One of the many excellent albums he's recorded, Muwashshah offers abundant proof that when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African music, Hamza el Din is as impressive a musician as he is a singer. El Din's soulful vocals are something to treasure, but even if he did no singing whatsoever, his oud playing on hypnotic gems like "Assaramessuga," "Gala 2000," and "Bint Baladna" would make the CD worth the price of admission. The oud is a very recognizable lute that has been prominent in traditional Arabic music for centuries – anyone who has spent time listening to traditional Middle Eastern music has more than likely been exposed to the oud at some point – and el Din's mastery of it is undeniable. Thankfully, one doesn't have to choose between el Din's singing and his oud playing; both do their part to make Muwashshah the triumph that it is.
Hamza el Din has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the world's great oud players, and the mastery he displays here quickly establishes just why he's so lauded. The virtuosity shown on "Greetings," for example, is a sheer delight, his nimble and thoughtful fingers creating lovely melodies behind the vocals of Shizuru Ohtaka. But it's on "Sunset," which is variations on a theme by Riad el Sumbati, that the power of his playing truly begins to shine. Completely solo, he works in the maqam, or scale, building his work. However, he's not afraid to leave his oud behind, and just use rhythm, as he does on "Nagrishad," where the only instruments are beaten and the vocal carries the only melody. But the centerpiece is the title track, a gorgeous song graced by the cello of Joan Jeanrenaud and W.A. Mathieu's piano, which, with their Western tunings, bring the piece to a place that's not completely of el Din's Nubian homeland. It's a lovely work whose themes resonate and last long after the CD, and it might well be the most accessible – at least to Western ears – music that el Din's composed in a long career.
Unique among Middle Eastern artists, El Din is a Nubian oud player and singer from the Sudan who studied his craft in Cairo, and fashioned the oud–normally used for accompaniment or in ensembles–into a solo instrument, combining Nubian and Arabic musical gestures. Eclipse–produced by Grateful Dead drummer and world-music champion Mickey Hart–exploits elastic rhythms and repetitive motifs in moody, majestic pieces like "Helalisa," the lovelorn song of an Egyptian field hand, and "Your Love Is Ever Young," inspired by Egypt's late queen of song, Um Kalthoum. Fans of Turkish oud masters (like the great Udi Hrant) will find El Din's penetrating tone and attack familiar, though his arrangements and vocal accompaniments are a different beast altogether, producing an evocative, melancholy music that draws on several traditions simultaneously.
One of the first African musicians to gain widespread international recognition, Hamza El Din is a Nubian master of the oud, or the fretless lute. Western listeners are as likely as not to have been exposed to his work via the Grateful Dead, who played with him on-stage occasionally. (El Din also helped arrange the Dead's tour of Egypt.) He played an integral role in modernizing Nubian music, using his work to both evoke and tell stories of Nubian life. El Din was originally trained to be an engineer, but changed direction and enrolled in the Middle Eastern School of Music, where he began to compose his own songs. On a fellowship to study Western classical music in Rome, he met American Gino Foreman, who exposed Hamza's work to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. This resulted in a contract with Vanguard. His mid-'60s debut, Al Oud – Instrumental and Vocal Music From Nubia, was one of the first "world music" recordings to achieve wide exposure in the West.
His second album is similar in tone to his debut, featuring original compositions based on Nubian folk traditions, masterful oud playing, and soothing vocals. Serene and haunting, this was among the first world music recordings to make an international impact.