1,600 years after its destruction, the legendary Alexandria Library in Egypt has been rebuilt and reopens next month. Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh of Ohio has returned to his homeland for a series of concerts to celebrate the library's revival. Halim El-Dabh may not be a household name, but he ranks with the most influential composers of the twentieth century, and provides a musical connection between the east and west. 81-year-old Halim El-Dabh listens to a final rehearsal for his upcoming concerts at the Alexandria Library. The musicians from Kent State University, and elsewhere in the Midwest will perform some of El-Dabh's orchestral, chamber, and electronic works with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina string orchestra. Today, the often playful composer seems nostalgic about his trip home. "Oh, I feel great," he said. "It's gonna be great. It's a challenge to go back and have your music played. And meet friends. It's wonderful there's a group traveling from here. It's exciting. It's a sensitive feeling to go back to old surroundings, to people you haven't seen for a long time. I'm sure people I haven't seen for years and years will be there." With a week to go, El-Dabh is still unsure whether his group will have plane tickets. But he trusts that things will work out. That's always been his way. "Coming to the United States was by the forces of circumstance," said Halim El-Dabh. "I really didn't plan it. That's part of my nature. I never plan anything. I didn't plan the job at Kent State. They came to D.C. and offered me the job."
El-Dabh's life has been one remarkable set of circumstances after another. He grew up in Cairo, the youngest of nine siblings, and planned a career in agriculture. Composing music was his hobby.
He was one of the first to manipulate recorded sound. As early as 1944, he broadcast a piece of music on Cairo radio.
His life changed in 1949, when his piano piece It Is Dark and Damp On The Front drew instant acclaim. He says it was inspired by the Jewish emigration from Europe to what was then Palestine, and the resulting war. "I said it is dark and damp on the front and I automatically thought of the front being the human soul," he said. "The front, the real front. That there is a front, people killing each other, everyone was claim to something. But there is a real front which is inside of everybody. I believe that when you fight somebody, your enemy is really you. If you have an enemy, it's because you are looking at yourself. When you attack somebody, you are attacking yourself. Basically. That's my feeling that it's really inside."
Based on that piece, the 29-year-old composer was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to study music in the United States. As he prepared to go, he went to the U.S. embassy in Cairo to listen to popular American music. A confused secretary gave him recordings of Native American music. That mistake sparked a lifelong interest in the indigenous sounds of the world. The Fulbright Program granted his request to study with native tribes in the American southwest. El-Dabh's colleague at Kent State, music professor Denise Seachrist, is writing his biography, to be published next year. She tells of another of his unplanned career moves, as he made his way to a music festival in Colorado. "At that time everyone got around by hitchhiking, and so Halim decided to hitchhike," she said. "And he stuck his thumb out and a black sedan pulled over. And as he crawled in, there was Igor Stravinksy on his way to the event. Halim was thrilled, and was able to be Stravinsky's personal assistant for three days because Stravinsky was fascinated by Halim." El-Dabh later worked with Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and other composers. He wrote scores for three Martha Graham ballets, including Clytemnestra. He also composed with the biggest names in electronic music. As his fame grew, he was invited back to Egypt to compose the Music of the Pyramids, which is still played daily for tourists at Giza.
Professor Seachrist says Halim El-Dabh could have been a household name. But he always pursued music for its own sake. "The crucial decision came after he came back from Egypt and was in New York for about a year, a second daughter was born, and then he decided he wanted to do research in Ethiopia," she said. "He was working on a piece with Martha Graham, a second piece, and he finished it, but then he went to Ethopia. And that's a turning point when he became an educator."
El-Dabh arrived in Ethiopia in the late 1950s to study Coptic chants. He lived with different tribes and recorded their music. He spent two years in Addis Ababa as a professor at Haile Selassie University, where he encouraged students to abandon the European curriculum and learn about the music of their own culture instead.
Much of El-Dabh's work has not been publicly available. That changed last year when Ohio music producer Mike Hovanscek released a retrospective CD of El-Dabh's work. "Halim's that perfect balance between having the brilliance of a very technical composer with this childlike fascination with things," he said. "Those two things together are important. It's rare that anyone has that but Halim definitely does."
Even though he's lived 50 years in the United States, Egyptians still consider El-Dabh one of their own. That's why the Alexandria Library Music Director invited the composer to be part of the Library's rededication. Mike Hovanscek says it is a good choice. El-Dabh, he says, has given Americans a positive image of Egyptians and will be a good representative of the United States in Egypt. "There's probably never been a more important time in history for the two cultures to understand each other and there's nobody I can think of that's better than Halim to do that," he said.
El-Dabh and his ensemble got their plane tickets and are now in Egypt where they will perform several concerts of his work at the Alexandria Library. The program will include The Reappearance of The Lotus Flower, a new El-Dabh composition for strings, commissioned especially for the rededication of the ancient library.