Ali Osman Al Haj – known as Ali Osman – was a Cairo-based Sudanese composer, conductor, and educator who created an important imprint on music in Egypt.
Osman passed away on 16 February 2017, leaving a legacy of many compositions nurtured by traditional materials, recognised internationally. Equally cherished by his students and colleagues, Osman is also missed by the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra, a unique Egyptian ensemble consisting of visually impaired and blind women musicians, of which Osman took care for many years as its educator, music director and conductor.
The concert commemorating this remarkable Sudanese musician, who made Egypt his own, comes six years after his sudden death. The evening, which took place on Friday at the small hall of the Cairo Opera House, was organised by Osman’s widow, a musician in her own right: Egyptian soprano Tahia Shams Eddin.
The concert gathered several renowned Egyptian musicians and Osman’s students from the Cairo Conservatory. The second half of the evening featured the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra performing under the baton of Tamer Fahmy, a musician who is now in charge of the orchestra, succeeding Mohamed Saad Basha (Osman's successor).
Among the musicians taking the stage in the concert’s first half were marimba player Nesma Abdel Aziz, pianist Mohamed Essam, flutist Huda Abdel Azim, double bass player Nermine Esmael, alongside Salma Saber (harp), Lamis Gamal (marimba), Haidee Eid (cymbals), Youssef Ali Osman (violin), Youssef Hassan (violin), Rana Hany (clarinet), Omar El Meligy (flute), Romaysaa Darwish (piano), Caroline Tobia (viola), among others.
All works performed during the evening were Osman’s compositions in which numerous instruments are interlaced in the musical meeting of cultures. Osman always juggled Arabic musical modes and rhythmic patterns and Western harmonies; he explored and experimented, pushing the music toward a contemporary imagery of sound.
The performances included Fantasy for Flute, Harp, Marimba and Percussions; Question no. 1 for Piano; Suite for String Quartet; Melody for Flute and Piano; among others.
Numerous double bass players (Nermine Esmael, Ahmed Osman, Amany Youssef, Amr Saif, Omneya El Hefnawy, Marwan El-Quroashy, Farah Ahmed, Ahmed Haytham) performed Elephants Dance for Eight Double Basses, while the singers were featured in a few songs: tenor Shady Gehad in Martyrs Song, soprano Nora El Alfy in She Said, soprano Veronia Phillip in Don’t Leave and soprano Tahia Shams Eddin in Was It Love?.
In the second half of the evening, the 41-musician-strong Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra led the listeners through Osman’s compositions and arrangements for this unique ensemble: Longa Ryad, Jasmine Flower, An Hour in Boswil for Chamber Orchestra, etc.
Left to right: Samha Khouly, Ali Osman, Tahia Shams Eddin
Ali Osman Al Haj, a composer, conductor, educator
Born in 1958, Osman settled in Egypt in the late 1970s. It is in Cairo that until then the self-taught young musician enrolled at the Cairo Conservatory, where he studied double bass with Rodney Slatford (USA) and then composition with a number of renowned Egyptian professors including Gamal Abdel-Rahim, and during his postgraduate studies with Awatif Abdel-Kerim. His professors also included Bertold Hummel (Germany) and Robert Woshborn (USA). As he graduated and matured academically, writing his thesis on traditional Sudanese and Arabic music, Osman began teaching composition, counterpoint and harmony at the Cairo Conservatory in 1990, and in 1999 at the Higher Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo.
It was also in 1990 that one of the professors working with Al Nour Wal Amal Association had to travel abroad for his PhD. Osman was asked to replace him in teaching solfège at the association. While the maestro Ahmed Abul Eid was the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra’s music director, conductor and main person responsible for their artistic development, Osman began working on many aspects of the orchestra, and soon became assistant to Abul Eid.
Following Abul Eid’s passing in 2004, Osman became fully in charge of the orchestra, a task he carried out with profound dedication until the last days of his life. Acting as a mentor, conductor and often a father, Osman shaped the musicians, patiently carved their understanding of the material and helped them create the most beautiful art. He was their conductor, artistic director and tutor, but also in many ways their friend.
And though the association relies on the expertise of a number of professional musicians, Osman was the orchestra’s solid artistic backbone. He chose the repertoire, deepened the delivery of already mastered compositions and pushed the musicians to learn new ones, often walking them through the work note by note. Osman accompanied the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra in all their performances, including those held internationally.
As a prolific composer Osman’s interest in traditional music and his formal conservatory education merged in a unique creative manner, translating into works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments and voices.
Representing the third generation of Egyptian composers, he remained deeply rooted in his origins, touching on the idioms of the south, only to create rich amalgams at the thematic and formal levels. Always nurtured by traditional material, Osman would find inspiration for many of his compositions, from orchestral works such as a symphonic poem, A Day in the Life of a Shepherd in the Sudan or A Nile Trip from the South to the North, to chamber works. Many of Osman’s compositions feature the instruments in their original contexts and formats, such as El-Maqamat El-Masri (Modes of Egypt), a work that revives the solo harpsichord embedded in Arabic modes or El-Mohager, a short piece for flute, oboe and riq (Arabic tambourine).
A number of Osman’s works were published by Oxford University Press and Peermusic in Germany. Many of his compositions have been performed in Egypt – at the Cairo Opera House, the American University in Cairo, among other venues – and internationally, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, China, the USA and the UK.
Some of his works made it to the repertoires of the renowned international ensembles such as the Kremerata Baltica Orchestra, Austria during the Contemporary Arab Music Week (2012), the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, USA (2017), the Arab Youth Philharmonic Orchestra that performed at the Young Euro Classic music festival in Berlin (2016).
Osman also contributed to numerous publications, writing on folk and traditional music idioms and their contemporary contexts. He co-wrote with several scholars, including Samha El-Kholy, the series of books issued by the Culture Ministry: Egyptian Contemporary Music (2000–03). He was also on the musical jury of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2012.