Ode to the ‘Ud and Its Lovers

21 March, 2021


blue oud photo.jpg

Our guest colum­nist Sher­i­fa Zuhur is a schol­ar and musi­cian who plays five-string vio­lin in San Fran­cis­co Bay Area’s Aswat Ensem­ble, which fea­tures a sec­tion of six to sev­en ‘ud play­ers. Aswat has per­formed Ara­bic, Turk­ish, Pales­tin­ian, Sudanese and Nubian music, includ­ing a few com­po­si­tions by the superla­tive Egypt­ian-born ‘udist Hamza al-Din (1929–2006) who empha­sized the instru­men­t’s spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and the Nubian musi­cal tra­di­tion. The ensem­ble is prepar­ing a con­cert of Alger­ian, Tunisian and Moroc­can music led by Dr. Sala­hed­dine Bedoui, who plays vio­lin and ‘ud.  “We are inspired by ‘ud mas­ters, past and present,” Zuhur declares. —Ed. 

Sherifa Zuhur

Musi­cians embrace a deep inti­ma­cy with their instru­ments, and the ‘ud (oud) has a par­tic­u­lar warm tonal char­ac­ter that lends itself to a life­long love affair. In Ara­bic, a great ‘awwa­di (‘udist) makes his instru­ment res­o­nant, as in the title of a song per­formed by Lebanese singer Fairuz, “ ‘Udak ranan,” (Your ‘ud is res­o­nant).  The lyrics con­tin­ue “Strum and keep strumming/Tell me this tune is for you/A true song and more beau­ti­ful than words/Play a tune that enters my heart.” 

Syr­i­an refugee Bas­sel Al Qatreeb fled his home town of Salamiyah and now lives in Leipzig, Ger­many, where he per­forms on his ‘ud and serves as a cul­tur­al ambas­sador, includ­ing as the res­i­dent ‘udist with the Leipzig Orches­tra, where Arab quar­ter tones blend with clas­si­cal music. “The ‘ud is a spe­cial lan­guage for me when I can’t express myself in Ger­man,” says Al Qatreeb. Anoth­er Syr­i­an refugee, Mohamad Zatari, is a com­pos­er and ‘ud play­er from Alep­po who now lives in Bucharest, Roma­nia, where he also seeks to bridge east­ern and west­ern musi­cal tra­di­tions. His per­for­mances have includ­ed a fusion of Ara­bic, Per­sian and Roman­ian music. Zatari learned the ‘ud from teach­ers in Syr­ia where, he says, “a men­tor teach­es you music, phi­los­o­phy and morals.” 


Arab Shaman: Remem­ber­ing Hani Nas­er, by John Densmore


The ‘ud, a wood­en instru­ment of beau­ty, is a short-necked plucked lute whose ori­gins may date to the Bronze Age—one archeo­mu­si­col­o­gist at the British Muse­um reports that the muse­um has found an ‘ud dat­ing from the Uruk Peri­od, rough­ly 3,500–3,200 BC. The ‘ud is promi­nent­ly fea­tured in Ara­bic, Turk­ish, North African, Armen­ian and Iran­ian music to accom­pa­ny the voice, in ensem­bles, and as a solo instru­ment. From the Mid­dle East and North Africa to its immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties abroad, ‘ud play­ers can be found in cur­rent pop­u­lar hits and region­al folk styles, and main­tain the music’s soul with their impro­vi­sa­tion­al skills. 

Many great Ara­bic singers relied on won­der­ful ‘ud play­ers, but some of these are per­haps now more famous as com­posers. This was the case with Muham­mad al-Qasab­ji (1892–1966) and Riyadh al-Sun­bati (1906–1981) who accom­pa­nied and com­posed for Umm Kulthum (1900–1975) but were ‘ud mas­ters in their own right. 

