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Meet The 92-Year-Old Egyptian Who Invented Electronic Music

Electronic music pioneer Halim El-Dabh
Electronic music pioneer Halim El-Dabh
Maha ElNabawi

CAIRO — Last week I shocked a musician friend in Cairo by telling him the first maker of electronic music wasn’t German, as he thought, but the then-23-year-old Halim El-Dabh, who manipulated recordings of an ancient healing ceremony in the early 1940s.

In this hypnotic two-minute excerpt expand=1], known as “Wire Recorder Piece,” a distant, distorted, chant-like vocal reverberates out of an echo chamber, looping over itself again and again like a coiling snake with an occasional pause for breath — only to unravel as a spiraling howl. A longer version, titled “The Expression of Zaar,” was transferred to magnetic tape and presented to the public in 1944 at a Cairo art gallery, the name of which now seems to be lost.

A few years before, in 1939, American composer John Cage discovered a pile of records featuring tonal pieces in a Seattle radio station and used them with two variable-speed turntables, a muted piano and cymbal to compose “Imaginary Landscape No. 1.” But El-Dabh was the first to record, compose, manipulate and layer sounds by means of a wire recorder — a precursor to the tape recorder — thereby making the first-ever piece of purely electronic music. Four years later, French composer Pierre Schaeffer would use the same method to pioneer “musique concrète” at Radio France, starting with his “5 études de bruits.”

I first heard of El-Dabh a couple of years ago when interviewing musicians in Egypt, particularly those involved in sound art. After developing a fascination for the trailblazing composer, I was finally able to get in touch with him this month. I spoke to him on the phone — he was at his Kent, Ohio, home, which I called from Cairo. I had concerns that the interview wouldn’t go well, considering that he is now 92 years old, but I quickly realized that his mind, memory, humor and ambitions are still very much intact. One might even say they are vibrating at an effervescent frequency.

He started young

Born into an agricultural family in Cairo’s Sakakini district on March 4, 1921, El-Dabh said he was exposed to music from an early age.

“I was the youngest of nine children, so my family was often very experimental with my upbringing,” he said with a giggle of remembrance. “At age three, I studied French at the Jesuit school in Cairo for some years, but when I came home only speaking French, my parents enrolled me in elementary school in Heliopolis.”

He continued, alternating between Arabic and English, “My brothers and sisters all played musical instruments, so it was natural that I would follow suit. My brother Adeeb was becoming a known musician at the time, and my other siblings were constantly fighting over the piano, so I gravitated towards drums — tabla, doff drum, etc.”

At age 11, El-Dabh discovered contemporary music when his brothers took him to a concert at the historic 1932 Conference on Arabic Music in Cairo. He was overwhelmed by the works of musicians like Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer and one of the founders of ethnomusicology, and German composer Paul Hindemith. It was there that he was first exposed to music recorded on a wire recorder.

El-Dabh studied agricultural engineering at Cairo University, but by 1942 his piano skills saw him drawn into the circles of a young Egyptian prince, who heard his compositions on the radio. He also won first prize in piano composition at the Egyptian Opera House. After graduating in 1944, El-Dabh said he joined his brothers in discussions at a local youth center, focused on avant-garde art and thought. He remembers conversing with anti-colonial intellectuals like novelist Naguib Mahfouz and socialist thinker Salama Moussa.

“These sessions very much shaped my ideologies and cultural interests. There was never much talk of religion, but more so the urgent need to move past colonialism as a means towards Egypt’s self-determination, national identity and modernism,” he said.

El-Dabh continued his agricultural work, traveling to villages to advise farmers on crop-growing strategies.

“It was these travels that really piqued my interest in sound and music,” he explained. “At some point I realized that I could mix my love for both, so I began studying the possibilities of controlling and preventing bugs and pests from attacking the corn, wheat and bean crops through sound. Maybe it’s because I was born during a thunderstorm, but I’ve always been highly sensitive to sounds, watching the vibrations of the birds and mostly the scarabs, who seemed to yell in conversation. From this, I learned how to create noise with metal instruments, clacking together sharp elements to discourage the bugs. I would use mirrors to discourage the bees, in order to let the crops grow.”

The eureka moment

These experiments led him to Middle East Radio, a small independent station in Cairo that had wire recorders. After trying one out, he decided to alter the sounds he had recorded, unwittingly creating the building blocks for electronic music.

After recording a zaar ceremony in 1943, El-Dabh modified the recordings using studio techniques, including reverberation, voltage controls, and a re-recording room with movable walls. He told me he hoped to re-create the fundamental vibrations generated in the act of bodily transcendence and healing.

“I’ve always been interested in zaar, particularly since it’s a women-only ceremony,” said El-Dabh. “Women are the center of our civilization. They are the balance to our very existence. I wanted to capture that, their sound and the healing elements of their chants. I didn’t know I was making electronic music at the time, I just found a great importance in zaar because of the whole concept of transformation. This transcendence that happened by the movement of the body, the thought process, the vibrations, different ideas through different engagement, all in accordance to the sound that was being created. It’s truly a different world.”

