How a piece of music changed my life
I started composing and playing music on the piano when I was eleven. Before I went to the University of Cairo I had won a piano competition for the Opera House for playing Rachmaninoff C sharp minor. As a young man, I decided to take a degree in Agricultural Science which afforded me with a knowledge of the land and its animals. I worked for a company, when I graduated from Cairo University, that sent me out to the land to teach the people what the animals needed, how to rotate the plants on the land and how to set up irrigation systems.
There was a group of ten or twelve of us that would go out to the farms in Egypt. When we would arrive it was a big celebration. All the villagers including the singers and the dancers would receive us, the engineers of the land. Then we would do the work the next day. It was a wonderful way to learn about Egypt’s different music styles when these incredible people would come and celebrate our arrival.
This was my work until suddenly I heard about the war. It was 1948. Of course, I was subject to the draft and I didn’t like the idea. I felt that war was really something that lived in the heart of every human being. When you declare war, you are really affecting everybody. So, I said it is dark and damp on the war front and this affects everybody involved. I put my feelings into a piano composition. Then I found I was exempt from the war because I was with the Agriculture Department.
We had in Cairo a huge cathedral called All Saints and it dedicated itself to performing European classical music. There was a committee made up of people from the cultural offices of France, of Italy, of England and lay people in the community. The lay people asked, “Why don’t you have any Egyptian music?“ They said, “We don’t know anybody that plays it.”
One of the lay committee people said, “I know someone who plays Egyptian music, Halim El-Dabh.” The head of the committee said, “I have never heard of this man. We don’t want any scandal.” So, they decided to spy on me. One day I am at home and someone knocks on my door from the British embassy, its cultural office. He makes up a story as to what brought him there, “I have come to say Hi. I heard that you are a composer. I play the flute and maybe I can play the flute for you.” He was very jolly.
The custom in Egypt when someone comes to your door is that you invite them for tea. When you have strangers coming in you offer them tea. We sat down to tea and he began looking at my music and he began to play and he said, “Wow, what kind of music is this? It is really difficult!” So, I guess he went back to the committee and said, “This guy is for real.”
So, the Cathedral scheduled me to play February 1949. They told me that I had a half hour on the program to play my new work, It is Dark and Damp On the Front, a declaration of how I felt about the war and how people did not want to fight. Also, the other compositions I had composed while working on the land and watching the people dance and listening to music they exposed me to. It was part of my life.
I was very nervous. One of my oldest brothers was very interested in my music and he was a philosopher in his own way. My other older brother was a medical doctor and funny enough he gave me a combination of vitamin B and C combined, he injected it in my vein right before the performance. I was just ringing with energy. I was so nervous and he was helping me be strong.
On stage was a nine-foot Pleyel piano, it was a huge piano made by a French firm and it was as good as a Steinway. I sat down and went “BANG” and I really shook up the place with my It is Dark and Damp on the Front and then the other pieces. I played them all. And boy, it was such an excitement in Cairo because my “BANG” shivered the city. We have in Cairo many newspapers, local Arabic papers, British and French papers and all of them wrote about Halim El-Dabh. I was claimed that night and I couldn’t believe it, one concert. All of a sudden, I am a composer of international status. I was excited but I couldn’t believe what was going on, I said, “I couldn’t have done that.”
So, this went on. The Egyptian government was excited. I was on the radio and they invited me to talk and play on the national radio. They commissioned me to write a piece to play for Mohammad Ali, one of the government leaders. The whole of Cairo’s music scene and my music teacher was electrified at what I had done and what had been accomplished so quickly.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.