The cosmic craft of Egyptian-American composer Halim El-Dabh

Halim El Dabh by James Vaughn
7 min read
15 September, 2023

It's not common to hear about electronic musicians in the Arabic-speaking world through our writings, education, or everyday conversations. Halim El-Dabh, an Egyptian-American composer, musician, musicologist, and educator, was one such exception and was one of the earliest composers of electronic music. A true pioneer of the discipline. 

Unfortunately, his works are only discussed in experimental social gatherings, and many people are unaware of his significant contributions to the field. It's a shame that his works are largely forgotten and unheard.

But his works are ubiquitous if you listen hard enough. In 1961, Halim El-Dabh and French composer Georges Delerue collaborated on a piece of music called “Here History Began". Commissioned by the Minister of Culture at the time, Sawrat Okasha, during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the composition was intended to accompany visitors to the Sound and Light Show at the Giza Pyramids. It features field recordings, narration, score, and special effects, and has been enjoyed by tourists for decades. 

"[Halim] would create sound installations to drive away birds and bugs"

Multidisciplinary artist, educator, and composer Joe Namy has joined forces with Benjamin Gaydos from Flint Magazine, Lebanese design and direction agency Studio Safar, and the record label Annihaya Records to revive the eclectic works of the late artist. With great care and enthusiasm, they have successfully produced the first vinyl record pressing entitled The Wondrous Reverberations of Halim El-Dabh

I was curious to find out how this research and archival work came into being so I caught up with the London-Beirut-based artist Joe Namy to talk about the story of this unique release.

“I met Halim at a party in 2002 after a conference at the Arab-American Museum where he was the keynote speaker. I had just graduated from university and was part of a small art collective in Detroit so we hosted the afterparty. Halim was one of the last people who left the dancefloor," tells Joe about his first meeting with Halim El-Dabh, who was 82 at the time. “I wanted to know more about this guy and we kept in touch. I was able to order his CD, this was before Spotify and streaming platforms” smiles Joe.

Joe describes Halim as a very generous and prolific artist who “had music all over the place. I’ve had the chance to visit his archive a few times and his wife Deborah El-Dabh was very kind in sharing his collection. We would sometimes do Skype sessions and Halim would just perform some of his productions throughout our conversations. I have hours of him recorded transmitting his music throughout our conversations. I think he liked the idea of sound travel” explains Joe.

A pile of tapes from Halim El-Dabh's musical archives [photo credit: Joe Namy]
A pile of tapes from Halim El-Dabh's sonic archives [photo credit: Joe Namy]

In 2019, Joe was awarded a grant to visit Halim El-Dabh's archive, which was acquired by Northwestern University and contains a vast collection of scores, notes, papers, and various items. However, due to the pandemic, his plans changed. Flint Magazine approached him to feature Halim El-Dabh, which led to the idea of creating an album that encompasses the  variety of music Halim produced. "Halim would appreciate it, especially since he was always being categorised under specific genres or labels," Joe said.

Once they decided to make the album, they had to obtain the rights to the pieces. "His career and trajectory reflect the evolution of recorded music and parallel what was happening in the recording industry."

One of Halim’s earliest pieces was the trancy two-minute “Wire Recorder Piece” from 1944 which included distorted chanting, reverberations and echoes of women singing the indigenous ritual music of the Zaar. Halim had manipulated and layered the sounds using a wire recorder, which was the predecessor of the tape recorder, making it one of the earliest pieces of “Musique Concrete” predating the works of French composer Pierre Schaffer.

Having graduated in agricultural studies, Halim would often pay visits to remote areas along the Nile where he would perceive sound as a tool: “He would create sound installations to drive away birds and bugs”.

“Halim's approach to music was always evolving and changing and his works would evolve with him. Some of the pieces are autobiographical. For example, he composed “Masriyyat” at the age of 11 and he continuously carried on performing it, so that it would never be finished. It’s an improvisational piece where he always added or changed something every time he performed it” expounds Joe further, “It’s part of a trio of works Masriyyat, Arabiyyat and Ifikriyyat - which I don't think has been recorded."

Returning to how Joe and his collaborators selected the pieces for the album, Joe told The New Arab: “We wanted to get a variety of different works, solo piano works, field recordings, chamber music and dance music, we just started going through tracks with Deborah and selecting tracks that would be good. We tried to identify who owns the rights and how we can get rights to them as no one had a clear idea of who the rights belong. It took this project to clarify that and get it in writing. I spent a year just tracking down rights.”

Aria for Strings is the first track on the album was written in 1949 before El-Dabh left Cairo to study in the US. It is one of his earliest concertos. The album also contains some previously unreleased electronic music like Untitled #2 which is a multi-synth improvisation recorded at Pyrosonic Studio in Kent, Ohio in 2005.

There are also earlier works like Ethiopian Collages (1964) which Halim recorded on a portable field recorder and is one of the earliest recordings of his collages. The selected pieces come from different eras of Halim’s work and showcase the ways of recording and editing techniques which he used to manipulate sound. In the liner notes of the album, Joe describes the curation as “an exercise in the limits of recorded music history” and the music and sounds are nothing less than that.

Besides his innovative and experimental approach, Halim El-Dabh was ahead of his time in talking about the African influences within Egyptian culture at the height of Arab nationalism. “He wasn’t very political” recounts Joe, “I think for him, making music was a political act in itself, and that’s what he cared about the most. He was also quite radical in his teaching. He started out at Howard University and then moved to Kent State to start the second African studies program in the United States, a radical move in the late 60s and early 70s”.

Halim El-Dabh focused his work on recording African music and was deeply involved in what was happening around him. “He wrote “Opera Flies” after the Kent State Massacre” recalls Joe. Having partially witnessed a mass shooting incident while walking through the university campus in 1971, Halim transformed the tragedy into an opera piece that involved high-school students and sought to further the potential of future generations.

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When asked what was not included on the album, Joe responds “We included the piece The Legend Part 4 (1952) which was written about El-Dabh’s first visit to the U.S. But we couldn’t include his 1948 piece based on the war in Palestine, titled It is Dark and Damp on the Front. This composition involved placing objects around the piano’s strings and it is also the reason why he was awarded a scholarship to study in the States” explains Joe.

This work is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to El-Dabh’s work. As we try to listen to threaded works beyond the act of hearing, Joe adds that The Wondrous Reverberations of Halim El-Dabh is “the story of a legend and a musician who crosses different iconic moments in time, expressing the way he is touched by them”. 

Christina Hazboun is a Palestinian writer, researcher and music manager, who focuses on independent, non-mainstream music from South West Asia and North Africa. She is also the founder of the music discovery platform @thesonicagent

Follow her on Instagram: chrishazboun