‘Celebration and love keep him going’

Joey Pompignano

Professor Halim El-Dabh celebrates 88th birthday

WATCH an audio slideshow of the celebration.

He lived all over Africa, spreading his musical knowledge across Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and west Africa. He conducted ethnomusicology research across the world, visiting countries like Brazil, Greece and Italy. After all his tours, Kent has remained his home for the last 40 years.

Halim El-Dabh, professor emeritus in Pan-African studies, celebrated his 88th birthday Wednesday night at North Water Street Gallery. Jeff Ingram, executive director of Standing Rock Cultural Arts, hosted the event.

Ingram said he appreciates El-Dabh’s involvement in Kent throughout the years – from May 4 memorial tributes to playing music in the street for annual festivals.

“He’s been a phenomenal force in the Kent community, as well as the world,” he said.

More than 40 artists, students, friends and fans of El-Dabh’s music showed up with wine, pizza and a cake that spelled out “Happy Birthday Halim” with shredded almonds. Musicians played drums and danced in the gallery’s back room. They laughed and reminisced about stories with the guest of honor.

El-Dabh has nine decades worth of stories. Born in Egypt, El-Dabh attended Cairo University for agricultural engineering and came to the United States in 1950. He taught at Howard University in Washington D.C. before coming to Kent State’s Department of Pan-African Studies 1968. He has written and composed 300 scores, including operas, symphonies, songs, plays, ballets and orchestral pieces.

“In the middle of the night I have a ‘spark,’ and when it ignites, I write,” El-Dabh said.

El-Dabh said he stays active in the art community by talking with people who have excitement about life and share similar goals and aspirations. He said he always has a good outlook on life, even when there’s conflict.

“I get energy from the dynamics of the people I encounter,” he said. “Motivation comes from the poetic nature of life if you’re open to life and the people you meet.”

Some of El-Dabh’s proudest accomplishments are his opera-ballet “Clytemnestra,” released in 1958, a composition titled “It Is Dark and Damp on the Front” from 1948 and becoming the founder of electronic music in 1944 – which at the time he did not realize would become such a landmark contribution to music.

El-Dabh used devices driven by sound like voltage and reverberation. While studying and examining voices in a female society’s ancient ceremony, he used different ways to capture sound and manipulate it with a recorder piece “as thin as hair.” With borrowed equipment from a Cairo radio station, he stumbled across a new way of creating music.

“I was doing it because of the desire to discover different forms of vibrations,” he said.

Shimaa Shendy, a 2007 Kent State graduate in psychology, had El-Dabh as a professor and helped him teach a class called Cultural Expressions. Also a native of Egypt, Shendy said she has never missed his birthday in the five years she has known him. She said he always stays positive and gets along with everyone.

“He reminds me of my grandfather,” she said. “Celebration and love keep him going.”

Contact off-campus entertainment reporter Joey Pompignano at [email protected].