Tracing the Re/Verberations of Halim El-Dabh

Since my traditions are rooted in Egypt, my language of sound tends to bring into being the sounds of Africa. In Africa singing is a function of life. One sings as an activity, not in order to be good. To be a good musician in Africa is to make total use of the instrument, not to select only certain capabilities of the instrument and make these capabilities the law of the instrument.

Halim El-Dabh, liner notes The Osiri Ritual, Ptahmose and the Magic Spell, 1972

What I love about music is it connects me with the universe. It puts me in contact with every human being. Music is not just what your ear can hear, but what your body can experience. Every human being has a gesture, and that gesture explains your life history in a way — the way you use the body. There are thousands of gestures to explain a culture of a society, between the gesture, which I’m very interested to learn, and the relation to sound, a fantastic tool to become liberated and find yourself.

Halim El-Dabh in conversation with Maha ElNabawi, MadaMasr, 2016

HERE HISTORY BEGAN. TRACING THE RE/VERBERATIONS OF HALIM EL-DABH is the culmination of a five year long research, and our second homage to the oeuvre of the Egyptian-American musician, Pan-Africanist, creative musicologist, and philosopher Halim El-Dabh, one of the most seminal composers of the 20th century who this March would have turned 100 years. 

With this endeavour into sound and its spaces, we honour our elder Halim El-Dabh. His work is an inspiration to us and guides us through a multifaceted history of music, philosophy and tools accessed and explored by El-Dabh through the years. 

With this research and exhibition we question: what are the mechanisms by which Halim El-Dabh could be excluded from the canon? An artist whose legendary composition “It is Dark and Damp on the Front” (1949) brought him international recognition before he received formal music training; who collaborated with the modern dance titan Martha Graham; who composed one of the earliest pieces of electronic music known to date, “Taabir El-Zaar” (1944), which launched a wave of experimental electronic music flourishing until today; whose sound installation “Here History  Began” (1961) has become synonymous with the pyramids in Giza; and whose Pan-Africanist vision led him throughout the African continent to connect and collaborate with thinkers, musicians, and politicians like Leopold Sedar Senghor and Haile Selassie while collecting sounds and instruments from around the continent and the diaspora. A composer who, through a span of over seven decades, cross-pollinated sonic disciplines ranging from music for voice and electronic music to opera, symphony, ballet, orchestra while conducting significant research into the sonic traditions of Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Morocco, Greece, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Mexico, and Jamaica, and the United States. 

This exhibition leads into a series of concerts, lectures, performances, radio programmes, a publication and workshops throughout 2021, expanding our prelude at the 2018 Dak’Art Biennial: CANINE WISDOM FOR THE BARKING DOG SEXTET: EXPLORING THE SONIC COSMOLOGIES OF HALIM EL-DABH. We are interested in that which “might prevent that ongoing work of agnosia from deleting the future memory of the black avant-gardes” as Kodwo Eshun underscored during SAVVY Contemporary’s and MaerzMusik’s joint focus on Julius Eastman in 2017-2018, yet another composer actively excluded from past and future history. 

We will bend time and re-mix history – fast-forwarding, pausing, rewinding, forwarding again, and stopping, almost as if physically spinning on a turntable through temporalities, sonic methods, sonic geographies, (un)timing time and “extending the same mix based on repetitions and recirculations of the same thing.” [1] SAVVY Contemporary has commissioned contemporary artists, composers, and performers to produce sonic, visual, installative and extra-disciplinary works to pay tribute to, to reflect on, and to get inspired by Halim El-Dabh over his seventy years of work.

This exhibition allows us to enter the life and work of Halim El-Dabh, not only as a means of documentation but also as a source of inspiration and as a ground to build on for new sonic endeavours, taking a cue from his phenomenal graphic scores, writings on colour, movement, and improvisation. At the same time, HERE HISTORY BEGAN becomes a re/verberation of history, complexifying here both temporally and geopolitically, and hinting at unexplored routes of thinking, composing, and contemplating on African sonicity and its effects on historicity.

Artists, writers, thinkers and performers are invited to seek inspiration from his legacy and find new languages and forms of creative expression: 
Leo Asemota’s work is an interventive series of pieces which include a number of music dictionaries, a neon light installation, and a manuscript displayed on a collapsible music stand. Asemota’s work is an annotation of histories of omission, and an intervention into how they can be retold. Through Emeka Ogboh’s installation, Halim El-Dabh’s sonic and musical practice finds a new visuality in the moving images when sonic waves mesh into each other while both of them are sensory experiences. Satch Hoyt presents us with a delicate participatory sound installation and sculpture composed of eight circular forms installed onto a wall. The number eight signifies resurrection and regeneration. El-Dabh who was raised in Coptic christian faith, the Africanisation of Christianity is extremely relevant in unpacking African sonicities.

Based on El-Dabh’s approach to a Pan-Africanism of the composition and philosophy of listening, Yara Mekawei adopts transdisciplinary aesthetic practices to recognize the hidden sounds with sonic mediums. With Magdi Mostafa, we are transported to the streets of Cairo, listening to sound material ejected from the two sound cells made of top load washing machines, amplifying the city's rich diversity of sonority. Camille Norment’s drawings are a kind of signal-noise reminiscent of music notation sheets, waveforms, and the closed system of Western music notation – a system in which “extra musicality” is denied entry – as a symbolic motif. Jessica Ekomane’s sound installation takes cues from El-Dabh’s understanding of sound as an element immanent to the context that it is situated and experienced – the whole universe – and thus reflects on everyday life and its sounds. Vivian Cacuri’s installation reflects on a specific kind of mosquitos found in the Amazonas region which face threats due to deforestation. The work is, in this sense, also connected to El-Dabh studies in agriculture. In Tegene Kunbi’s works, we are witnessing a relationship between the painter and the painting around the concepts of the natural and unnatural, human and nocturnal, sonic and the visual and so on, which are also topics El-Dabh has investigated immensely. Theo Eshetu presents an improvised composition of sound and images, collaged from films and historical material on Egypt. The work comments on how history is written and the colonial gaze witnessed it; thus exposes the colonial logic and its absurdity.

Jihan El-Tahri’s installation weaves a pattern made out of a variety of material and mediums for us to follow El-Dabh’s travels through the African continent which informed his sonic practice, that also coincides with El-Tahri’s own path towards and through Africa. Similarly, Matana Roberts tells the stories of her ancestors and the travels they made throughout different geographies in Africa – including Egypt – finding the mutual points with El-Dabh’s journeys, which all convene into an ecology of sound in her installation. Aryan Kaganof’s video work uses a selection from Halim El-Dabh’s sound works and extends his sculptural approach to the image so that what you see is what you hear. The choreography of the narration is entirely dependent on an interpretation of image as music, a music sculpted onto the retina. Lorenzo Sandoval’s sonic travelogue dives into archives of Halim El-Dabh, bringing its contents into relation with materials from diverse precedences and new compositions.

Black Quantum Futurism (Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother & Rasheedah Phillips) invite the visitor through their video work to question and break the order of time that is divided into past, present and future, as the future appears in the past through different symbols and generations. Sunette L. Viljoen’s series of lightweight, movable wall surfaces installed throughout the exhibition space with the intent to soften, break apart and engage with the room’s sonic and visual states. Conversing with the scenography of an exhibition space where sound is both the content and concept.


Josh Kun in his lecture on "Border Atonalism", during SAVVY Contemporary’s INVOCATIONS on Julius Eastman, March 2018.