Halim El-Dabh Biography

  Halim El-Dabh, hailed worldwide for many genres of music and prolific composing, died Sept. 2, 2017, quietly by the side of his beloved wife Deborah in Kent, Ohio.  From 1969 until 2018 he had been University Professor Emeritus of Music and African Ethnomusicology specializing in composition at Kent State University. He had conducted ethnomusicological research in  Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo, Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, and Zaire. Within the African Diaspora, his research includes Brazil, Jamaica, and the United States.

  Born in Egypt in 1921, El-Dabh experienced his initial professional music milieu when he attended the First International Ethnomusicological Conference (Cairo, 1932). He graduated from Cairo University in 1945. Then he was invited to study at The University of New Mexico, and received scholarships to Brandeis University and the New England Conservatory of Music as well.  The latter granted him an Honorary Doctorate in Music in 2007. In 2001, he also received an Honorary Doctorate also in Music from Kent State University, where he  taught from1969 to 2012. El-Dabh has also taught at Howard University and Haile Selassie University.  At Haile Selassie University, he organized the Orchestra Ethiopia, comprised of musicians from various ethnic groups within that country. Some of the topics that El-Dabh has researched or written about include the Zaar in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Congo;  Candomble and Umbanda in Brazil; Zebola the Crocodile; Zikre in Egypt; and Ethnodynamics in African Music. From 1974 to 1981 he was cultural and ethnomusicological consultant  to the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Programs for their project on Egyptian and Guinean puppetry.  El-Dabh’s African puppeteers took part in the celebrations of the second centennial of the United States held in Washington D.C. in1976. He was also consultant to the Middfest Folklife Festival in Middletown, Ohio which featured puppeteers from Egypt. El-Dabh also performed and directed combined percussion ensembles from Japan, Korea, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, India, and other nations at Middfest International's 20-Year, 25-Nation Retrospective, held in 2005 in Middletown, Ohio.

  El-Dabh had begun his studies in Agricultural Engineering at Cairo University.  He has often related how having a degree in this field aided him in his contact with villagers and their songs, folklore, dances and puppetry. At the same time, he was fascinated with the elements of sounds and of noise. In the early 1940’s El-Dabh created, using traditional ritual songs, what came to be called  “The Elements of Zaar,” (Ta'abir al-Zaar). It was constructed with the use of a “wire recorder”, which is considered to be the predecessor of the tape recorder. The song has been released by Halim El-Dabh Music LLC  as “Wire Recorder Piece”.

  El-Dabh has written works for African instruments and African themes. His works in opera, symphony, ballet, orchestra, chamber and electronic music are inspired from the heart of cultures in Africa and Asia. Information about his 250 scores can be found through Halim El-Dabh Music LLC,  C. F. Peters Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. He was co-composer for the music of the Sound and Light show performed daily in several languages at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. Every night the show recounts the stories of the sphinx and the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. It has been suggested that the most famous score El-Dabh has written was “Clytemnestra”, commissioned by Martha Graham 1960. It was followed by three other ballets which he wrote for her namely “One More Gaudy Night” 1961, A Look at Lightening” 1962, and Lucifer (1975).

  Some other of El-Dabh's activities include being the keynote speaker for the Fela Sowande (1905-1987) Memorial in Cambridge, England in 2005, which acknowledges the many achievements of the Nigerian born Sowande as Yoruba Chief, ethnomusicologist, music composer, and musician. Known as the "Father of Nigerian Art Music," Chief Sowande and El-Dabh were close friends and colleagues at KSU during the 1980's.  In 2005 El-Dabh and a group of KSU musicians performed El-Dabh's works with the String Orchestra of Alexandria at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Egypt.  He performed with prominent African musicians, including Ismael (Pops) Mohamed, in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the UNAZI ("lightening" in Zulu) conference (2005).  This was the first African Electronic Music Festival in history.  In 2005 El-Dabh presented "Africa meets Asia," a series of workshops that explored the encounter of African and Chinese music, at The Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing,china . While there, he also explored the idea of African pianism with Akin Euba, a distinguished African ethnomusicologist and composer.  El-Dabh and Euba continued this exploration in conferences held in Cambridge, England, and St. Louis, Missouri. Note that Ghanian born William Chapman Nyaho has played El-Dabh’s compositions relating to African pianism.  In 2007 El-Dabh’s concerto “Invisible Bridge,” commemorating the Underground Railroad, was premiered in Dayton, Ohio by the Dayton Symphony Orchestra and Black American cellist Karen R. Patterson.

  Together with the African ethnomusicologist, Kwabena Nketi , El-Dabh has participated in African Music workshops at Northwestern University (1968). El-Dabh has also collaborated with KSU professors on a regular basis. In 1983 he transcribed ballad music recorded by Manuel da Costa Fontes (Romance Languages) on the island of Sao Jorge, Azores.  El-Dabh wrote "Egyptian Calypso" for “Flash In The Pan,” the KSU Trinidadian style steel drum ensemble, and has  written for the KSU Orchestra  and several chamber ensembles performing at KSU.  Students who have studied El-Dabh’s drumming techniques in depth, such as Blake Tyson,  Associate Professor of Percussion at the University of Central Arkansas have continued to perform and teach his works. Tyson also accompanied El-Dabh and performed his works at the UNAZI Festival and at the Beijing Conservatory. El-Dabh wrote “Symphony for 1000 Drums,” which was performed by one thousand drummers in Cleveland (2006) and in Colorado (2008). This symphony invokes the goddesses of ancient Egypt and Yorubaland.

  El-Dabh also participates regularly in activities in the Kent community. One highlight is his annual birthday party, which is hosted by Standing Rock Cultural Arts in downtown Kent and will be celebrated again this coming March 4th.

written by Deborah El-Dabh
edited by Manuel da Costa Fontes

Deborah El-Dabh
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Hal El-Dabh plays instrument