Faraj Abyad may have started learning classical Arabic music with the violin, but in his journey to becoming a tarab singer, it was the oud that served as an indispensable companion and guide.
The Baltimore-born musician, who is of Syrian descent, and currently visiting the UAE, has played in some of the most prestigious venues in the US – including the historic Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Broadway Street – revitalising the genre through his interpretations of classics by Farid Al Atrash, Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Fairouz and Sabah Fakhri, as well as creating original pieces.
He started learning the inner workings of classical Arabic music – namely the maqamat and rhythmic system – as a teenager. But in his late twenties, as he developed ambitions to compose and sing classical Arabic music, Abyad knew he had to pick up the oud.
“The oud is now my main instrument because it’s always with me,” he says. “For me, and a lot of singers, the oud is used as support. When you sing and play the oud, you have to know when to give more space to the oud or your voice. How to let it complement your singing.”
Abyad, who has recently released his own composition, says a unique advantage of the oud is that it gives singers the ability to perform on their own. For a singer-songwriter of Arabic classical music, the oud is as archetypal as the acoustic guitar is for a folk singer in the West.
“If I can’t get a tabla player to perform with me, the oud can give me that percussive aspect,” he says. “I can do percussion with the reeshe [pick]. It can provide the melody and it can also fill the lazmaat [musical interludes] between the singing. So you kind of have everything there.”
However it was not simply a matter of learning the oud. Abyad says in order to really get a good grip on singing classical Arabic music, he had to relearn the language. “I remember it was around 2016, I was managing a chain of clothing shops in New Jersey, driving four hours a day, listening to Arabic tapes and practising my language skills,” he says. However, the musician says he was getting only so far working on his own and was desperately looking for an Arabic teacher.
“One day, I was at a Syrian coffee shop in New Jersey, listening to one of my compositions through my phone, when a man approached me asking what I was listening to,” Abyad recalls. “He was a very distinguished gentleman with a moustache, kind of looked like an ustad. I told him it was one of my compositions and it seemed like he wanted to say something, but was holding back.”
It turned out the man was Yasser Moulayes, an Arabic-language professor who taught at a number of universities in New York and New Jersey. "He pointed out the mistakes I was making with certain pronunciations. He also played the violin. So I started taking lessons with him and he really helped me develop my Arabic language skills."
After two years of lessons and rigorous practice sessions, Abyad performed live for the first time, in a shisha cafe in Manhattan in 2018. “That was the pivoting point when I became a professional performer. I always like to say how my journey started in the back of shisha restaurants,” says Abyad.
As much as he cherishes these beginnings, he says he found there to be certain creative limitations when performing in shisha cafes. “When people go to places like this, they want to hear songs they already know. They’re usually not in the mood to listen to a new poem or composition.”
Composing was another reason Abyad turned to the oud – it was much more convenient writing new music on this instrument than it was on the violin. It is necessary, Abyad says, for composers of classical Arabic music to learn how to play the oud and sing as the combined skill sets provide a deeper insight to the nuts and bolts of the genre.
“You’re able to understand and incorporate all the key elements with those two skills,” Abyad says. “Through the oud, you get to develop your knowledge of the maqamat, as well as the complex Arabic rhythmic system. Through singing, you hone your knowledge of poetry and grammar, all of which are essential to becoming a proficient composer of classical Arabic music.”
This rings true, especially when considering how many great composers throughout the history of the genre were oud players, as well as singers, including Egyptian crooner Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Farid Al Atrash, the Syrian-Egyptian composer who is hailed as "King of the Oud".
So how do you advance a musical genre that is so entrenched in tradition? Well, Abyad points out classical Arabic music in its nature actually allows for a lot more interpretation and improvisation than its western counterpart.
“It’s the u’rab that sets it apart,” Abyad says. “The trills that you do with your voice or on the violin or oud. So in western classical music, you usually read the sheet music straight without adding too much. The notation system is so advanced that instrumentalists usually know where to play lightly or heavily. We use the notation system in classical Arabic music, too. Usually it’s the key notes that have been written, but how you want to put the u’rab is up to you, which allows for the individuality of the performer to shine.”
Another way of developing the genre is to consider how different countries in the Arab world use the maqamat, bringing the various schools together when composing. However, in certain countries, such as Egypt and Syria, Abyad says listeners are less likely to accept a new approach because they are always comparing it to the style of the greats.
“But there’s also an openness to new art and styles in certain countries, such as in the UAE,” Abyad. “I feel there is a craving for new art here that is inspiring. I’ve even spoken to other musicians from Egypt, Palestine and Syria, who are also eager to try new things in classical Arabic music, and told them about the reaction I get from people here in regards to new art and they get excited.”