KSU professor celebrates 85th

Bryan Wroten

Professor Halim El-Dabh and guests at his birthday party watch children dance to drum music performed by the Kent African Drum Community. El-Dabh celebrated his 85th birthday at the Standing Rock Gallery on North Water Street Saturday evening. SAMANTHA

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

The 4,085 candles wouldn’t fit on his birthday cake.

Halim El-Dabh stopped for coffee one morning in Marietta while moving to Kent when he noticed strange writing on his cup. The waitress told him they were glyphs from American Indian mounds. Upon seeing the mounds himself, he said he thought the glyphs looked like his handwriting.

“I must have been here 4,000 years ago,” he said.

El-Dabh celebrated his 85th birthday Saturday night to the beat of African drums, surrounded by friends of all ages.

Held at the North Water Street Gallery, the party started at 7:30 p.m. and went on until after midnight.

Jeff Ingram, curator of exhibitions at the gallery, said he has known El-Dabh for many years through the workshops El-Dabh teaches there. Standing Rock Cultural Arts, the non-profit organization behind the gallery, has hosted El-Dabh’s birthday celebrations for the past five years.

El-Dabh, professor emeritus, musician and composer, has taught at Kent State since 1969. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he said he came to America and lived in Washington, D.C.

He has composed operas, symphonies, ballets and other performance pieces.

Poet Maj Ragain read a piece dedicated to El-Dabh and presented him with a bottle of Irish Whiskey, which El-Dabh would share most of during the party.

The Kent African Drum Community, formerly the Rumba Society, performed for a full house on the stage in the back room of the gallery. El-Dabh and his wife, Deborah El-Dabh, had front row seats. During the performance, El-Dabh clapped and drummed along on his lap.

As a surprise to El-Dabh, his two daughters, Amira Ranney and Shadia Kirk, came to Kent for his birthday. Both live out of state.

“He called us that night (Thursday) and said how nice it would be if we could be here,” Kirk said. “We said we couldn’t make it.”

Then, the day before the party, Ranney said they called him and said, “Hi, we’re here.”

Kirk said she remembers the long nights her father spent at the piano composing, working until two or three in the morning.

He did it because music was his passion, Ranney said.

“This is not his job, this is not his career,” she said. “It’s his life.”

El-Dabh is writing a symphony titled “The Quest” in honor of President Carol Cartwright’s retirement. He is also working on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s unfinished opera, “Thamos, King of Egypt.” He said the opera is fascinating because it “brings people who were 700 years apart together.”

The life of a composer is full of long, hard deadlines, Deborah said. There were chances to relax between pieces and works, though, she said.

“He’s working on some large pieces right now,” she said, “but tonight we get to celebrate.”

She said she met him as a grad student in his African Music and Culture class. She said after a couple more classes with him, they found a mutual interest in Afro-Brazilian religion and culture.

El-Dabh said throughout his life he is most grateful for being able to create, write and teach.

“Composing and teaching is my biggest gift.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].