It was a night of pure divinity and inspiration. Naseer Shamma, the renowned oud player, sat on stage on an elaborate arabesque throne shimmering like a ghost in his pure white suit, the shiny material of his shirt catching the glimmer of the spotlight. Looking at his face as he strummed at the oud, he seemed lost in the music, his eyes closed, a slight smile on his face. His foot softly pats on a foot rest and his head bobs slightly with the music. At one point he looks up and jokes to the band - what's our next song? I don't even remember.
The Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma studied under some of the greatest oud composers in the Middle East to eventually become one of the most famous composers himself. The curly haired, slim man is usually found behind the Azhar mosque in Islamic Cairo surrounded by his students, male and female, giving gentle instruction on how to make the oud dance between their arms. He is such a master he taught himself to play the oud with one hand to honour a friend who lost his arm in Iraq's war with Iran.
Tonight, he mesmerises his audience with music he has composed to match ancient Sufi songs and prayers, a fitting theme for the second day of Ramadan. In between the playful, soulful, and heart wrenching compositions, he bows his head humbly and speaks softly into the microphone introducing his band or one of his compositions, reading the verses of the song. At one point he is accompanied by a young songstress wearing a magnificent gold and black abya, her long hair delicately lacing her shoulders. She sings of divine adoration and admiration for God, as a tabla player keeps the beat and her voice matches the oud.
The most creative piece is one where Shamma makes the oud "speak" to the rest of the band's instruments. In this piece, Shamma plays a few chords on his oud, and one by one the violin, cello, tabla and the flute reply. Conversing in this way, engaged not only the band members to the joy of the audience, but also gave us an appreciation and a reminder that instruments and music are after all modes of communication. They speak to each other and to the listener.
Shamma's voice is soft, and his tone is thoughtful. He seems to be a sensitive soul yet not fragile. Something about the way he holds the oud makes him seem strong and in control, speaking to the instrument and caressing the strings. As an Iraqi, Shamma has seen and felt his fair share of difficulties. Jailed in the late 80s for speaking out against the Saddam regime, he has said that his music has become darker as the violence rages on in his home country.
As an important part of Iraq's diaspora, he has many people coming to him to ask for help, and he has donated thousands of dollars to Iraqi aid through his concerts. But he also helps Iraqis with their art. Later in the concert tonight, we hear form an Iraqi living in Europe who travelled all the way to Cairo to learn from Shamma and to evolve his style of singing and performing. Dressed in a smart suit and singing with his hands as well as his voice, we heard two songs about Ramadan and a glorification of the attributes of God.
As a person of Iraqi heritage myself, I feel a distant and unspoken connection to Shamma. As I see him on stage, I feel like I want to reach out to him and say hello in our shared dialect, but I know it seems silly. I feel like I can claim the great artist and he makes me proud that we share a background, language, and land. While I've gone to several concerts of Lebanese and Egyptian artists, at this one, my heart bursts with happiness at the end of the performance. I feel like a relative or a close friend has just finished playing, someone I know. Even though we have never met, and perhaps never will.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo