Keeping it oud school

Music Abu Dhabi is home to the latest outpost of Naseer Shamma's expanding oud empire. Sana Munasifi reports from the frontier.

Iraqi musician and refugee advocate Nasir Shamma plays his oud in a concert, at the Syrian Opera House in Damascus on June 16, 2008. The concert was organized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture as a benefit for Iraqi refugees in Syria. AFP PHOTO\LOUAI BESHARA
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Abu Dhabi is home to the latest outpost of Naseer Shamma's expanding oud empire. Sana Munasifi reports.
"Fa sol fa me, do me re do," sing four apprehensive adults, stumbling through the sheet music in front of them. "Once again, all together," says their instructor, Ahmad Shamma, an Iraqi in his early 30s. He is trying to teach them the song's melody and rhythmic nuances before they attempt to play it on the ouds resting in their laps. "Why aren't you singing?" he asks one lost student. "I have no idea where we are!" the student replies. Everyone laughs as Ahmad Shamma points the way. Then they continue singing.

This relaxed group class is a weekly staple at Beit Al Oud Al Araby, The Arab Oud House, a new school for the oud in Abu Dhabi that opened its doors last November. Located in a villa behind Defence Street, the school, funded by the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and tuition from students, offers instruction in the oud and the kanoon, a kind of Middle Eastern harpsichord, and features an atelier for oud construction. About a quarter of the school's students are Emirati and the rest are expatriates from all over the Middle East. Classes cater to students of all ages and skill levels.

Students drift in and out of the open doors of the villa, which features several practice rooms and a kitchen where students chat and strum their ouds during coffee breaks. During the week teachers like Ahmad Shamma hold open sessions and students come and go as they please. "It's not an institute, it's a house," says Waad al Bahri, a young woman of Syrian origin who grew up in Abu Dhabi and appeared on the second season of Super Star. On the day that I visited the school, she was there for a private oud lesson. "You can come if you like, take one of the rooms which are open, and just play. They want this to be a warm atmosphere to attract you to Middle Eastern music and the oud in particular."

The Arab Oud House was founded by Naseer Shamma, Ahmad's uncle, who has opened similar schools across the Middle East. Naseer is an Iraqi oud player and composer who left his home country in the early 1990s and opened his first oud school - his "dream", as he calls it - in a single room at the Cairo Opera House in 1996. Since then, the Cairo school has grown dramatically, and Shamma has built two schools in Algeria and, most recently, the branch in Abu Dhabi. Plans are underway to open a school in Sudan, one in Luxor after Ramadan and another in Morocco soon afterwards. Plans for a school in Sudan have been put on hold due to the political situation there.

Shamma is known both as a virtuoso musician and innovative composer, and has performed his own works at every Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival since the event's inception five years ago.While we chat over coffee in the villa's living room, he explains that his compositions are more lyrical than many traditional works. For example, in a composition of his called Bird's Love, "you can hear birds singing, as opposed to getting a sense of general ideas, like beauty." Playing the piece, he plucks rapidly at the oud's strings, mimicking the chirping of birds hopping from tree to tree.

At this year's festival, Shamma put together an orchestra of Middle Eastern instruments that are usually played separately or in small groups. His "Oriental Orchestra" combined 15 ouds, 10 kanoons and nine nays (a kind of flute) with drums, tambourines and other instruments. Through the combination of these instruments' minor tones with percussion made a sound best described as "clangy", Shamma's compositions were refreshing in their unorthodoxy. He admits that working this way is no easy task. "Six minutes of music once took me a year to compose," he says.

In the school's atelier, ouds are made for the students according to Shamma's preferred style.  They feature a simple face with only three holes, a plain body, no traditional embellishments and a shorter arm than most ouds. Notably, the bodies of Shamma's ouds are made from one type of wood, as opposed to the strips of numerous kinds of wood often used. As Shamma puts it, "this construction method is not true. Physically, these different woods don't get along. You can hear the difference in their sound." According to Shamma, the unity of wood in his ouds creates a sound that "is perfect and more refined when you hear it in concert."  He also claims that his ouds are known everywhere he has spent a significant amount of time, particularly in Cairo. "If you try to have an oud made on Mohammed Ali Street in Cairo, where there are a host of oud-makers, they'll ask you if you want the Middle Eastern oud or the Shamma oud," he notes with pride.

Shamma's reputation preceded him in Abu Dhabi. According to Alaa Medhat Yousef, an Egyptian teacher who came here after graduating from the Cairo school, many of the new school's students were familiar with him before they signed up for lessons. Among them Shamma, who visits the school every few weeks for master classes and check-ups, is a celebrity of sorts. During my visit, one admiring student, who receives a 20-minute impromptu lesson from Shamma in the kitchen, insists on taking photos with him on his mobile phone after their session (and is disappointed to realise that I am not a photographer).

All of the school's teachers are graduates of Shamma's Cairo school. To earn a diploma, each must teach at least 20 students, and most of them do so in one of Shamma's schools. According to Yousef, this achieves "the ripple effect of throwing a pebble in a lake, where expertise in the oud is transferred from one person to the next." Acquiring that expertise is no easy task. According to Ahmad Shamma, who began playing the oud at 17 and studied for 10 years before reaching the professional level, if you start as a beginner, it takes six hours of practice per day, at least, to graduate in two years. "I used to practice at school so much I would miss meals," he tells me during a break from his lesson. "People would ask, where's Ahmad? Have you seen him? I'd be holed up in practice rooms for hours." But it wasn't drudgery. "The oud makes life sweeter."

Of course, such a level of commitment is often hard to come by. "There's no way I can practice the oud for six hours a day!" exclaims Bahri. "I usually practice three. But I still think I'll graduate within a year." Bahri, who has been singing most of her life, has only recently begun to focus on the oud. But others in the school are getting an earlier start. While I sit and chat with Naseer Shamma, a small, four-string oud built for a young male student comes out fresh from the atelier. Shamma tunes it, strumming an impressive ditty while the boy stands by shyly listening. "Now when you carry it, hold it like this," he says, pulling the oud into his chest with its face towards him and holding it with both hands, "so you don't break it." The boy skips away with his oud, which is nearly half his size.

According to Shamma, performances are an integral part of pushing students to graduation level. In March, three of the school's advanced students (and two of their teachers) performed with his Oriental Orchestra. This winter, Shamma plans to have more of the advanced students, along with teachers, perform in theatres around the city and perhaps throughout the country; the school will host its first student performance in November. In this way, Shamma hopes to increase the school's interaction with the community.

Also in the works for the winter is a programme that will host poets, scholars and musical performances on the school's modest stage. He wants musicians to talk with students about their "style, compositions and the future of their arts." Many of the school's students are unaware of these plans, and haven't known about the few workshops that have taken place. According to Bahri, the school "needs better PR."

Naseer Shamma thinks the school just needs time: time for new teachers to be recruited and arrive to accommodate the 90-plus students on the waiting list, and to start teaching a larger variety of instruments like the nay and the biziq. Yousef hopes that as the school grows it will "plant a seed for musical values in Abu Dhabi, and be a centre for music in the Gulf." "After the great buildings and streets that have been built (in the Gulf), after this rich life that has been built, we need to build cultural life," Shamma explains.  "We need schools everywhere in the Arab world, not just in the capitals - in small villages too. We need many music schools, and not just for the oud. This project is just a start."
Sana Munasifi is a freelance writer who spent the last two years in Abu Dhabi.