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Tunisian Festival Offers Ode to the Oud

posted on: Sep 3, 2009

A first-ever festival dedicated to the oud kicked off Thursday (August 27th) in Tunis, with the venerable stringed instrument’s notes woven into a wide array of musical textures.

Tunisian oud player Ihssan Aribi opened the August 27th-September 4th festivities with a “Conversation of the Strings”, a set that spanned several pieces from Tunisia’s Arab and Maghrebi musical heritage.

“These pieces are close to my heart,” said Aribi, who chose works originally composed for the oud, alongside several pieces from Iraq. “It’s a musical show based on the works of Tunisian musician Reda Al Shamak, my teacher.”

Aribi started his set solo, and was then joined by percussionist Ibrahim Bahloul for a musical dialogue that was warmly received by the opening night crowd of oud fans. He also surprised the audience by bringing onstage Zaki Darouich, a player of the Iraqi santur (hammered dulcimer), for an oud-santur-percussion blend.

“That duet between the oud and santur was great,” a young woman from the audience said after the show. “That’s the first time I ever heard the two instruments together.”

But in the end it was the oud, as intended, that stole the show at Tunis’ Ibn Rachik House of Culture that evening.

“The oud belongs to us,” said one audience member, a student named Mourad. “A lot of people don’t go for oud music. But if we really want to understand music and enjoy it, then we have to listen to the oud.”

“This is a distinguished, unusual event,” festival director Hamadi Mezzi said of the series of performances, which are sponsored by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture. “There have been a lot of modifications to the oud, and it has produced musical masterpieces in the Arab world.”

“The festival represents a decision to turn to our Arab culture through this instrument, which is always part of any Arab orchestra,” added Mezzi.

The festival schedule includes performances by musicians such as Noureddine Ben Aicha, Maher Hammami, Bechir Ghariani, Ridha Chmak, Zohra Madani, Kamel Ferjani, Mourad Sakli, Lassaâd Zouari, Samir Becha and Mohamed Abdelkader Haj Kacem.

The teardrop-shaped oud, known as the lute in the West, has long been a part of the music of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, stretching as far back as the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans. Centuries ago, the oud spread from southern Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

“The oud is an ancient instrument that travelled all the way to China,” Aribi said. “In the beginning, it was only an accompanying instrument. But these days, an oud player can perform solo.”

Aribi also noted the fluidity with which the ancient instrument has been melded into other musical genres, including jazz and symphonies.

Or as one audience member, Monia, put it simply: “The oud is … a bearer of pleasures [and] an indispensable instrument.”

Mona Yahya