Riad Abdel-Gawad composes music and performs on the violin, which, although does not fit easily into any “box” or genre, points towards likely frontiers that music has taken and will take in the 21st-century. Having composed in three very distinct styles of composition — “contemporary and avant-garde”, “polystylistic postmodern”, and “international authentic world”, his music crosses and fuses a variety of Western and Eastern genres and canons. Having immersed himself for over a decade in a unique guru-based artistic school in Cairo, Riad Abdel-Gawad is considered amongst his peers to be one of the finest artists of his generation whose linage to a remarkably distinct school of Arab music and a mastery of its improvisatory practice is undisputed.
This unique Arab music school was developed by Abdo Dagher, legendary violin accompanier to Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum, the “Incomparable Voice” so-named by Maria Callas. Riad Abdel-Gawad links and preserves a tradition whose roots reach to the Medieval Arabic writers’ and practitioners’ old sources. This school, is the only such teacher-disciple school to develop in recent (c. 100 years) documented Cairo history. Baghdad experienced the development of a similar unique stylistic school, (of Mouneer Basheer) c. 30-40 years ago that focused on `oud—“lute” performance. This Iraqi school now has a small number of renowned second-generation performing artists (e.g. Nasheer Shama, Adel Sallameh).
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Riad Abdel-Gawad is a graduate of the University of Southern California, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Harvard University. He studied with Bernard Rands at Harvard. Mr. Abdel-Gawad also spent one year of study with Frederic Rzewski at the Conservatoire Royal de Liège in Belgium.
Thus, Mr. Abdel-Gawad’s current “postmodern” and “authentic” compositional styles cross-fertilize — mutually from the “East” and the “West” — musical techniques and forms. Presently his music is currently being programmed and listened to on US, Canadian and European radio programs that spin such so-called musical genres as “new age meditative/world beat” and tarab---"enchantment". In fact, his latest CD is entitled, “El Tarab El Aseel”, which literally translates as autochthonic enchantment. (Autochthonic is pronounced: "o-'TÄK-thə-nəc", meaning "formed or originating in the place where found; native or indigenous". On this album you will hear the classical Middle Eastern ensemble, known as takht, a Persian word, which literally means: platform on which (fin de siècle 19th century) Cairene musicians performed. Mr. Abdel-Gawad’s band members, some of the best musicians today in Cairo, are masters of their respective instruments: qānūn (trapezoidal zither), ūd (Arab lute), nāy (Arab flute) and riqq (Arab tambourine). (Take a listen to all of them on the “music on-line” page).
Riad describes that this takht platform or dikka (as it was also known in Arabic) was a raised stage area for musicians to entertain listeners in cafés during the era of Mohamed Ali. He said, “the tekht musicians at the turn of the 20th-century usually consisted of singer, qānūn, as well as the indigenous two-stringed instrument called the kamangah. But this instrument soon fell out of use in favor for the Western violin. Subsequently, the violin appropriated the term kamangah as its own cognomen in Arabic perhaps in deference to its predecessor.” In this particular CD the takht features instrumentalists.
After graduating from Harvard with a Ph.D. in music composition, Riad Abdel-Gawad principally resided in Belgium, Egypt and Germany and traveled to France and Italy all the while gaining professional music experience. He even worked, iconoclastically, as a street musician in Brussels, Liège and Paris. Having championed the idea that trans-national composition and performance would be one of the frontiers of music in the twenty-first century, Riad Abdel-Gawad strived to authenticate and work towards this idea in his own musical art. From that viewpoint, as Riad elucidated to me, as a young man he sought professional musical experience that would have been difficult to know had he entered the world of academia upon graduating from Harvard.
Shuttling “nomadically”, between Europe and Egypt Riad Abdel-Gawad assisted Abdo Dagher in masterclasses, and performed with him in festivals, on CD recordings, and in tours, and appeared in television and in a documentary film and in performances in Belgium, Egypt, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Switzerland. Having a wonderful camaraderie with Abdo, Riad and he once took a train from Marseille to Munich all of the while practicing their violins in a semi-enclosed train compartment “enchanting” the other passengers and the train staff. They were on there way to tour in Germany with Roman Bunka.
I met Riad at Abdo’s well-known musical salon in Hadayek el-Qobba, a popular district near downtown Cairo. He became a fixture at Abdo’s salon-school, his “right-hand” man, as one can see from the photographs of Riad in Abdo’s music salon. Abdo endearingly described Riad as his ibn el-fann, literally, “a son of his art”. Riad practiced with Abdo and Abdo’s many visitors from all over the globe in sessions (saharat) from dusk to dawn. Riad was fortunate to have experienced many of these sessions and found them useful as did many of the most famous musicians in the Middle East did. Abdo generously instilled in his students his unique method and improvisatory practice. Riad reciprocated, in part, by writing and documenting Abdo Dagher’s musically-rich and speed- and technique-filled menheg (“musical method and exercises”). Riad Abdel-Gawad also helped in transcribing six of Abdo Dagher’s compositions that are published by International Opus.
Riad Abdel-Gawad has also performed his own compositions as a violinist in festivals, workshops, tours in Belgium, Cameroon, Congo (Democratic Republic), Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Riad Abdel-Gawad’s compositions have been broadcasted worldwide on radio, as well, have been commissioned, featured, and played at international music festivals, competitions, and venues including: the Mediterranean Composition Competition in Greece, the Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music, and the Palais des Beaux Arts for the Ars Musica Festival in Brussels.
Recent commissions, performances, commercial recordings and publications of Riad Abdel-Gawad’s compositions have come from: Future Classics Label, Meet the Composer, Oxford University Press, and the Princeton Composer’s Ensemble Series. Honors, awards, fellowships and grants have come from including: ASCAP, the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, BMI, Harvard University, and the MacDowell Colony.
Profile by Mohamed A. Mostafa, journalist for El-Gumhuriyya and el-Nagm