Farid al-Atrash (1915–1974), of Syr­i­an Druze ori­gin, spent much of his career in Egypt, and was famous as a com­pos­er and singing star in films, as well as record­ing and per­form­ing. He was known as the prince of ‘ud for his mas­ter­ful play­ing and impro­vi­sa­tions (taqasim) which explore the poten­tial of the sub­tle Ara­bic tonal modes (maqa­mat). Among his taqasim was one based on Isaac Albéniz’ Asturias (known as “Leyen­da”). His ‘ud replaced the piano line and fused a fla­men­co inspi­ra­tion with Ara­bic musicality. 

Al-Atrash played a wide spec­trum of com­po­si­tions rang­ing from com­plex and tra­di­tion­al Ara­bic-style pieces to oth­ers based on folk melodies to more mod­ernist lin­ear pieces for large ensem­bles. Because he sang and played in both Egypt­ian and Lev­an­tine styles, his lega­cy was par­tic­u­lar­ly rich, unfor­get­table songs being “Awwil Ham­sah” and “al-Rabi‘ah,” in addi­tion to many com­po­si­tions for dance. 

Alep­po, Syr­ia pro­duced an intri­cate and beau­ti­ful reper­toire of vocal music accom­pa­nied by takht (small ensem­ble) or orches­tra includ­ing the ‘ud.  The excel­lent Syr­i­an ‘ud play­er Amer Ammouri has per­formed with the Syr­i­an mas­ter singer of the Alep­pine qudud, Sabah Fakhri. Ammouri pro­duced sev­er­al CDs of taqasim.

Egypt remains a cen­ter of Ara­bic music and record­ing, although the explo­sion of pop music post-1975 tend­ed to dis­cour­age the ‘ud. Shaykh Imam (1918–1995), fre­quent­ly team­ing with poet Ahmad Fu’ad Negm (1929–2013) cre­at­ed a reper­toire in which the ‘ud dom­i­nates voic­ing con­cerns of the poor, work­ing class­es and rev­o­lu­tion­ary caus­es in Egypt, and also of Pales­tine. George Michel (1970–1990s) is very well-known to Ara­bic musi­cians, for his mas­ter­ful tech­nique. He became a pro­fes­sor at the Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty of Music. 

Lebanon’s musi­cians like Wadi’ al-Safi (1921–2013) played the ‘ud onstage to accom­pa­ny his singing, and the Rah­bani broth­ers, Assi (1923–1986) and Man­sour (1925–2009) includ­ed the ‘ud in their com­po­si­tions incor­po­rat­ing Lebanese folk melodies and instru­ments. In Lebanon, Ara­bic music has since simul­ta­ne­ous­ly veered into pop music and main­tained its con­nec­tion to clas­si­cal Ara­bic music. Mar­cel Khal­ife (b. 1950) who plays the ‘ud, stud­ied at the Nation­al Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music in Beirut, taught there and else­where, and start­ed an ensem­ble, Mayadeen in his native town Amchit. He toured wide­ly inter­na­tion­al­ly, gain­ing renown for com­po­si­tions and arrange­ments of folk­loric and nation­al­is­tic lyrics, includ­ing for the Pales­tin­ian poet, Mah­moud Dar­wish. He com­posed for dance ensem­bles includ­ing Cara­calla, and for film sound­tracks. His pub­li­ca­tions on Ara­bic music range from com­po­si­tions for tra­di­tion­al Arab instru­ments to an ‘ud method­ol­o­gy, and music theory.

Char­bel Rouhana (b. 1965) is per­ceived as one of the finest ‘ud play­ers in Lebanon for his del­i­ca­cy and sen­si­tiv­i­ty. He joined Mar­cel Khal­ife’s first band Mayadeen and cre­at­ed an ‘ud method used at the nation­al con­ser­va­to­ry. Among his notable duets was one with Khal­ife in the 1995 album Jadal. Anoth­er was on Doux Zen with Elie Khoury, which has a clas­si­cal feel­ing fol­lowed by dis­cord in a fugue-like final [q]aflat (end­ing cadenza). 

