When I first arrived in Egypt I resolved to learn to play the oud. Like many a resolution of mine, it was probably the greater part wishful thinking, especially as I hadn’t really appreciated how busy work would prove to be in Cairo. A year has come and gone, but finally I have something to say on the subject of the oud and I.
For those not in the know, the oud is a stringed lute played throughout the Middle East, even travelling as far as Borneo where it evolved into the gambus. It is regarded as the ancestor of the European lute, and thus also might be considered the grandfather of the guitar*. Modern ouds usually have about eleven or twelve strings, which are mostly strung paired. It plays with a natural, woody tone, and lacking frets beguiling slurs and slides give it a distinctly oriental sound.
My first exposure to the instrument and its music was via BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, which finished one of their witching hour shows with a piece from Anouar Brahem’s album Barzakh. Even as those tumbling notes lulled me to sleep I knew I was hooked. My interest was recently revived when watching a performance by Driss El Maloumi at the Rainforest World Music in Sarawak a couple of years ago, and I’d now cite Driss as my favourite oud player. Since moving to Egypt, I’ve seen the oud used in all different kinds of situations – sometimes in a classical music context, more often with folk ensembles playing Nubian, Bedouin or Sufi music, sometimes providing simple accompaniment to a singer, and sometimes as an exhilarating lead instrument playing solos to make a guitarist weep.
One Egypt’s most prominent players (although actually Iranian) is Naseer Shamma. I went to enquire about lessons at his famous Beit el Oud school, where I was ushered up to see the man himself, largely I believe because he was only person to hand who could speak English. He was in the midst of demonstrating a lengthy piece to a colleague, so I was left to sit quietly in his office and observe him playing at close range for some ten minutes, after which he eloquently apologised for keeping me waiting! If only I could get such an experience every time I’m on hold . . .
I was able to prevail on my friend Ahmed Saleh to lend me one of his ouds a couple of weeks ago. This oud was the one he had first started learning on, and it certainly looks like it’s seen some years. The ornamented rosettes of the lesser sound-holes have some damage, it’s missing its highest strings, and its lowest string (the only one which isn’t paired) kept slackening to the point of utter flaccidity, so I ended up taking it off.
As a result, I was only playing the thing over four paired strings (rather than six), but this hasn’t really mattered, because when it comes to the oud I have very little idea what I’m doing. Though there’s plenty of learning resources out there on the Internet, I chose to embrace my ignorance and see what I could come up with just through experimentation. Over the last fortnight I’ve made a point of picking up the oud daily and trying to coax some music out of it. Here’s what I’ve learnt:
One of the immediate challenges I faced was simply the oud’s dimensions. A guitar nestles nicely in your body, its curves are welcome and inviting. The oud meanwhile is quite awkward. Like me, it has a significant protruding belly, and those two convex shapes are in direct opposition to one another. As a result, finding a comfortable position is difficult, and the instrument often slides away as I play it. Another difference is the pick. Rather than being held perpendicular to the thumb, as you would with the guitar, the long oud pick is cradled in the whole hand, emerging parallel to the thumb as if you were holding a dagger. Thus the angle of attack on the strings is quite different, although I found this change easy to adjust to.
Frets have been sketched across the neck of Ahmed’s oud. However, unlike the guitar, it’s not very easy to see what your fingers are up to when playing the oud, so these biro-marked frets weren’t really much help anyway. Surprisingly though, the oud’s lack of frets didn’t prove much of a problem. Guitar playing has given my fingers and my ears a sense of where the right sounds should be, and in truth the oud’s fretless neck is actually helpful in this regard, for if you miss the note it’s easy to slide to where you want to be and make out like that’s what you meant to do all along. However, I did find that when playing a cyclical riff it was easy for my fingers to drift away from where they’d begun, gradually sharpening or flattening the notes.
Overall, the biggest bugbear is tuning. Ahmed tuned it when he first lent it to me, although his talk of ‘la, mi, sol etc.’ and my vocabulary of ‘A, E, G etc.’ did lead to some confusion. Based on what I understood to be Ahmed’s advice, I tuned the oud quite high, the four functioning strings being A, D, G, C. After a bit of research, I concluded I should in fact be at F, A, D, G. Although this initially felt too low, with the bass strings lacking much tension, the more I played the more right this felt. Even so, I spent a lot of time tuning. The wooden pegs on the oud creak and slip, and it often feels like by the time I’ve finished tuning the last string the first has already shifted out of tune. I don’t think Ahmed’s oud has been played for a while, which doesn’t help it stay in pitch.
Another thing I haven’t got to grips with is what approach to apply to playing the oud. Obviously, the classical Arabic music tradition is a vast and currently rather abstruse (at least to me!), and on top of this there must be scores of different traditional styles. One thing I’ve noted is Egyptians play the oud in a very melodic, meandering manner. I’m used to the carefully ordered patterns of Western music, where themes repeat and beats usually fall in the same place. Listening to local oud accompanists, I’m struck at how hard it is to predict where they’re going to go – they rarely seem to play the same thing twice, yet don’t deviate far from the central melody, and the low thwack of the bass string comes and goes at random, rather than anchoring a piece as it would on a guitar. As a friend pointed out, my recent attempts to play the oud often leave it sounding closer to the guitar, though that doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
So, what next? I can generate the occasional pleasing sound. But my experimentations suggest to me that unlike other stringed instruments, the oud doesn’t really feel like something you can just dabble in. It feels like it deserves time and commitment.
If one wanted to learn oud, you couldn’t really wish for a better place than Cairo. There are lots of opportunities for tuition, foremost among the Beit el Oud in the Old Quarter of the city. How evocative it would be to study the instrument in the 300 year old courtyard. No doubt it would also be an avenue towards discovering more of the culture of Egypt. Still, the stark reality is that my current work schedule means I can’t commit to their schedule of three evenings of lessons a week, and if I can’t muster up such complete immersion I’m not sure if I see the point.
It’s the same conundrum that’s often arisen. I’ve been interested in learning electric lead, or slide guitar, or even some percussion, but there always seems so little time in the day, and so much more to discover and improve upon with my fingerstyle guitar playing. I have several songs on the guitar to finish. So my feeling is that for now the oud will have to wait in the wings.
*Though it would be foolish to imagine that the lineages of musical instruments run in such straight lines.