Remembering “Wire Recorder Piece,” he said, “It was all women and it was all chanting. I wanted to find the inner sound, that vibration that’s always necessary for transcendence. I eliminated the fundamental tones of the harmony by changing the voltage — it changes the quality of the music, it seeks another quality in the voice, the hidden material, the inner part of the voice. That’s what the whole idea of electronic music is about. You have a recording and you go inside the recording to find the hidden meaning.”

Skipping Juilliard

His 1948 piece based on the war in Palestine, “It is Dark and Damp on the Front,” which involved placing objects around the piano’s strings, won him much attention. In 1949, after performing at Cairo’s All Saints Cathedral, he was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt to study at the famous Juilliard School in New York.

“When I was finally accepted to go to the States,” he remembered, “I went to the library of the American culture center in Cairo and there was a nice Egyptian lady. I told her I’m going to America and I’d like to hear American music. She gave me 20 LPs of Native American music and from that moment I was hooked.”

So having received a Fulbright Fellowship, El-Dabh insisted on studying at the University of New Mexico to explore Hopi music instead of going to Juilliard.

In the years after his move, El-Dabhset about composing a vast body of work and collaborating with some of the most legendary artists and musicians of the 20th century. He composed dance music for choreographer Martha Graham, and worked with Cage, Vladimer Ussachevsky and Otto Luening at the innovative Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, becoming one of the first outside musicians to be invited to work there after its founding in 1959.

Mixing spoken word, singing and percussion with electronic signals and processing, El-Dabh stood out from other electronic pioneers, as music scholar Thom Holms has written, because his interest in ancient and folk music, rather than math, gave his works an organic quality. His piece “Leiyla and the Poet” — part of a remarkable electronic opera, but released by itself on a compilation by Colombia Records in 1964 — influenced many young composers. Overall, El-Dabh has created more than 300 operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber music pieces, and electronic music works, and says he has hundreds more still unpublished. In 1961, he became a U.S. citizen, but he has continued to divide his time between Egypt, traveling through Africa as an ethnomusicologist, and his home in Kent.

They pyramid theory

In the late 1960s, El-Dabh was invited back to Egypt to work under Minister of Culture Sawrat Okasha by order of Gamal Abdel Nasser — it was then that he created the score for the Sound and Light Show at the Giza Pyramids. He says when he last went, in 2006, they were still using it.

El-Dabh thinks that chanting contributed to the building of the pyramids by producing a feeling that enables people to carry weight beyond their natural ability.

“The way I look at the pyramids is that they were built by Egyptians dancing and singing and playing with these huge blocks,” he said. “When I was in the Congo I was with a certain tribe. They would chant, and one person would jump and stay levitated for a moment horizontally. So I thought, maybe this is how they moved those pyramid blocks. Surely if you had that energy, you could actually hold these rocks with easier weight and place them.”

El-Dabh has undertaken ethnomusicological research field trips to villages in Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and Zaire at the request of the Egyptian government, recording and investigating the lost music of Africa with a particular focus on the relationships between each country’s zaar traditions. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, and in 2001 he accepted an honorary doctorate from Kent State University, where he has taught since 1969. From 1974 to 1982 he was consultant to the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Programs for a project on Egyptian and Guinean puppetry.

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El-Dabh in 2009 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“My research was about how to live with different communities all over the world. Researching is also self-discovery,” he said. “What I love about music is it connects me with the universe. It puts me in contact with every human being. Music is not just what your ear can hear, but what your body can experience. Every human being has a gesture, and that gesture explains your life history in a way — the way you use the body. There are thousands of gestures to explain a culture of a society, between the gesture, which I’m very interested to learn, and the relation to sound, a fantastic tool to become liberated and find yourself.”

Thoughts on contemporary Egypt

Near the end of the conversation, I asked El-Dabh for a few words of wisdom regarding the current situation in Egypt.

“Egyptians have a hugely rich tradition. The country is wealthy with an enormous amount of resources. So why fight ourselves? The direction for the new world is to understand one’s position. The world is getting smaller, so the only way to better one’s life and one’s income is to know one’s resources,” he advised.

“I’m hoping people back in Egypt realize that everyone is important, every human is an important unique component of life. I hope people will not be tied up in negative thoughts, but rather will become open to positive action and positive engagement in rebuilding the country,” he said. “It is the arts that constantly produce positive energy — we must understand the ancient in order to understand the future. You don’t need to be literate to acquire knowledge, and that’s why the arts are more important than ever in Egypt. Anyway, we all always have more to learn, no matter what we think we’ve accomplished. I’m 92, but I feel I haven’t done anything yet.”

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