Egyptian violin virtuoso charms Western audiences

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Reuters | March 26, 2001

CAIRO, March 26 (Reuters) – Egyptian violin virtuoso Abdu Dagir has charmed Western audiences, faithfully preserved tradition and picked up a devoted following along the way.

 

Dagir, who sees it as a responsibility to impart knowledge of a traditional art form, refuses to accept payment for teaching music students and vocalists his technique.

 

The small living room of his apartment in the Hadayek El Kobba district of Cairo serves as an informal conservatory, where Dagir sits, violin in hand, surrounded by his protégés.

 

“Students are welcome to come at any time,” he says, adding that his generosity is rooted in faith. “God bestows me my means of living. What God gives is more than what anyone can give.”

 

Dagir’s talent has taken him to Europe, where he has performed and conducted workshops in the music academies of Stuttgart, Hanover and Berlin.

 

A self-taught musician who cannot read sheet music, 64-year-old Dagir is regarded as a master of “taqasim”, the free instrumental improvisation of Arabic music.

 

One of his students compares him with great jazz musicians who do not read music.

 

“Music is not what’s written, it’s what is heard,” says Riad Abdel-Gawad, who holds a doctorate in music composition from Harvard University and is the latest of several musicians to transcribe Dagir’s music.

 

Dagir’s music has captivated audiences around the world and fascinated exponents of other musical traditions.

 

The Western-trained Japanese violinist Hiromi Nishida studied with him for two years after coming to Egypt in 1995 to learn how to play the Arabic violin. “Abdu’s music is very rich, strong, even sensuous,” she says.

 

The German classical guitarist Roman Bunka, who also plays the oud, or short-necked Arabic lute, praises Dagir’s techniques.

 

“He can teach people to listen. His ears are very fine-tuned. His teaching method is direct, emotional, traditional, not academic at all. Like a Sufi master, he’ll bring you to yourself,” he says.

 

BORN TO MUSIC

Dagir, born in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, listened to music lessons given at his father’s music institute from the age of eight. His father, who had other ambitions for his son, discouraged the young Dagir’s burgeoning interest in music.

 

“I would run away from school for the sake of music,” Dagir remembers. Secluded for many hours into the night, he would practice the oud, but was soon drawn to the violin.

 

“The violin is expressive. It sings,” Dagir says.

 

A performance by a foreign violinist, possibly Ukrainian-born David Oistrakh, captivated the young Egyptian. “I even thought that he was not a human being like us,” he recalls wistfully.

 

The encounter inspired him to develop his own musical method. Leaving home at 13, Dagir performed at religious festivals, toured with women’s dance troupes and was exposed to rural vocal art forms.

 

He was also steeped in the religious tradition of Koranic chanting, the source of his style. “I adopted my musical approach from religious song,” he explains. “I transferred it from a song of words to a song of instruments.”

 

At 17, Dagir travelled to Cairo, where he performed with the legends of Egypt’s musical past – the “Pearl of the Orient” Umm Kalthoum and renowned composer and singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

 

In 1968, Dagir founded the Arabic Music Ensemble to preserve the musical heritage of Egyptian song, but was forced to leave fifteen years later amid bitter disagreements over the direction it should take.

 

He ran a workshop from 1979 to 1997, training artisans how to make ouds and for seven years he dropped the violin to devote his time to researching the craft.

 

CHANCE ENCOUNTER

Dagir’s introduction to Western audiences came almost by chance. A German journalist on a quest for true Egyptian music in the late 1970s realised he had found it when he met Dagir.

 

“He came at about 2 a.m.,” recalls Dagir. “He recorded my music on all his audio tapes.”

 

The recordings reached the music institutes of Germany and the ears of Bunka, who came to Egypt in 1990 in search of an Egyptian-made oud and was directed to Dagir’s workshop.

 

“He took one of the ouds, and began playing one of my compositions,” says Dagir. “I asked his translator, ‘How does he know my music?’.”

 

He told Bunka that he was not playing the piece correctly. The surprised German asked to be shown how to do it.

 

As Dagir played the music on his violin, Bunka realised that he had met its composer. He returned a year later accompanied by documentary filmmaker Fritz Baumann.

 

Entitled “The Oud”, Baumann’s film won the Gold Hugo Award at the 1992 Chicago International Film Festival and introduced the world to Dagir’s music and oud-making.

 

Bunka studied the oud under Dagir and toured with his ensemble throughout Europe and Egypt.

 

In 1992, they recorded Malik at-Taqasim (King of Musical Improvisation), featuring a classical Arabic ensemble led by Dagir accompanied by cello, hand-drum, rim-blown flute and oud.

 

Six of Dagir’s compositions will be published this year for the first time by Opus International under the title “The New Egyptian-Arabic Sufic Art Music”.

 

With help from a Dutch embassy grant, Dagir hopes to open a school this year to teach traditional Arabic music and craftsmanship of traditional and folk instruments.

 

“Music is an international language,” says Dagir. “Everyone communicates from the vantage point of the environment he lives in, but it is all one language.”