Hamza El Din’s appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, alongside such famed artists as Joan Baez and the Staple Singers, introduced a wider world to his distinctly Nubian oud technique and repertoire. The following year, he released Al Oud. Sparse and sublime, Al Oud captures the skill that made El Din so widely renowned among major US-based acts from the Grateful Dead to the Kronos Quartet to Bob Dylan, and it does so without any unnecessary pomp. Al Oud archives El Din’s singing and playing with quiet clarity. Now, almost six decades later, Real Gone Music brings the record back to the public with an American LP reissue that shows just how well the music holds up over time.
The music El Din plays here is rooted in Nubian folk traditions but centers on an instrument often thought of as Arabian, a particular permutation of influences that is the hallmark of his work. On Al Oud, El Din interprets these specific histories to superb effect. His instruments, oud and voice alike, resonate literally and emotionally. Each piece is a sound bath. The album opens at a gallop with sunny “Childhood (Assaramessuga)”, El Din’s strings whirling as his voice flows forward, ebullient but never overpowering. “The Spirits (Shortunga)” brings a more concentrated intensity to the forefront, the minimalism of the instrumentation tracing the shape of something ecstatic rather than painting it in full. The room this leaves for imagination makes for an immersive experience.
His lenthiest tracks here meander (with intent, of course). “Grandfathers’ Stories (Annun Sira’)” clocks in at over 11 minutes of solo oud, with passages ranging from sparse and spacious to frantic in the depiction of the titular narratives. Comparatively brief at seven minutes long, “The Fortune Teller (Kogosh)” suggests its own rich story as El Din dwells in pauses, lets low notes linger, and at times soars into his upper register, forming taut peaks that make the valleys more poignant. “Did Nura Remember (Gillina Nura)” brings similarly enthralling drama to the mix in a more compact package, El Din’s voice and strings riveting and urgent.
Setting the tone is what El Din may do best of all on Al Oud. With “The Message Bearer (Hoi To Irkil Fa Giu),” he crafts from his few instruments a complete celebration. The instrumental “The Gondola” builds from pensive to joyful. He sings “Call for Unity (Nuban Uto)” with hopeful solemnity. The record ends at top speed as El Din maximizes the melodic and percussive potentials of his oud (handclaps add to the jubilation) on “Greeting Card (Abdin)”.
In a 1996 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, later quoted in his New York Times obituary, Hamza El Din described the revelation key to his career: “the oud had the Nubian accent”. On Al Oud, he elaborates, exploring a vast vocabulary through his voice and instrument. The musical language of Al Oud joins concepts of Nubia and Arabia to express the intersections in which he lived. On its reissue, it is just as marvelous and moving as El Din’s performance must have been those many years ago.