"WHERE IS Nubia?" I asked myself as I hauled out the world atlas. I was trying to get a picture in my mind of the place where Nubian musician Hamza El-Din lives. Earlier, I had been discussing plans for a symposium on "Music of the Nile" with colleagues at the International Conservatory of Music. Featured would be Hamza El-Din, who plays the al-oud (fretless lute) and the tar (tambourine without jingles). He has made records on the Nonesuch label, recently releasing a digital in Japan. When he is in the U.S., he is the musical guru of the Grateful Dead.
Anyway, he was coming to play a concert at Georgetown University and we were to cosponsor a weekend workshop. We had worked long and hard to get this 10-hour class accredited through the Catholic University for its students and the students of the consortium of universities.
"Holy Smokes!" says I to myself, "since the building of the Aswan Dam, Hamza's Nubia is under water!" This made Hamza El-Din a living national treasure of a scattered people.
During the weeks preceding his visit, I played his record, "Escalay, the Water Wheel," over and over. I was drawn into the spell of this desert music partly through my memories of sheep and shepherds in the arid badlands of Wyoming and my childhood.
When Hamza and I finally met in his hotel room on P Street, near our offices at Dupont Circle, I was impressed by his unique style. He spoke to his oud as a lover and a friend, consulting with it on the rigors of their recent trip. Since Hamza sets his watch to the time that it would be in Nubia, appointments and flight times become a major stumbling block. It might have been the breakdown in these calculations that caused his oud to get lost. It was hard enough to find Hamza himself, chasing first to National Airport, then to Dulles and finally to BWI, finding him at 3:30 a.m. but without his oud.
Hamza took a moment to warm the head of the tar over an electric light, causing the fish skin to tighten, tuning the sound higher and higher. Then he put both instruments together on the floor near the door. We were ready to introduce Hamza to Washington. All that day, we hustled from radio station to TV station and newspapers, making sure each had an opportunity to see and hear. Remarks on hearing him play the oud varied from, "When's he gonna tune that --- of a -------' thing?" to "My God! I've been waiting for four years for this!"
Next evening, when Hamza appeared on stage, more than 80 Nubians in the crowd of over 700 at Gaston Hall greeted him in the old way--with throaty ululations of joy. Hamza's music began slowly, like the rhythm from the water wheel, getting faster as the flow increased. This music with a desert feel, the hush of the mostly Arab and American crowd, the klieg lights for the video taping, the 8-foot by 30-foot Turkish kilim behind him on a makeshift frame, the Persian carpets upon which he sat all helped create the mood. He was sensational.
The next two days brought 41 of us closer to Hamza in the lofty sanctuary of the Dumbarton Avenue United Methodist Church. We lived and felt the intricate rhythmic patterns of Nubian nightlife, musical rituals like handclapping and marriage songs. Oliver Wendell Holmes was right, you know, when he said, "An expanded mind never returns to its original shape."
Since that time, the conservatory has explored other musical worlds, from China to Senegal, from Ireland to Japan. We've had a composer's workshop of Sergiu Natra's classical harp music with the D.C. chapter of the American Harp Society, and a klezmer clarinet master class with Giora Feidman in a nursing home in Rockville. Not all of our performer/teachers are from out of town. Washington, the international town, has an amazing abundance of musical artists, some with the highest standards. Many of our ongoing classes now meet weekly.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is: Why did you want to start this kind of conservatory? Why not one where the students study "regular" music? To these I usually reply: We have instrumental lessons on the piano, the flute, the classical guitar, the violin and others. We also have instrumental lessons on the ku cheng, the erh hu, the kora, the koto, the kanoon. In this city, in order to reflect the social fabric of our neighbors, we believe this conservatory should be international. Brahms, Beethoven and Bach all studied the traditional music of their region, including it in their compositions. In our increasingly smaller world, this is the music of our country.