Oth­er com­po­si­tions have an exper­i­men­tal feel­ing. Rouhana was part of musi­cal projects like his 2007 Beirut Ori­en­tal Ensem­ble and Tarab Safar, which includes a great deal of fusion.  His com­po­si­tion “al-Quds” was pre­sent­ed in fall of 2020 and with his broth­er, Boutros Rouhana, a song for Beirut, to memo­ri­al­ize the city fol­low­ing the August 2020 explo­sion there. 

The Assyr­i­an-Iraqi Munir Bashir (1930–1997) taught in Bagh­dad, then per­formed in Beirut, and then set­tled in Budapest, Hun­gary where he com­plet­ed a doc­tor­ate in musi­col­o­gy at the Franz Liszt Con­ser­va­to­ry under Zoltan Kodaly. After 1973, he found­ed the Iraqi Tra­di­tion­al Music Group and led the Baby­lon Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val of dance, music and the­ater for some years, though he main­ly per­formed in Europe. His broth­er Jamil Bashir was an excel­lent ‘ud play­er and vocal­ist, and his son Omar was pre­sent­ed as an heir to his style. 

Naseer Sham­ma, born 1963 in al-Kut, Iraq, is a renowned ‘ud mas­ter, and UNESCO Artist for Peace. He relo­cat­ed to Cairo, Egypt, per­form­ing numer­ous con­cert projects involv­ing music “read­ings” and impro­vi­sa­tions inspired by mod­ern poet­ry.  Among these is “From the Heart”.

Sham­ma cre­at­ed many sound­tracks for Iraqi and Arab plays, a bal­let, Shahrazad, film sound­tracks and col­lab­o­ra­tions with visu­al artists.  He found­ed var­i­ous orches­tras includ­ing the Orches­tra al-Sharq with 70 musi­cians and then the Ara­bic Oud House in Tunis in 1993 and in Egypt in 1998. 

Sham­ma sub­se­quent­ly cre­at­ed branch­es of the Ara­bic Oud House in Abu Dhabi, in Con­stan­tine, Alge­ria and at the library in Alexan­dria, Egypt. 

Sham­ma’s first female stu­dent was Sher­ine Touhamy, who taught at the Oud House in Cairo after grad­u­at­ing, and since 2009 at Bait al-Oud in Abu Dhabi. She also heads a female band, Naj­maat.   Here she plays a mas­ter­ful ver­sion of Farid al-Atrash’s “Tou­ta”. 

Hazem Sha­heen, of Alexan­dria Egypt, also a grad­u­ate of House of the Oud was award­ed Best Oud Play­er in the Arab world, in Beirut in 2002.  He is a found­ing mem­ber of the Esk­endarel­la ensem­ble in Egypt which has pop­u­lar­ized some rev­o­lu­tion­ary songs of Sayyid Dar­wish and Imam Shaykh, men­tioned above. 

Anoth­er pre­serv­er of the ‘ud style of Iraq is Yair Dalal (b. 1955) whose fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed from Bagh­dad to Israel where he per­forms, teach­es and works to pre­serve Iraqi and Iraqi-Jew­ish music. He has pro­duced 14 albums. 

Sakher Hat­tar (b. 1963) is a well-known ‘ud mas­ter in Jor­dan, where he plays solo and with al-Nagham al-Ara­bi ensem­ble, and heads the Ara­bic music depart­ment at the Nation­al Con­ser­va­to­ry of music. He has also served as fac­ul­ty for the ‘ud at Simon Sha­heen’s retreat, as did the late Bas­sam Saba (1958–2020) of Lebanon. Bas­sam played four instru­ments includ­ing the ‘ud, and his mul­ti-instru­men­tal­i­ty infused his play­ing. He co-found­ed the New York Ara­bic Orches­tra and returned to Lebanon to direct the Nation­al Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music. 

Nas­er Musa is a Jor­dan­ian of Pales­tin­ian descent who moved to the U.S. in 1982, and is con­sid­ered an excel­lent ‘ud play­er. He has played with the Qadim Ensem­ble and toured with the Per­sian band, Niyaz along with singer Azam Ali and with the Sene­galese singer Yous­sou N’Dour. 

