Music

'OUD' TO CLASSIC TRAIL

By Joseph Tawadros

Witness the journey of a wooden instrument that broke all the records to become the backbone of Arabian music

Some believe it stemmed from the Ancient Egyptian instrument called Nefer, a word that is also a hieroglyphic letter, which resembles the Oud. The Persians developed the instrument to feature an animal hide face and it became the Barbat - precursor of the modern day Oud - which was taken by the Arabs and developed further.

In the 9th century the Oud was taken to Spain by the musician and poet Zeryab who was employed by the court of the Emir of Córdoba’s for 200 gold dinars per month - a great salary by today’s Oud player standards! Zeryab added the fifth course to the oud and dyed the strings colours to symbolise the Aristotelian ‘humours’ – Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic and Melancholy. The fifth course was the Soul.

Zeryab was significant in the journey of the Oud through bringing it to Europe where it evolved into the Western lute. In fact, the word lute comes from the Arabic al oud. Though the words are similar, the playing styles are not: the lute is plucked with fingers and plays a chordal role in a Western ensemble, whereas the Oud is struck, one note at a time, with a plectrum. The pick is called a Risha (Arabic – feather) as eagle’s quills were once used but these days Oud players experiment with plastics and other flexible materials. I know a player in Egypt who used cable ties, which he sandpapered to his preferred thickness. When I was young and learning the Oud, I had one plectrum made from the plastic cover of a VHS video cassette and another made from the lid of an ice cream container. I probably used that one for playing sweeter phrases.

With such a strong musical heritage and lineage, the Oud is the most famous Middle Eastern instrument and is known as the king of Arabic instruments. It is a popular choice for Arabic composers and singers and is as important to Middle Eastern music as the piano or violin is to Western composers.

In the Middle East, there are three main schools of playing, the Egyptian (also covers the Levant), the Iraqi and the Turkish. They all use six-course instruments, the Egyptian and Turkish School tend to add a sixth bass course to Zeryab’s model whereas the Iraqi School adds an extra sixth treble course. I am a strong advocate of the seven course Oud, as this gives me the flexibility to not only cross the Oud repertoire of all three Oud schools but also expands the range within the instrument.

The Egyptian style is the most popular in the Middle East and some of the truly great players and composers come from this school. The reason for this is the phenomenon of the golden era of Egyptian cinema from the 1940s to 1960s, when Cairo was a thriving hub for composers, singers and musicians. Musicians from all over the Arabic world congregated there, establishing movie careers alongside their musical vocations. A non-Egyptian who achieved fame in the early 20th century was Farid Al-Attrache - of Syrian Druze background. Farid was young, an excellent singer and an exceptional Oud player who benefited from his involvement in the burgeoning Egyptian movie industry. Many of his movies were light-hearted and featured virtuosic Oud solos – something traditionally reserved for musical connoisseurs (‘Sami’ah’). The film industry was able to bring these astounding solo Oud performances to a wider audience who might never witness virtuoso level performance. He is most famously known for his Oud solos as an introduction before his vocals in a song. Following an introduction played by his ensemble would be an extended Improvised Oud solo (Taqasim) of five to seven minutes in duration by Farid with his trademark virtuosic finish. This melodic cadence became expected by the audience at each concert and would also let them know if it was the end of the solo. (See his song Al Rabih for reference)

Another of the Oudists that flourished at this time were Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the greatest Egyptian composer. In the film Fatma, Oum Kuthum’s plays the Oud in the song Be Redak Ya Khaliqi (With your permission, my creator), accompanying her own extraordinary vocal acrobatics, while also giving thanks to God for her voice.

Other significant players of the era include Riyad Al Sunbati, composer of the monumental Oum Kalsoum song Al Atlal (The Ruins) and Mohamed Al Qassabji, a very important technique innovator and composer of Raq El Habib. Also important are George Michel, Abd El Fatah Sabry and Mahmoud Kamel - whose methods were significant for using Western notation to document traditional Egyptian Arabic instrumentals in their books.

Whatever your background or musical taste, I feel that the Oud is for everybody and has something to say in any musical genre. I have composed and played Oud within jazz, Western classical and world music contexts performing with orchestras and jazz players all over the world. These Oudists were innovators of the 20th century and when a modern player picks up their instrument, we feel the weight of historical baggage and responsibility.

I’ve always felt there is much more to explore and growth to be made - technically and musically - with the Oud. The pioneering players I’ve described above made steps towards evolving the Oud within the traditional framework. Continuing in their footsteps, my own music is about innovation within that traditional framework and respecting the greats from the past who provide inspiration to my passion for the King of Instruments.

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