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/ARTS WEEKLY/CULTURE-MIDEAST: Traditional Arab Instrument Struggles to Be Heard

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, May 11 2004 (IPS) - It closely resembles the guitar, yet the oud’s distinct musical notes give it a unique identity of its own.

An integral part of the haunting notes that characterise Arabic music, the ‘oud’ (from the Arabic word meaning ‘wood’ or ‘flexible stick’) is the leading musical instrument in any Arab ‘takhet’ (orchestra).

However, the gentle notes of this elegant instrument are losing their place in modern Arab society, whose youth are increasingly turning to Arabic pop and MTV beats for entertainment.

Through generations, Arabs have been lovers of music in its various forms and music is an integral part of daily life in the Arab world. The sounds and tones of various instruments are deeply rooted in the Arab personality.

The musical tradition in the Arab world dates back to the simple singsong recitations of tribal bards in pre-Islamic days, usually accompanied by the ”rababa”, a primitive two-string fiddle.

But it was the ‘oud’ that captured the hearts and minds of the simple tribesmen. More than any other instrument, the ‘oud’ represents Arabic music and is often used as an accompaniment for popular singers.

”We used to gather around a roaring fire after a hard day’s travel across the desert. After dinner, the ouds would be brought out and we would listen to its evocative notes late into the night,” recalls Abdulla Al Abed, an elderly national from Dubai, one of the seven emirates, who spends his evenings by the beach everyday.

”I still attend any oud concert that we have in the emirate or elsewhere, but they have become very rare. Today’s generation seems to prefer other kinds of music. Sadly traditional music has very few followers nowadays,” Abdulla adds.

The ‘oud’ has a half pear-shaped body with stripes on its shell and a right angle keyboard. It has twelve strings (six pairs) and is played with a plectrum, often the sharpened quill of an eagle.

”Pictures of oud-like instruments have been discovered on stone carvings in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Persians and Indians played it in ancient days. It was the Arabs, however, who perfected the oud, gave it its name, and passed it on to the western world,” says Mansour Al Awad, a visitor to the Dubai Heritage Village, who frequents places of cultural and historical interest.

Making ‘ouds’ is considered an art and requires great patience and skill. The type of wood used is important. It must be non-porous, hard but flexible. Rosewood and mahogany meet these requirements.

The wood is cut into 1/32-inch thick strips. These strips are fit, one at a time, over a wooden model and then carefully glued and allowed to dry. A sounding board of thin spruce wood is affixed and supported by inner cross ridges; an ebony or mahogany neck along with other artistic embellishments can be added to one’s taste.

Originally, ‘ouds’ were strung with gut strings, but today 10 to 12 high-quality nylon strings are used.

”Unfortunately, we hear very little of the oud nowadays. One of my friends wanted to learn how to play the oud. Ironically, there are very few places where he can learn to play this traditional Arab instrument,” says Mansour.

”There are numerous schools that teach the guitar, the piano and many such Western instruments. But as for the oud, we really had a tough time finding a teacher,” he adds.

History has it that the ‘oud’ reached Europe during the Middle Ages to replace a plucked instrument, the giltern.

As music became more complex with the introduction of chord patterns in the 13th century, alterations in the technique of playing the ‘oud’ as well as modifications in its construction were applied. These changes brought its sound close to that of the ‘vihula’, a form of Spanish guitar.

”In the 16th and 17th centuries, the oud was very popular in Europe as a solo instrument and as a part of orchestra ensembles. By the mid-18th century, the lute’s rival, the guitar, which was simpler in construction and less cumbersome to hold and to play, finally won the battle for popular favour,” says an official at the Dubai museum.

Other instruments that developed from the ‘oud’ are the mandolin, the mandora, and the mandolino, he adds.

During a concert at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, UAE national Hameed Mohammed recounted to the press the difficulties he faced when he decided to learn to play the ‘oud’.

There were no schools in the country for him to pursue it professionally. He finally learnt the ‘oud’ on his own, playing old tunes and melodies over and over again. He even went to Cairo, Egypt, to learn the art but was unhappy with the system of teaching there and could not afford the fees as well.

”But today my dedication has paid off. I found my mentor in Abu Dhabi (the capital of U.A.E.) itself and he encouraged me to come up with tunes of my own,” says Hameed. ”I experimented with playing western classical music notes on this Arabic instrument using several offbeat techniques. These tunes have now become very popular. But I was lucky to have found my mentor.”

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