Omar Abbad is a Jor­dan­ian ‘ud play­er, who spent time in the Unit­ed States and returned to Amman where he per­forms and teach­es at the Jor­dan Acad­e­my of Music. He is also known for his ‘ud teach­ing method. 

Nina Boukatchi­an, born in Lebanon, and raised in Swe­den, stud­ied at the Arab Music Insti­tute in Cairo and is based in the UAE.  Her record­ings can be found under the name, Nina Oud.  Here she plays and sings “Lam­ouni ya gharou minni”.

The ‘ud is essen­tial to Turk­ish clas­si­cal music, and to the Ottoman musi­cal tra­di­tion in Arab coun­tries, where in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies it was most­ly played by women. It was esti­mat­ed that 70% of young women played the ‘ud in Istan­bul ear­ly in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as a pre­req­ui­site to mar­riage (as was true else­where in the Lev­ant). Among them were Hamiyet Yushteges (1915–1996), who was also a singer and actress, and Mary Goshtigian. 

Cin­uçen Tan­riko­rur (1938–2000) an ‘ud mas­ter, became the direc­tor of Turk­ish clas­si­cal music at Ankara Radio and is con­sid­ered the great­est com­pos­er of the Turk­ish clas­si­cal tra­di­tion, with over 500 instru­men­tal and vocal com­po­si­tions. Yurdal Tock­an, ‘udist and com­pos­er who plays with Gök­sel Bak­ta­gir and oth­ers, is a sen­si­tive per­former with a great dynam­ic range as in Nihavend Saz Sama’i. 

The ‘ud is cen­tral to the musi­cal tra­di­tion of the Ara­bi­an penin­su­la. Muham­mad ‘Abdu (b. 1949) began his career in the 1960s, singing in a tra­di­tion­al style and is con­sid­ered a great mas­ter of the ‘ud. He is a super­star in Sau­di Ara­bia, but the King­dom did not per­mit live con­certs for many years until 2017. He some­times per­forms with a huge orches­tra, show­cas­ing his voice, rather than the ‘ud; but oth­er­wise played the ‘ud while singing, in the tra­di­tion­al Ara­bi­an majlis set­ting.

Faysal Alawi of Lahj, Yemen illus­trates the use of voice and ‘ud in musiqa sha’bi, or folk music which dif­fers from area to area.

Aba­di al-Johar is a vir­tuois­tic ‘udist, singer and com­pos­er, beloved by audi­ences in Sau­di Ara­bia. He was giv­en the title of Ikhtabout al-‘ud (Octo­pus of the Oud) by the late, great singer, Talal Mad­dah. He wields some of the Span­ish inspi­ra­tion in impro­vi­sa­tion as pre­sent­ed by Farid al-Atrash in this per­for­mance.   

Tuha (Fathiya Has­san Ahmad Yahya) was born in 1934 in Hasa and moved to Mec­ca at age five. She began play­ing the ‘ud and singing as a girl, encour­aged by her father and broth­er, who played. She became famous in Jid­da, as a singer and ‘udist in wed­dings, in which the fes­tiv­i­ties are seg­re­gat­ed. She com­posed hun­dreds of songs, 300 of which have not been record­ed, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with the great singer Talal Maddah.

Le Trio Joubran are from Nazareth, Pales­tini­ans from inside the Green Line, and are unique as an ‘ud trio, first per­form­ing togeth­er in 2003. They are Samir (b. 1973),  Wis­sam (b. 1983) also a luthi­er like his father, and ‘Adnan (b. 1985). The two elder broth­ers were a duo pri­or to team­ing up with their younger broth­er. Their per­for­mance style is fiery, elec­tri­fy­ing, and exper­i­men­tal.  Here they per­formed live at the Olympia in 2016. 

