Electronic music as an art form is often credited to start with the likes of pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, in the 1940s and 1950s. However, one guy in Egypt was there earlier: Halim El-Dabh (1921), who in 1944 hit the streets of Cairo to record ambient sounds and music, and experiment with it afterwards.
Boing Boing has more:
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.
An excerpt from the 1944 composition called “The Expression of Zaar” is here below, credited as ‘the earliest piece of electronic music ever produced’. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it sounds very ambient and cool. Not too surprising if you realize you’re listening to a spiritual ceremony from 1940s Cairo:
The Electronic Music Foundation has an interview with El-Dabh, who is currently Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University. About the 1944 piece:
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.
Check out Mr. El-Dabh’s website.