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Bonaventure Ndikung opens up the color pallet and sounds of Halim El-Dabh

Bonaventure Ndikung
© Taylla de Paula

With the theme "It is Dark and Damp on the Front - Treading the Sonic Path of Halim El-Dabh,” the Cameroonian curator Bonaventure Ndikung shed lights - and sounds - on the legacy of El-Dabh, composer, ethnomusicologist and Pan-Africanist of Egyptian origin, who, for more than 70 years, collected audio references from diverse cultures of the African continent and arranged them in an experimental repertoire, which would also end up influencing what we know today as electronic music.

Music is color, movement, and vibration

The childhood of El-Dabh in the countryside, still in Egypt, is pointed to by Ndikung as being a fertile terrain for his curiosity about original rhythms and their different reverberations. It was in the farm that El-Dabh created his first compositions, “musical pesticides to ward off insects from the harvest,” as explains the curator. The contrary of musicologists who realize research in labs, Ndikung highlights the repertoire of African allegories, myths, and cosmogony, in which El-Dabh sought out the sounds and noises that are the basis for his investigation and sound experimentation.

It was during incursions through Africa that El-Dabh came in contact with diverse cultural manifestations - many with mystical backgrounds, such as healing or exorcism rituals - that subsidized his work of research and interpretation of an audio tradition in a contemporary language. According to Ndikung, El-Dabh’s perception of the music goes through the vibrations of the gestures and movements of the body, in the sensitive relationship between colors and sounds, not only in that which is audible, but also in what can be felt in a synesthetic way through means of varied forms of frequency. “For El-Dabh, music is what connects man with his interior, with who he is. Music is not what is heard, but what the body can experience,” notes Ndikung.

 El-Dabh’s passage through the African capital of South America

Ndikung tells us about El-Dabh’s passage through Salvador and his contact with the music that was present in cults of African matrices, such as candomblé: “El-Dabh was surprised with the Earth’s energy, which made those people spin around until falling down. He was delighted by the use of the trombones, with the orixás and the figure of Ogum and his metals.”

Tradition, experimentalism, and vanguard

In a talk permeated by the listening of compositions by El-Dabh, it becomes clear - or, better, audible - that he created throughout his trajectory the innovative character of the sound manipulations that were produced in mid 20th century. Indeed, El-Dabh was one of the first musicologists to utilize electronic equipment and supports that were recent to the time period - such as the magnetic tape - to produce new sound configurations from improbable sounds, such as white noises, reverberations, echoes, and diverse instruments.

It is during the listening of Leyla and the Poet, registered in 1964 in the album The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, that we can notice the elements that today partially characterize what we understand to be electronic music. Although El-Dabh channeled a contemporary sonority that trespassed the mere register of traditional music for a contemporary sound manifestation grounded on the possibilities risen by recording technologies that emerged at the time, Ndikung warns about the trap of resuming this work as a precursor to electronic music: “El-Dabh was an investigator, a collector who worked so much and cannot be seen as just another.”

Ndikung's research and curation work proposed situating the legacy of El-Dabh in a new genealogy of sound art history, that gives not only El-Dabh, but also the musical production from the African continent, their proper place and relevance. “What El-Dabh proposed is to bring electronic music back to Africa, back to its origin. You may not have understood that in his songs, but you can feel his history in your bodies. That is where lie the spirits and the knowledges that we are searching for,” resumes Ndikung.

This quest, however, is not easy: “The archive of El-Dabh’s work is practically nonexistent, it is very hard to still be able to gather all of this material. We are excavating like mad dogs,” plays Ndikung, in a reference to the album The Dog Done Gone Deaf, a work of El-Dabh launched in 2009 and that served as reference to the work presented by Ndikung in the conference Echoes of the South Atlantic.



  • “El-Dabh wanted to materialize and express energy, the vibration and frequency that comes from colors."
  • “El-Dabh worked in a sophisticated way the African allegories, myths, and cosmogony. He disseminated the sound and proposed an epistemology.”
  • “The question that he proposed was: ‘how to bring history and philosophy to music?’ He considered a legacy of sound and of African contemporary and modern art.”
  • “El-Dabh implemented in his songs legends, fictions, and half truths, that are very important for human society, in what is says about its origins, be it about animated objects, or inanimate.”
  • “El-Dabh believed that all sounds in the world are based in a single original tone, a type of ‘fertilized egg.'"
by Cadu Oliveira