Their recent record­ing, The Long March pro­duced by Renaud Letang is more cere­bral but also mod­ernist.  Like oth­er ‘ud mas­ters fea­tured here, they have plunged into dia­logue in the world music scene, most recent­ly in the sin­gle “Ascent” with Iran­ian vocal­ist Alireza Qorbani. 

Palestinian ‘ ud ist, composer and vocalist  Kamilya Jubran  (photo: Raimond Spekking).

Kam­ilya Jubran, born in Akka, stud­ied Ara­bic music at the Jerusalem con­ser­va­to­ry. She sang with the East Jerusalem-based musi­cal group Sabreen, play­ing the qanun from 1982–2002.  She has per­formed as an ‘udist and vocal­ist since the ear­ly 2000s,  in con­cert and record­ing six albums, most recent­ly with Wern­er Hasler in the band Wa.  Her very dis­tinc­tive vocal style can dom­i­nate as in Bahabb al-bahr and her lat­est album veers into the exper­i­men­tal and rap/techno.  

In the Unit­ed States, there were many ‘ud mas­ters pri­or to the dying down of live venues. Most relied on night­club or restau­rant per­for­mances, wed­dings or par­ties, often dou­bling as a vocal­ist and work­ing out­side of music to make ends meet. Of the ‘udists of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion in Cal­i­for­nia were George Khay­at, Maroun Saba, Mau­rice Saba, Adel Sirhan, Najib Khoury, Suhail Nass­er, ‘Ali Vas­sal, Hani Nas­er, Fadil Shahin, the two George Elias­es and Abdul­lah Qdouh. Fadil man­ages a restaurant/club and his nephews car­ry on the musi­cal tra­di­tion in their own nightclub. 

The Armen­ian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties pro­duced many fine ‘udists. Aspects of both Turk­ish and Ara­bic styles are pre­served through these, as well as Armen­ian her­itage: John Belizikjian (1948–2015) who played in sym­phon­ic venues, and night­clubs, in “Armen­ian Med­ley”; Haig Manoukian (1941–2014) in Cal­i­for­nia; Richard Hagopi­an (b. 1937); George Mgrdichi­an (1935- 2006) who also began in night­clubs;  and John Berber­ian (b. 1941) who began his career in Mass­a­chu­setts. Car­ry­ing on that same tra­di­tion is Boston-born Bri­an Ans­bi­gian. Ara Dinkjian sim­i­lar­ly began his career as an ‘ud play­er accom­pa­ny­ing his father, a folk singer. 

In 1979, the Lebanese schol­ar ‘Ali Jihad Racy (b. 1943) estab­lished a Near East­ern eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gy ensem­ble at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les which pro­vid­ed a more for­mal approach to clas­si­cal Ara­bic music and train­ing many from out­side the Mid­dle East. Racy’s stu­dents estab­lished sim­i­lar ensem­bles else­where in the U.S. (I start­ed one spon­sored by Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and MIT in Boston). These ensem­bles were sup­ple­ment­ed by excel­lent com­mu­ni­ty musi­cians and ben­e­fit­ed from the inter­est in world music in their audiences. 

Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can Simon Sha­heen (b. 1955) stud­ied the ‘ud with his father, Hik­mat, a teacher, com­pos­er and con­duc­tor, and then vio­lin from an ear­ly age. He also went to the Acad­e­my of Music in Jerusalem, the Man­hat­tan School of Music and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Sha­heen is at the fore­front of his gen­er­a­tion on both instru­ments. He start­ed out per­form­ing in the nightclub/restaurant scene in New York and suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tioned to pre­sent­ing tra­di­tion­al Ara­bic music in con­cert set­tings, first with the New York based Near East Ensem­ble; and in per­for­mances involv­ing fusion and impro­vi­sa­tion with oth­er mas­ter-musi­cians. Here he plays Alcantara. 

Since 1997, Sha­heen has led a sum­mer Ara­bic music retreat at Mt. Holoyoke Col­lege in Mass­a­chu­setts, with a ros­ter of excel­lent instruc­tors includ­ing the pre­vi­ous­ly-men­tioned A.J. Racy, Sakher Hat­tar and the late Bas­sam Saba. They have nur­tured the growth of a new gen­er­a­tion of per­form­ers. The camp often spon­sored some very young musi­cians from the MENA to attend. Simon’s broth­ers Najib and William are excel­lent ‘ud play­ers; Najib some­times rem­i­nis­cent of al-Sun­bati with a pref­er­ence for the low­er notes, and he is a luthier. 

Alger­ian, Tunisian and Moroc­can music all employ the ‘ud in a vital role, and in many gen­res, some less well-known to the West and the Arab East. A high­ly regard­ed ‘udist is Moroc­can, Nass­er Houari (b. 1975) who stud­ied at the Con­ser­va­toire Nation­al de Musique et de Danse de Rabat. He plays in var­i­ous styles, in a taqsim in maqam Rast (left) or here in a more lyri­cal and Moroc­can style. Non-tra­di­tion­al­ists might pre­fer Dhafer Youssef of Tunisia (b. 1967) whose out­put is bet­ter described as jazz ‘ud.

A must-men­tion is the late Egypt­ian-born ‘udist Hamza al-Din (1929–2006) who empha­sized the instru­men­t’s spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Hamza al-Din’s mis­sion was to pre­serve and explore tra­di­tion­al (pen­ta­ton­ic) Nubian music which is played in both the Sudan and Egypt. He also exper­i­ment­ed with fusion, col­lab­o­rat­ing with such artists as the Grate­ful Dead and Kro­nos Quartet.

The ‘ud has also played a role in Per­sian clas­si­cal and eth­nic folk­loric music tra­di­tions.  These forms are dis­tinct from Ara­bic music and com­ple­ment a dif­fer­ing singing style. In addi­tion to the ‘ud,  the bar­bat, prob­a­bly orig­i­nat­ing in Cen­tral Asia, has been revived. With a small­er body than the ‘ud, it has a longer neck and a more airy sound. A long list of great bar­bat or ‘ud play­ers extends from Abdolva­hab Shahi­di born in 1914 (or 1922) up to Man­sour Nari­man (1933–2015)  impro­vis­ing here in Mahour; Hos­sein Behrouzinia (b. 1962) Mohamed Firouzi (b. 1958) Negar Bouban (b. 1973) and many others. 

Female per­form­ers, under the rules of the Islam­ic Repub­lic may not sing, but there are sev­er­al excel­lent women ‘udists, among them Negar Bouban (b. 1973), Yasamin Shah­hos­sei­ni (b. 1992) and Fate­meh Dehghani (b. 1996).  Bouban has played with many ensem­bles, and fre­quent­ly per­formed as a soloist.  She has pro­duced five albums, and also teach­es at the con­ser­va­to­ry and has pub­lished an ‘ud method. Yasamin Shah­hos­sei­ni is a high­ly regard­ed younger ‘udist who released Gazar and can be heard here.

Tra­di­tion­al Greek music has also includ­ed the ‘ud (the outi) as played by singer/composer Grig­oris Asikis (1890 – 1966) and Aga­pio Toum­bo­lis (Hagop Stam­bulyan, 1891–1965) who played in a Smyr­na-style trio with Roza Eskanazi and others. 

Despite the pop­u­lar­i­ty and ease of the key­board, noth­ing will replace the ‘ud for its afi­ciana­dos. Fairuz’ song “‘Udak Ranan,” con­cludes:  “Strum and strum hard until you wake up every­one.  Night is not for sleep­ing here, it’s for stay­ing up late. You play so well, play for us!” 

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Sherifa Zuhur is a scholar specializing in the study of Egypt and other MENA countries, who has held faculty positions at The American University of Cairo, UC Berkeley, and SSI at the US Army War College. She has lived, researched and taught in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, the Negev, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the US and Europe. Zuhur has published 19 books, hundreds of chapters and articles, is a past-president of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies and was a Senior Regional Fulbright Scholar.