Music professor celebrates his 4,087th birthday in style

Christina Stavale

Downtown gallery hosts party for Halim El-Dabh with drummers, friends

Halim El-Dabh, a university professor in the Pan-African department and an internationally known music composer, laughs as he talks to an old student at his 87th birthday celebration at the Standing Rock Cultural Center. ELIZABETH MYERS | DAILY KENT STAT

Credit: DKS Editors

Twelve drummers dressed in blue African clothing began playing an African beat on their drums. Children in similar garb stood, arms linked, dancing in a corner, and members of the Kent community watched as the drummers carried on in their song.

As the “man of the hour” entered, he raised his cane, taking his seat center stage, tapping his feet along with the beat.

Halim El-Dabh, Egyptian composer and university professor in music, celebrated his 87th birthday at the North Water Street Gallery last night.

El-Dabh is an ethnomusicologist, someone who studies music and its relationship to culture. He spent much of his life studying music and culture in Africa and is known as one of Egypt’s most famous composers.

“It’s one of my favorite holidays,” said Jeff Ingram, executive director of the gallery, who has been hosting El-Dabh’s birthday party for the past seven years – since he turned 80.

The cake in one corner of the room, decorated with a pyramid and musical notes read, “Happy 4087th Birthday, Halim El-Dabh.”

El-Dabh remembers the day he realized he was 4,000 years old. He said he was passing through Marietta when he came to visit Kent State for the first time almost 40 years ago. He said when he saw the Muskingum River, he was reminded of the Nile River. And when he stopped at a coffee shop, the glyphs on the cups, too, reminded him of Egypt. So he asked where these glyphs came from, and people directed him to the nearby mounds.

He explored the mounds only to find more glyphs – and one that resembled his signature.

“I screamed, ‘I was here 4,000 years ago,'” he said. “It stuck with me. That journey gave me the feeling that I was here 4,000 years ago.”

Shimaa Shendy, a former Kent State student, attended El-Dabh’s birthday celebration. She took his African Culture Expressions class when she found out that he, like her, came from Egypt.

She calls him her grandpa – or “gego.” When she was in his class, she said they had a special relationship, as they would talk about their homeland and teach the class Egyptian terms together. She said she always makes it a point to come to his birthday celebration.

“He’s always been such a happy person,” she said, “and he’s ready to listen and learn from the youngest people. That’s the secret to him living so long.”

As El-Dabh walked around the small, crowded room, filled with his friends from the community, he gave each of them a hug.

“There’s a whole combination of the Kent community here,” he said.

He pointed to a young girl, the daughter of one of his former students.

“My youngest student,” he said. “She learned all my songs when she was 3. Now she is 5.”

Just before it came time to cut the cake, Ingram led the young and old in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

“OK, make a wish Halim,” he said. “4,087.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected].