukha and string orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1958.
In later years, El-Dabh expanded his ethnomusicological explorations to include music from Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, Niger and Brazil. El-Dabh also experimented with electronic music with composers Otto Leuning and Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center. Throughout his career he has also been an educator: He has been attached to Kent State for the last 30 years.
El-Dabh provided four scores for famed dancer/choreographer Martha Graham the most famous of which is the 1958 Clytemnestra. He also composed Lucifer which was choreographed by Ms. Graham for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
The celebration of El Dabh and his work will include video materials of the various ballets and live performances of his chamber and vocal music. Soprano Christine Moore, who is herself half-Egyptian, will perform the world premier of El-Dabh’s homage to his new born son, Habib (Loving). She speaks enthusiastically of the beauty of the impressionistic poetry and wonderment at the night (Ya Lail) and of the folkloric rhythms and melodies.
Pianist Katie Reimer, who worked extensively with El-Dabh at the New England Conservatory of Music, will offer the 1949 anti-war statement, Dank and Damp on the Front. Reimer says it is one of her favorite pieces, using the full register of the piano. In describing it further, she speaks of its “desolate sounds and at other times short stabs of pain.” Other artists sharing this program are pianist Ruzan Asatryan and violinist Luis Casal.
El Dabh said he would be present in spirit on Thursday. Of his important birthday El-Dabh referred to his ongoing status as a student of life. He said in eloquent Arabic that he was “just starting and still learning and that he hasn’t learned anything yet!” We ended our conversation by comforting each other in this time of chaos with El-Dabh referring to Egypt as surviving as the “focal point of the world.” El-Dabh then referred to the paramount importance of music as the “treasure that keeps me going.” I told him I hoped it would do so for a long time to come. And we closed with “Inshallah” (God willing).