Celebrated Iraqi oudist Omar Bashir says Arabic music has gone downhill in the past two decades, with the popularity of satellite TV a major factor. "These so-called music channels helped create this insidious concept that music is leisure and that it is a form of entertainment," he says. "Once that became accepted by the artists and the people, then naturally the quality decreased. We are at this stage now where what is being produced is ultimately safe and satisfying."
Bashir, 48, makes these comments during a visit to Dubai. The musician has taken a quick trip to the city to promote his latest instrumental album, the vibrant and jaunty The Dancing Oud. His diagnosis of the Arabic music scene may be critical, but it carries weight given his stature as one of the Arab world's most revered musicians.
The son of a master
He is also the son of an indomitable music pioneer and firebrand, Munir Bashir, the man behind some of the region’s most striking talents. He was a master oud musician, orchestra leader and instructor who was responsible for developing modern Iraq’s cultural scene from 1973 to the First Gulf War. Invited by the fledgling Iraqi Baathist regime to kick-start the country’s artistic sector during the early 1970s, the apolitical Munir Bashir established several music schools and arts organisations throughout the country, while also creating the inaugural Babylon International Festival in 1987, a celebration of dance, music, and theatre (and an event that continues to run). He also formed his own ensemble, the Iraqi Traditional Music Group, through which he helped finesse the talents of future Iraqi stars Kadim Al Sahir and Farida Mohammed. His success in nurturing the talents of the next generation also extended to the household. Born in Budapest, Omar Bashir began receiving his training from the master after moving to Iraq at the age of five. Musical talent had been prevalent in the family for more than a century, with Bashir’s uncle having been the renowned oud player Jamil Bashir, while his grandfather and several other relatives were also oud musicians. Those early lessons with his father taught Bashir that music was a serious pursuit. “It was all- encompassing. It was not only about learning how to play, it was also about how to listen,” Bashir recalls. “We would sit together in the living room and my father would put on different records and we would explore that genre.
One day he would play flamenco music and we’d listen together and discuss it. Then, the next day it could be an Indian raga – that was how it worked.” His father was a strict taskmaster when it came to teaching Bashir how to play the instrument itself, and Bashir says his father’s toughness with his other students was nothing compared to what he went through at home. He describes daily lessons lasting from three to five hours punctuated by tongue lashings for errant notes. “There was absolutely no praise,”
Bashir recalls with a hearty laugh. “If I made a mistake, he would simply tell me, ‘Oh, you are going to fail. I can’t have you taking the stage. You are not ready.’” Bashir explains that his father’s approach made him a better musician, as it was a counterpoint to the praise Bashir received from other sections of the Iraqi music community. “My father viewed ego as the biggest enemy of any musician,” he said. “Once a person starts to believe his own hype it spoils his work, and my father made sure that would not happen with me.”
Forging his own path
His father’s lessons, no matter how tough, have continued to guide Bashir throughout his career. Ever since the release of his 1992 debut album, Music from Iraq, Bashir has diligently recorded more than a dozen albums that explore all facets of the oud – from its role in spiritual music to rock and flam enco – in
addition to performing solo recitals and playing with various ensembles. “Each project I do really begins with a question or a thought,” he explains. “And from there I explore and expand the concept. The album, or the music itself, is the answer to that question in a way.” Bashir says The Dancing Oud is a prime example of this. The idea for the album first came to him about three years ago, after a friend asked him an unexpected question about his style. “She asked me when she was going to be able to dance to my music,” he says. “I was busy doing all this music and solo shows that were kind of heavy. She gave me the idea to do something different with the next project.” But despite the fun, free-wheeling spirit that infuses the album, The Dancing Oud stays true to Bashir’s mission to showcase the diversity of the oud. The Andalusian-styled opener Caravan is cinematic in scope, as it moves from slow and plaintive plucking to a fiery flamenco flourish in the finale. “I was trying to tell a story of a caravan travelling, and they cross various landscapes,” Bashir says. “When the music gets faster, I am alluding to the caravan getting attacked by bandits.” Amazon Dance takes a more euphoric turn, with Bashir’s riffs sailing over a steady Latin rhythm and ethereal keyboards. When it comes to the inclusion of the latter instrument, Bashir explains that it is partly a result of his appreciation for the German-Romanian new age group Enigma.
Never forget where you came from
It is that melding of the traditional with the modern that is Bashir's calling card. He also says it was the last lesson his father taught him.
Bashir recalls performing an unusual duet in Amman, when he played the oud alongside an electric guitarist. The show was a success and his father was in the audience. Bashir tells us that he met his father backstage after the performance and he was beaming with pride. "My father told me: 'Son, now I know I don't have to worry about you. You have forged your own path'. That was the first time he really gave me such a direct compliment," Bashir says.
“He also told me that his only advice to me was to not lose the Arabic culture in my playing. He told me to explore but never forget where I came from. I have never forgotten those words.”
The Dancing Oud by Omar Bashir is out now on Universal Music MENA