A Tale of Two EPs

Cairo_Kinshasa_Music
Cairo and Kinshasa – their skylines overlain, two great cities with mighty rivers surging through, and surging with the music which will inspire my work. 

A month ago I mentioned a musical reset, and the importance of goal setting. My big musical goal for the next year is to try and write, record and produce two new EPs of original songs. This is the start of the journey, and here I want to set out my vision of the form these two works will take. At this point, they are quite unsullied by the inevitable compromises, upsets and detours that lie ahead. By blogging their development from an intangible dream to a finished piece of art I hope to motivate myself to push on with their creation, shed some light on the creative process, and record their evolution.

What follows is a brief outline of my vision for each EP. They share some qualities:

  • Both already have working titles. Giving a title to something that doesn’t yet exist is a powerful act. It tries to will it into being.
  • Both will have overarching themes, in one case lyrical, the other musical.
  • I envisage both EPs as being about six tracks in length. Today’s mode of music delivery makes the labels of EP/LP irrelevant in technical terms, but I find them useful in packaging a musical idea. Six songs to me feels like a good goal – enough content to properly explore a theme, while not being as intimidating as saying to oneself “I’m going to record an album”.

Manmade Canyons EP

This recording will be, for want of a better term, the more professional sounding of the pair. I intend to record it in a studio, with a small cadre of professional musicians, and basically try and create the best work possible on a limited budget. The central theme of the album will be exploring how beings of wild places, be they human or animal, survive in the unnatural confines of the city … and particularly a city as overwhelming as Cairo. Musically I hope to touch upon some features of Egyptian music. Some characteristics might be:

  • I already have a lot of songs written or half-written for this, such as;
    • When The City Is Home
    • Bold Little Weasel
    • A Tree of Heathens
    • Pass Without Trace
    • Possibly Five Legged Holy Cow
  • Make a trio of my guitar/guitalele, plus bass and Arabic percussion the core of the album. If things are going well, perhaps add some other Egyptian instruments, such as oud.
  • Try and find some good gear, or a good studio, to record in, without breaking the bank.

Confide in Me EP

This is the lo-fi record. For far too long I’ve been resolving I would start learning the craft of getting my songs down on tape. With this project I want to finally start taking steps in that direction. With that in mind it will necessarily be a simpler, shoddier affair, as I learn on the job. What I’m hoping though is for a finished product good enough to have some wonky charm. Its characteristics might be;

  • Recorded at home using simple equipment – free recording software (probably either Audacity or Garageband), a Zoom H5, though I might get one higher end mic for recording vocals later in the process. I’ll probably still seek a wiser hand for tweak and mix what I’ve got after the fact.
  • Writing the songs as part of the recording process (on the whole). By doing this simultaneously, I hope something different will emerge than would if I followed my usual method of completing a song before committing it to tape. For example, I intend to create some rhythm tracks first, and see how these influence the lyrics and guitar parts layered on top of them.
  • Kitchen-sink percussion – I abhor the drum machine, but I’m no drummer myself. I’m going to try and create my own densely-woven rhythm parts by crudely playing all kind of mundane objects and layering the results.
  • One of the questions I haven’t answered yet concerns the arrangement of the songs. Do I want to the write fingerstyle compositions, which would also exist happily as stand alone pieces? This is more challenging, and will probably take more time to compose and master. Or do I instead consider this a two-guitar record? The benefit of this is a lot more freedom regarding what’s happening on the strings, and a chance to dive into lead playing, which hasn’t really been part of my guitar journey in the past.
  • The musical inspiration will be the early guitar music of the Congo, the acoustic precursors of modern soukous, the music played by artists such as Bosco Mwenda and Losta Abelo.

On this blog I’ll be jumping between the two projects, aiming for at least a post on each every month, documenting each important chapter in this tale of two EPs.

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A Tale of Two EPs

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

 

There are countless video blogs on Youtube discussing guitar playing and songwriting. I’m no authority on who leads the pack, but Sean Daniel’s blog is pretty sweet – informative, fun and with plenty of great music to enjoy. Five months ago, Sean embarked on a project to write a song from scratch, using as its starting point randomly selected chords and a randomly selected time signature. A little bit of chance adds some spice to songwriting – the old case that limiting one’s options stimulates rather than oppresses the creative process, so consequently I decided to rip off Sean’s idea.

I sat down with Chris, my (musically ignorant) partner-in-crime, who had the crucial role of drawing chord numbers from the bag. The chords were replaced each time, so it was theoretically possible to draw the same chord four times. What we actually got was the following chord progression:

III-III-II-VI

Which in the key of C is: Em-Em-Dm-Am

As we can see, that’s wall to wall minor, the ‘sad-sounding’ chords. Although in the video I suggested this might make for a miserable song, I note that when minor chords are hanging out together, they don’t actually sound so melancholy. The sadness seems more evident when they are paired with a major chord.

