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The ‘Ud - Once Its Music Captivated Europe

posted on: Mar 9, 2016

The ‘Ud - Once Its Music Captivated Europe

BY: Habeeb Salloum         

“Oh ‘ud! If it was not for consolation,
I wouldn’t have touched thee, that I declare.
To my heart , I wouldn’t have pressed you,
And none would’ve heard my songs anywhere.”

The first time that I became interested in the ‘ud (often spelled oud), the Arab musical instrument par excellence, was when I read these words written and sung by the Arab immigrant poet, Sha’ir Al-Qarawi. They made me yearn to play that ancient instrument so beloved by the Arabs and which, under the name lute, once captivated the lovers of music in Europe.

However, even though I never learned to play this early yet modern musical instrument, the magical rhythms of its beating strings never fail to convey to me a message, uplifting to my soul. The eastern tunes and melodies of the ‘ud have, at times, intoxicated me with their message of joy and at other times with a feeling of sadness and melancholy.

The ‘ud meaning wood in Arabic, the ancestor of the western lute, has a history, which is lost in one of the myths of time. Folkloric tales in the Arab world relate that the ‘ud was invented by Lamak, the sixth grandson of Adam, and descendant of Cain. Other stories attribute its invention to the famous Biblical King Solomon.

Myths aside, similar instruments to the ‘ud have been found in Middle Eastern art since the early history of civilization. A twin instrument of the ‘ud we know today first appeared in Mesopotamia around 1600 B.C. and was the favoured musical instrument of the Sumerians and Assyro-Babylonians. In ancient Egypt, the ‘ud, known as the Nefer, first appears in the tomb of Sen-Mut during the reign of the celebrated Queen Hatshepsut (1501-1479 B.C.)

On the other hand, a number of historians take the ‘ud ‘s origin back Central Asia, while some maintain that it originated in Persia since it still retains the names of two newly tuned outer strings, bamm (low) and zir (high). Nevertheless, the Arabian Peninsula, including the Fertile Crescent, has for centuries been its true homeland. Here, since ancient times, the ‘ud has been considered the ‘Queen of Musical Instruments’.   It was the Arabs who perfected it, gave it its name, then passed it on to the medieval western world.

The ‘ud, a gentle-toned very personal instrument, is somewhat different from the other stringed instruments. It is distinguished by its short-necked half pear-shaped body and right angle keyboard. Its hand, bent backwards is said to be so formed in order to call upon the other instruments of the ensemble to follow.   Feather-light in weight and smooth to the touch, it cradles comfortably in the arms of the player. As an instrument without frets, it permits the player to invent, improvise and express his/her true feelings without the medium of written notes.

In the 9th century, during the Abbasid Empire’s days of glory, Ibrahim al-Mawsili founded an ‘ud school in Baghdad. He and his son Ishaq, under the patronage of the Caliphs, became the most renowned musicians and singers in the Empire. One of Ishaq’s brilliant pupils, Ziryab, overtook his master in the art of the ‘ud, incurring the jealously of his teacher. This drove Ziryab to seek refuge in Arab Spain where he found great artistic and cultural activity.

To the court of Cordoba, Ziryab, a master musician and prolific composer, introduced the concept of the new music developed in Baghdad. In this Andalusian city he built the first music conservatory in Europe and, among other innovations, introduced new teaching methods, added a fifth string to the four-stringed ‘ud, replaced the silk lower strings with gut, and introduced the eagle’s talon for the then commonly used wooden plectrum.

By way of the Arabs in Spain and the returning Crusaders from the Holy Land, the ‘ud was introduced into Western Europe. Carried by the wandering troubadours from Moorish Spain, it was to play a crucial role in the establishment of the Medieval Romantic Courts. In a short period, under the name lute, from the Arabic ‘ud, it became a favoured chamber instrument in almost every nation in Christian Europe.

On that continent, the lute reached its golden age in the 16th century.   Almost every household owned a lute and street-playing lutists became very popular. Lute manufacturers became renowned and lute players were much in demand by the aristocrats and kings. From the lute, the first instrument in Europe for which a large body of sheet music was composed, a whole new family of stringed instruments, such as the double bass, theorbo, viola, violin and violoncello, were developed.

By the 17th century, the heyday of the lute in Europe began to wane. However, in the Arab world the ‘ud never lost its allurement. For over 1,200 years it has been considered to be the monarch and the most perfect of all musical instruments. It is always the principal and lead instrument in an Arab orchestra, calling all the others in the ensemble to follow. In Arab history, literature and folklore, it is the maestro of Arab entertainment.

The ‘ud ‘s graceful shape, enhanced by picturesque decorations makes it an attractive object of art from which clever hands can create spiritual and melodious beauty. Amir al-Tarab (Prince of Entertainment) to the Arabs, its melodies are credited by Mawardi, a 9th century jurist in Baghdad, and Ibn Hazm, the 11th century Arab-Andalusian theologian and author of a famous love treatise, with the curing of numerous illnesses, invigorating the body and placing the temper in equilibrium.

Today’s ‘uds are somewhat different than those of the Medieval Ages – basically the same instrument but much more developed and sophisticated. The four and five strings found in Abbasid times are only retained in parts of North Africa. Others today come in six and seven strings. The mahogany, rose and walnut woods from which the ‘ud is made are still cut to about 1/32 inch thickness, then glued together. However, even though the woods remain the same, the synthetic glues are much stronger.

As was the case in the past, the ‘uds in our times are never mass produced. Every artisan takes personal pride in each of his creations – always hoping to produce a masterpiece.   Today’s top ‘ud craftsmen are to be found in Syria. Deeply rooted in history, the genuineness and originality of these artisans are widely renowned throughout the Arab world. They keep alive the traditions of this honey-toned musical instrument – the true sultan of Arab entertainment.