Halim El-Dabh, electronic music pioneer

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While Pierre Schaeffer is often thought of as the father of the electronic music form known as musique concrète the gentleman above, Halim El-Dabh, actually got there several years before, 1944 to be exact. Born in Egypt in 1921, El-Dabh studied agriculture at Cairo University while playing piano and other traditional instruments as a pastime. One day, the student and a friend borrowed a wire recorder -- a device predating magnetic tape -- from the Middle East Radio Station and hit the streets to capture ambient sounds. El-Dabh recorded a spirit-summoning ritual called a zaar ceremony and ultimately found that he could use the sounds as the raw ingredients for a new composition. In a recent interview with the Electronic Music Foundation, El-Dabh, who is University Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University and continues to compose music, tells the story of his musical career, including this bit about the pioneering 1944 piece listenable above, an excerpt from "The Expression of Zaar":
We had to sneak in (to the ritual) with our heads covered like the women, since men were not allowed in. I recorded the music and brought the recording back to the radio station and experimented with modulating the recorded sounds. I emphasized the harmonics of the sound by removing the fundamental tones and changing the reverberation and echo by recording in a space with movable walls. I did some of this using voltage controlled devices. It was not easy to do. I didn't think of it as electronic music, but just as an experience. I called the piece Ta'abir al-Zaar, (The Expression of Zaar). A short version of it has become known as Wire Recorder Piece. At the time in Egypt, nobody else was working with electronic sounds. I was just ecstatic about sounds.
"Conversation with Halim El-Dabh" (EMF)

The Official Website of Halim El-Dabh


  1. I believe that Luigi Russolo predates this dude by several decades. From the Wik:

    Luigi Russolo (30 April 1883 – 4 February 1947) was an Italian Futurist painter and composer, and the author of the manifesto The Art of Noises (1913). He is often regarded as one of the first noise music experimental composers with his performances of “noise concerts” in 1913-14 and then again after World War I, notably in Paris in 1921. He is also one of the first theorists of electronic music.

  2. I live in Kent.  We’ve been lucky enough to see Halim El-Dabh play at the university, at events in the city, and even at our weekly farmers market!

  3.  Halim El-Dabh is a great fellow, a sharp wit and a kind soul, and a fantastic musician of all sorts of instruments. Good to see him get some Boingboing love!

  4. wheezer, the significant distinction here is that Halim El-Dabh
    pioneered musique concrète, the use of sounds recorded on magnetic tape
    as a musical resource, which is not the same thing as what Luigi Russolo
    did with his intonarumori (noise machines). That’s not to take anything
    away from Russolo, merely arguing that what the post claims of El-Dabh
    appears to be accurate. Wikipedia includes the same claim in its page on
    electronic music.

  5. While this guy is unarguably cool, like Schaeffer he is not the first
    person to make Musique
    Concrete, and I’m not talking Russolo either. Jack Ellitt, an Australian
    composer working in the UK was working on what he called ‘Sound
    Constructions’ in the 30s using optical sound-on-film technology and
    possibly even more awesomely synthesizing sounds by drawing on the

    And there was probably someone even earlier…

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