Music as a bridge between form and the formless


It was only when I stood on the Aswan High Dam and looked south across Lake Nasser that I really understood the tragedy of the Nubian people. Beneath more than 2000 square miles of water lie the Nubian homelands that were flooded when the dam was built in the 1960s, and between the dam and Aswan are the soulless villages that the Nubians were resettled in. Hamza El Din (1929-2006) - seen above - made it his mission to preserve the Nubian culture that was being extinguished by the waters of Lake Nasser. He was born in the Nubian village of Toshka which was flooded when the High Dam was built. After training as an electrical engineer he went on to study Arabic music in Cairo and Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome before moving to the West Coast of the States. He played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, recorded two albums for Vanguard, jammed with the Grateful Dead and taught at the the legendary Mills College in Oakland, California. A collaboration with the Kronos Quartet followed an introduction by Terry Riley, and Hamza El Din's sparse and repetitive oud lines are though to have influenced the development of the minimalist style. His two classic albums are Escalay (The Water Wheel) - seen above - recorded for Nonesuch in 1971, and Eclipse, produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in 1988.

The Nubians practise a syncretic mix of Islam and ancient animism, and Hamza El Din was influenced by Sufi mysticism. Dr H.J. Witteveen has written that: "Of all the arts music has a particular spiritual value and meaning, because it helps [us] to concentrate or meditate independently of thought: and therefore music seems to be the bridge between form and the formless. This is why music has always played an important role in Sufism." The Nubian Dhul-Nun al-Misri (830 CE) was an Egyptian hermetic and Sufi who, according to the authoritative British Orientalist R A Nicholson, "above all others gave to the Sufi doctrine its permanent shape". Animistic and shamanistic elements mix with Islam in the Nubian religion, and the anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Fred Katz have described how in shamanistic rituals, music provides "pathways and bannisters" between the familiar form of everyday waking consciousness and the formless mystery of higher levels of consciousness. That line of transmission from Hamza El Din to the Minimalists continues through to John Luther Adams. The shamanist rituals of indigenous Alaskans influence John Luther Adams' post-minimalist music - notably in Strange and Sacred Noise - and his best known work Become Ocean has a coincidental but poignant link to the tragedy of the Nubians.

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