I subsequently developed the basic chord progression in a couple of different directions – transposing the key to F and the time signature to 6/8 (whose relationship to 3/4 is not as strong as the two times table might imply, but for a bit of variation what the heck), and also transposing the key to Bb but also changing the tuning to DADGAD, resulting in chords which are less firmly affiliated to major or minor. These key changes no doubt have other implications (for example, perhaps the chord progressions should be considered in the minor key, rather than the major . . .), but I’m ashamed to say my music theory knowledge is quite ragged around the edges, and also fairly tattered in the centre. If you wish to educate me, please take the floor . . .

The next step is to expand on this chord progression, adding some more building blocks until we have the foundation of a song. While Sean Daniel’s project followed the process from inception right up until a fully produced song, with drums, guitar solos, backing vocals, all the bells and whistles, I don’t have the wherewithal in terms of resources or finances to pull something like that off. So this journey will be more humble – three or four parts developing this starting point into a proper song, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a few bits in between.

Watch this space over the next couple of weeks and witness the plan come together . . .

 

Video

Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

Musical Reset

Bold Little Weasel

 

Bold Little Weasel is the second song finished from my 1 month, 4 songs project started at the end of last year. As is evident, although the bulk of the writing took place during that month, it has taken a long time to polish the songs sufficiently to reach a point when they could be properly presented. In the case of Bold Little Weasel, the main challenge was mastering the ambitious fingerpicking parts I’d written for myself. It took a lot of practice to reach a point where I could play the introductory passage and the mid-song ‘solo’ at the speed the song required.

A song from the streets

This recording was made in the streets of Fatimid Cairo, the medieval quarter of the city. As will be revealed, it’s very much an urban song, and I wanted the setting of the session to reflect this. Almost all the time, this part of Cairo is seething with people, which would have made making a recording quite a challenge. On an early Friday morning during Ramadan we succeeded in finding a peaceful corner, though during filming we had to negotiate round plenty of passers-by (it’s incredible how much noise a sandal slapping on stone can make), loud street-cleaners, spluttering Vespas and even a hip-hop crew doing a little filming for their own tune.

There are some truly impressive examples of medieval architecture in this area, but we were looking for a back-alley to film in, the kind of place a weasel might scurry down (and in fact, one did scurry down this very street, though sadly too fast to get on film). We also needed a place where would be left in peace to work – it wasn’t too surprising when as we finishing a policeman appeared to make sure we weren’t up to anything fishy and inform us that filming with a tripod required a special permit. Luckily by then we had what we needed in the can.

The Egyptian weasel

The hero of our song is the Egyptian weasel. Like the fox in the UK, the Egyptian weasel is one of those rare wild mammals that has successfully adapted to thrive in an urban environment. Growing up in rural England, my experience of seeing weasels was limited. Though not uncommon, they are shy, small and sneaky. Even if you were lucky, you might only get a few fleeting views every year. So imagine my surprise to discover that in Cairo weasels are confident and (as the song says) bold members of the city ecosystem; an animal easily found and often sighted in broad daylight. Indeed, many locals mistake them for rats*.

egyptian-weasel-aswan
Photo Credit: Dick Hoek 2014 – Aswan, Egypt

But to me, they remain wild creatures, and exotic reminders that I live in a strange land. One morning on my walk to work an Egyptian weasel dashed out of the shadows, froze on noticing my presence, eyeballed me, then obviously deciding I was no threat to him, bounded on to snatch a piece of dropped chicken from outside the shawerma shop, then leapt into the wheel arch of a parked car to devour his prize. I shook my head at these antics, smiled, and thought ‘bold little weasel’ . . . then realised instantly there was a song title there.

Doing it ever more DIY . . .

There are a few changes to the way I’ve produced this video. The first is to sound. This was the first video recording in which I used my Zoom H5 Recorder, which has been waiting for a proper outing for several months. I’m quite ignorant in the science of making audio come across well, so results were mixed. The Zoom picked up more sound than the in-built mics on our cameras, but a lot of this was incidental stuff – footsteps, wind, sparrows twittering. I wasn’t sure if the guitalele and voice sounded significantly better on the Zoom than they did on camera. There is clearly more I need to learn about setting up the Zoom to capture a performance effectively.

Most of my videos have been made by my long-suffering wife, but in this case I recruited two friends, Neda and William, to do the filming for me, using three different cameras. In the past, I’ve just done a few takes and made a video around the single best one, but in the case of Bold Little Weasel the finished article is a mix of two main audio takes and multiple video takes. I stitched the audio together crudely on Audacity (some of the joins are audible). The corresponding video takes were then also joined up on Imovie, and I browsed through all the other footage Neda and William had taken, feeding in clips from other takes which appeared to fit more or less with the underlying recording. The finished article has its clumsy moments, but it’s the first time I’ve done this all on my own, without relying on my wife’s more accomplished editing hand to put things together.

One of the most pleasing things was realising how in time all the different takes were with each other. I’ve learnt from studio time the imperative of following the metronome, and I was happy to discover that even when chopping up my various attempts, the variation in tempo was only very slight.

Blog posts related to the writing of Bold Little Weasel during the 1 month, 4 songs project can be found here:

Day 11: Have I Got Anything?

