Ode to the oud - still king of Middle Eastern instruments

Music belongs to no one region and the oud’s influence on western traditions is evidence of that

Few instruments around the world can claim such an ancient lineage as the oud. Credit: Getty
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With so much richness in its diversity and cultural geography, the Middle East has always punched far above its weight in giving the world some of the most valuable cultural contributions in human history, a key one being the region’s music.

If you’ve ever listened to Arabic songs, chances are you have heard the oud, an instrument that is at the heart of the region’s soundtrack. For hundreds of years it has been dear to the Middle East. It still is today, and the musical community surrounding the instrument, of which I am a part, is committed to staying true to its centuries-old tradition, while also adapting it to a modern, international audience.

New thinking is, of course, a part of this endeavour, and something I try to demonstrate in my work, which I was delighted to perform at Expo 2020 Dubai. But in a region that values tradition, knowing the oud, its pioneers and global, historic influence is key to shaping its future.

The oud is a short-necked, half pear-shaped lute with 11 strings that are grouped in twos, with a single bass string. In a sign of quite how deep its history in the region is, experts believe the instrument’s origins lie in the ancient Egyptian instrument “nefer”, long-necked and small-bodied, resembling the western lute. The word is also a letter in the hieroglyphic language, and if we look at cartouches in old temples, we can see a letter that very much resembles the oud. So it is not just its sound that can evoke so much mystery, but its very origins. Few instruments around the world can claim such an ancient lineage.

The lute is plucked with fingers and plays a more chordal role in a western ensemble, whereas the oud is struck with a plectrum called 'risha', Arabic for feather

This version is said to then have been taken by the ancient Persians and developed into the barbat – a closer form of what the oud is today – which was then taken by Arab cultures and developed further, so starting the instrument’s long tradition in Arabic classical music.

Music is the property of no single region, though, and the oud’s influence on western traditions is good evidence of that fact. It was taken to Spain by the famous player, singer, poet and court musician Zeryab in the ninth century, who was paid 40,000 pieces of gold annually. This is a great salary by today’s oud musician standards, and one of the few aspects of the profession that has, unfortunately for me and my colleagues, not enjoyed historical continuity, especially during the pandemic.

Zeryab is also thought to have added more strings to the instrument, edging it yet closer towards its modern form. But the addition also brought something beyond the musicality of the instrument. The strings had traditionally been associated each with their own colours and human attributes. The first course was yellow, which symbolised bile, the second course red, which represented blood, the third was white for phlegm and the fourth was black, representing melancholy. Zeryab’s addition, the fifth, came to represent the soul, lifting the instrument yet further towards its lofty status in Arab culture. It gave the oud a human nature, encompassing emotions, corporeal functions and spirituality. No wonder, then, that its humanity continues to speak to strangers across the globe, and why it is such a spiritually valuable export of the Middle East.

Zeryab also matters for asserting the universality of the instrument, edging along the process that saw it branch into the western lute. In fact, the word lute comes from "al oud”. While the words are not too dissimilar, the playing styles are. The lute is plucked with fingers and plays a more chordal role in a western ensemble, whereas the oud is struck with a plectrum called “risha”, Arabic for “feather”. This is because, traditionally, an eagle’s quill was used. This practice extended into the 20th century, but is now illegal, and oud players tend to experiment with plastics and flexible substitutions. One player in Egypt I knew used cable ties, which he sandpapered to the thickness and flexibility he wanted. I remember while learning as a child having two plectrums, one made out of the plastic cover of a VHS tape, the other from the lid of an ice cream container. I probably used that for playing sweeter phrases.

In all seriousness, it is an example of how modern principles, in this case conservation, are shaping the tonal qualities of today’s instrument. Geography does, too; Egyptian, Levantine and more traditional players lean towards a heavier staccato, while the Iraqis and Turks prefer a higher, more sustained sound.

Stretching into modernity, the oud is still seen as the king of Middle Eastern instruments. It is the most popular choice for Arabic composers and singers, as they are able to sing while they play, similarly to how the guitar became so central for western music. It matches a player’s music to lyrics and poetry, offering as rounded an artistic expression as one person can give.

In the Middle East, there are three main schools of playing: the Egyptian (this includes the Levant), the Iraqi and the Turkish. The Egyptian is the most popular, in large part due to the golden age of Arabic cinema, for which Cairo was a hub. Musicians from all over the Arabic world congregated there, building movie careers alongside musical ones. One artist who received great fame in the early 20th century was Farid Al Atrash, a young singer and exceptional oud player. He used the growing Egyptian movie industry to his advantage. Many of his films were light-hearted and featured virtuosic oud solos, something that was traditionally reserved for musical connoisseurs.

The industry was able to bring the genre to a wider audience. In one film he is even backed by a western symphony orchestra, performing an arrangement of the Spanish virtuoso pianist Isaac Albeniz’s Asturias. He is most famously known for the introductory oud solos to his vocal songs, which gave his concerts a more traditional element, at a time when modernity was at risk of cancelling long instrumentals. Al Atrash, therefore, recognised the central role of tradition in the instrument’s modern identity, and his solos have now become staples that every oud player tries to mimic.

Other greats to flourish at the time were Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the greatest Egyptian composer of all time, and Umm Kulthum, the Middle East’s most famous diva of Arabic song. Although primarily a singer, she appeared with the instrument in a number of her movies. Most notably in the song Be Redak Ya Khaliqi, from the film Fatma, meaning “with your permission, my creator”, in which she is giving thanks to God for her voice and talent.

As a new film industry develops in the Middle East, taking shape outside just Egypt, I feel strongly that the oud should be as much a part of it as it was in the 20th century, and I am happy to see it being used so often. Perhaps this could reveal a new generation of virtuosos, just as it has done throughout the region’s cultural history.

Whatever your background or musical taste, there is an oud track for you. The players that I mention were innovators of the 20th century, and there is plenty of responsibility when a modern player picks up the instrument. But, using their foundation, I’ve always felt there is still much growth to be had, both technically and musically. It is something I am trying to do with my music, venturing out into a brave new world while honouring the greats who came before me and who provide so much musical inspiration.

Everything is possible for the oud, and there is much still to explore, but I think if the passion is there, the inspiration is there, and as long as the sound and integrity of the oud is maintained through it all, the sky is the limit.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 7:22 PM