By Pamela Q. Fernandes, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Oud music in the Middle East revolves around the oud instrument — with the word referring to both the type of agar tree wood this Arabic stringed instrument is made from, and the oil distilled from it that’s used to make a musky perfume.
Today, though, we’ll be talking about the oud guitar, and its importance in traditional Middle Eastern music culture.
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The Power Of The Oud Guitar
The oud — pronounced as “ud” — precedes the European lute, a plucked stringed musical instrument with a pear-shaped body, rounded back made of wood strips and a bent back pegbox.
It’s different though due to its lilt, or musical tone, which has helped it earn the crown of being the granddaddy of all Arabic instruments.
Like the griot in Gambian music, the Oud forms the backbone of Arabic music.
Whether used solo or accompanied, it is a central part of Middle Eastern music culture. You will hear the six-stringed instrument’s music in many soundtracks, plays, and dramas telling stories set in Arabia.
It is lower in pitch compared to a violin and more resonant than a guitar.
One Baghdad-based oud craftsman, Mahmoud Abdulnabi, described it perfectly when he explained, “The oud is different than other musical instruments. If you feel joyful, it can play your joy. If the circumstances are sad it can play your sorrow and… help to empty whatever is in your chest.”
The History Of Oud Music In The Middle East
The first evidence of the Oud has been traced to Iran’s Sassanid era, where the Persians had taken a distinct liking for this form of music.
It started out in military bands, where soldiers would carry them into war.
Gradually, music ensembles started using it. Then belly dancers incorporated it into their dances.
With time it became part of theatre orchestras and bands.
Slowly, it also spread to Spain, North Africa, Turkey and the rest of the Arab world.
Each region modified or fretted the instrument, meaning the deeper tones of Arab oud music are different from the soulful melodies of Iraq, or the raw acoustic tones of Egypt.
What these places all have in common:
Their prestegious oud schools, where they train new generations of musicians to play enchanting oud music in the Middle East and beyond.
Basically, seeing a performance in any of these destinations would be a treat for the ears.
A Threat To Traditional Middle Eastern Music
But, there is a problem:
Traditional oud music has faced assault throughout the centuries.
At one point in time, it was outlawed from the Arab world because it was perceived to be immoral by religious fanatics.
Then violence in Iraq particularly targeted musicians. This was followed by ISIS, who banned music altogether, and so the obstacles to Oud music have been many.
History isn’t the only challenge to oud music in the Middle East, though.
Today, it has a new enemy:
Young Arabs across the transcontinental region no longer restrict themselves to just Eastern music.
The internet has brought hip-hop, Latin rhythms, R&B, rap and pop music right into their homes.
With an increasing number of artists and music genres lapping up their attention, the appetite for oud music has dwindled.
How Oud Music In The Middle East Is Being Saved
Luckily, there are young oud guitar-playing musicians passionate about keeping this aspect of Middle Eastern culture alive; pursuing innovative ways to draw in the crowds.
Take Yousuf Alluwaihi, for example, who has turned to jazz. Alluwaihi teamed up with famous Seattle-born jazz pianist Brittany Anjou to combine talents, creating a repertoire that left Kuwaiti audiences spellbound this year.
In fact, this led to a series of other performances within the country, which has since spurred a revival of oud music within the tiny Gulf state of Kuwait.
Now, it wasn’t easy to make this happen.
Both musicians spent hours in rehearsals.
Yousuf smiles when quizzed about it, explaining, “It’s hard at first, because jazz has its own distinct flavor, and oud music has its own character. I had to listen to the music repeatedly and get familiar with jazz music before I could consider combining the two.”
But, it was worth it — especially when considering the audience’s reaction.
Says Yousuf, “People understand their heritage and their roots. They’re not going to forget it; but, we need to have more concerts to showcase the music.”
It seems all is not in vain, as he plans to create a residency with Anjou in Kuwait on the same subject.
For her part, Anjou has been quite happy with the results, noting, “Traditional Arabic music is so rich in melody and has all of the scales of the maqam, a traditional Arabic melodic type with additional quarter tones.
It is a special gift to hear this music, and to be around musicians who play it.
I have been very lucky to meet incredible oudists in New York and Kuwait this year and to combine our minds together to create, perform and improvise.”
Anjou has heard a lot of traditional music during her recent visit to Kuwait.
“Recently, while driving in Kuwait, I heard the Shabiya music of voices and drumming, which I really liked,” she says. “I also really enjoy the Sons of Yusuf — Kuwaiti rappers — the rolling Khaliji rhythms.
Also, I am completely obsessed right now with the music from the Kuwaiti 70’s TV Show Darb Al Zalaq, which I discovered wwhile flying on Kuwait Airways this spring.
It just makes me laugh with joy!
I love the opening theme, the orchestration, the melody and the little trombone “wah” sound at the end of each phrase, followed by the octaves of the strings floating underneath it, like qanun, an Egyptian harp.
Last year, when I heard combinations of Khaliji rhythms with jazz by the pianist and composer Tarek Yamani on his recent album, Peninsular, I was over the moon.”
It certainly proves that lots of artists are now combining western and eastern music.
Listening To Oud Music In The Middle East At A Live Concert
If you decide to go to a concert to hear oud music in the Middle East, or somewhere else, there are a few things you should know.
- There won’t be enough seating, and many members of the audience will simply sit on the floor.
- The oud concert usually occurs in sessions of 45 minutes each, with the opening 15 minutes being a warm-up for the musicians.
- There might be a sing-along. This puts off a lot of people who feel left out if a significant number of the audience is Arab. There’s no need to feel like an outsider. You can clap and simply listen to them. Sing-alongs are a major part of Arab concerts.
- If there are multiple instruments, like a violin and a piano, then the oud may not be featured as prominently.
Upcoming Oud Music Concerts Around The World
If you want to go to an oud concert, here is a list of famous places that you could enjoy them at all over the world.
- Katara Oud festival, April 2018 Qatar
- Sounds Global in Concert: Surrey Edition March 17, 2018, Vancouver
- Nuit Du Oud – Naseer Shamma Et Son Ensemble De Ouds Driss El Maloumi April 6, 2018, Paris
- Layali Fawzi – Live Oud and Tarab in Hamra April to July 2018 Lebanon
- The Art of Oud by Joseph Tawadros May 4, 2018, Australia
- Jerusalem International Oud Festival November 1-30 2018
- Bait Al Oud Concert with Naseer Shamma November 27th, 2018, Abu Dhabi
Oud For Sale: Purchasing Your Own
Of course, not everyone lives in the Middle East or has the availability to attend one of the above-mentioned oud concerts.
If you’re musically talented — or want to give this enchanting Middle Eastern guitar a shot yourself — you can easily purchase an oud for sale online.
Some beautiful options include:
- Turkish Quality Mahogany Oud (Click here for price)
- Mid-East Arabic Oud Sheesham w/ Gig Bag (Click here for price)
- Arabic Handmade Walnut String Oud (Click here for price)
Have you listened to oud music in the Middle East or elsewhere? Ever purchased an oud guitar of your own? Share your story in the comments below!
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