Naseer Shamma has launched his debut book at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Written over a space of six years, the Iraqi oud virtuoso and founder of the Bait Al Oud music conservatory has managed to distil over three decades worth of knowledge in the immensely readable Al Uslubia Al Mousiqiyah: Muftah Al Sir.
Written in Arabic and translated to Styles of Music: The Secret Key by Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism publishing arm Kalima, the work is as much an introduction to music appreciation to an argument on the important role the arts can play in society.
“I wanted to discuss the many ways that made these big personalities great and what they contributed to their respective forms,” Shamma said, during his panel session at the book fair on Wednesday, October 16.
“I also wanted to show how many of them came from societies where there is a love for culture in general.”
What made Um Kulthum great?
At 180 pages, the book is brisk and split into numerous chapters. In prose both knowledgeable and evocative, Shamma explores various aspects of music composition in addition to providing advice on how the general listener can appreciate the best the form has to offer.
“Let’s take a look at someone like Um Kulthum for example. What I find interesting about her is that she is probably the only thing where there is unanimous appreciation about her from the Arab world. Everything else we argue about, from music to the way we pronounce words, but with her there is an understanding that she is the best,” he says.
“So I wanted to shed light on why she was great and how, through her strong personality and power of her voice, she managed to influence composers to create songs in her mould. She created a music tradition that lives to this day.”
This is the biggest feature of the book. Shamma is at pains to show how the music we love today comes from both pioneers and a wider music tradition.
Poetry’s role in advancing Arabic music
A fascinating chapter discusses the important role poetry has played in the evolution of classical Arabic music.
“It’s involvement with music really began about 1,300 years ago in the Levant were there was no real interesting music being produced,” he says.
“So a lot of composers, in need for expressing themselves, started getting into poetry. The poetry, especially in Iraq, would be sung and from there the Maqam music tradition was born. That revitalised the spirits of the composers who went back to creating music but in a new and exciting way.”
More than just music
As interesting as they seem, Shamma says there is more to the book than a series of colourful historical takeaways. He wants the work to act as a plea to reinstate the importance of music and the creative arts in Arabic societies.
“Music should not be viewed as simply a hobby,” he says.
“If you approach it right and understand its effects, it can change people’s lives for the better.”
This is a message that has essentially become Shamma’s life mission. In addition to raising the profile of the oud through his concerts and albums, he has mentored a new generation of creative Arab minds in his music conservatory, which has various branches including Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Baghdad.
“I have seen the effect of such a creative education first hand,” he says. “We did a study in our conservatory and we find that nearly all of our students are in the top percentages of their high schools and institutes. What does that tell you? The knowledge and appreciation of creativity has benefits in many ways.”
What is next for Naseer Shamma?
Shamma is looking to take that approach further. Through his various roles as a solo artist, conservatory founder, and UNESCO Artists for Peace, he is looking to developing a musical therapy plan for hospitals in Iraq.
He states it is a concept he has been developing for years, part of which is also explored in the book’s chapters about spiritual music.
“The healing properties of music is something that is important and that I have witnessed first-hand,” he says.
“Two decades ago in Baghdad, I helped get some young players to perform to patients in various hospitals and we found their recovery rate increased. I also found this to be true about when visiting refugee camps as part of my Unesco role. When we set up these programs for displaced women, it helped them get back their sense of self and move away, slowly, from their trauma.”
This all goes to show, Shamma states, that music and the arts are a serious pursuit.
“I keep telling rulers and powerful people that I meet that if you buy ten tanks, then give me the price of one tank to make a music school in your country and let’s see who will have a bigger effect,” he says.
“All conflicts eventually lead to peace talks. Why can’t we begin there in the first place, I want to provide that short cut.”