Day 19: Technology Weasel!

Day 23: Nile Projects

Day 29: Filling In The Gaps

These are the full lyrics

Bold Little Weasel

Verse 1

Bold little weasel, agile and sleek,

Flourishing in these hard times

Gleam growing in his eye, no longer meek

As our fickle fortunes decline

If you imitate his way, you’d leap and tumble, skip and veer

Shadowing his steps to be bold, and brave, and without fear

This bold little weasel

Verse 2

The cripple on the corner has staked his spot

Doubled on his third hand crutch

Of your wicked ways and sneaky whiles

He’s seen and heard so much

Just a pair of pirates, nothing more than a couple of crooks

Though of course this creature is more acrobatic in thought and foot

This bold little weasel

Bridge Part 1

The alley cats have seven lives or nine

While yours hangs on, a slender line

And nothing happens by accident, in your fragile world

Yet I feel the connection between us

As our fates unfurl

Bridge Part 2

Good fortune runs at my side, a familiar all day long

The thought of you, that fleeting view, the architect of luck

And it’s an exercise of fantasy, to imagine that scoundrel dancing for me

Backflips and somersaults and Egyptian dervish spins

Verse 3

At the furthest arc of our activities

We stop just to regard

This bouncing ball of duplicity

As he slips beneath our guard

Swashbuckling his way in and out of the halls of men

Watch the shadows closely, then come and tell me when

You see this bold little weasel

This bold little weasel

Bold little weasel

 

*It’s actually very rare to see a rat on the streets of Cairo – probably due to the hard work of the weasels and huge population of feral cats.

Video

Angel Coins

Also recorded during my recent few days in Abu Simbel was Angel Coins, a song I’ve been carrying around with me for about a year. Unfortunately, there are a few sound problems with the recording below. Hopefully the singing of the birds, golden desert and azure sky make up somewhat for the failings of audio.

When you’re writing your own songs, it can be very hard to be objective and recognise the quality of what you’re producing. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, which often barely register with the person playing them, that prove the most successful songs. I remember this point being made by Let’s Wait Until The Sun Comes Out, one of the most popular songs I wrote with my old band the Lazy Lizards. I remember it suddenly becoming a thing at a jamming session between our drummer and I one evening. We’d spent a couple of hours working on a song which we never finished, the details of which I don’t remember beyond it being heavy in subject and sound. Having made not a lot of progress, I started playing a bit of simple three chord township jive, Amjid joined in on cajon, and suddenly we had a hit on our hands.*

A similar story can be found behind the creation of Angel Coins. I spent Christmas 2015 at the house of a friend in the beautiful village of Tunis, near the Fayoum. This is the Egyptian countryside, another world entire from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The weather was good, and most of the stay was spent doing little more than absorbing the mild winter sun in the orchard garden of our host’s home.

I had my guitalele to hand. I wasn’t trying to write something, but letting my fingers travel where they would while enjoying the tranquility. At some point during the morning my fingers found the two chord pattern that forms the main body of Angel Coins’ verses. I hadn’t recognised I had anything of import until my friend Reem mentioned that it sounded nice. This prompted me to play more attention. Mucking around a little longer brought me the descending bass line, and coming around to the realisation that I had something worth keeping I made a quick recording.

I kept fiddling around with the song whilst I stayed in Tunis, and began to conclude that whatever song it was going to be it should reflect its place of birth. In my previous post, I touched upon the challenges of finding a comfortable setting for songs that fall between the cracks of different cultures, and in Angel Coins I attempted another strategy. I tried to transpose some of the themes of romantic English folk songs to a desert landscape. Traditional song from my own culture is full star-crossed lovers finding their desires blocked by the constraints of social, familial and financial convention, and it’s very easy to find parallels in contemporary Egyptian culture. Conservative attitudes towards boy-girl relationships prevail here, and falling in love is a complex business. Once I recognised these mutual echoes, the narrative of the song unspooled naturally.

There is one element I still find a little inelegant. The object of the song’s affection lives with her uncle for unexplained reasons. Is she an orphan? Perhaps, but it’s got more to do with being forced in that direction because ‘niece’ rhymes with ‘caprice’. Sometimes being pushed into a rhyme like this suggests a new and pleasing direction for a song, but I have to admit in this case my solution was clumsy.

Probably the last thing to mention is the angel coin itself. What exactly are angel coins? According to a scholarly friend, an angel coin is actually the fossilised body of a tiny protozoa – a nummulite. This makes a sense; the Sahara was once a shallow sea, and in fact in Wadi el Hitan, the bones of prehistoric whales can be found amongst the dunes. Iangel-coins-rayann the deep desert there are arid fields of these angel coins. I’m no paleontologist, and some cursory investigation online finds no mention of angel coins, leading me to suspect that this name is actually a colloquial Arabic one. Whatever, the truth, it made a good song title!

The song mentions several other treasures of the desert; flint knives and pottery sherds. Egypt’s rightly famous for its early Pharaonic civilization, but the Nile Valley has played host to mankind for far longer than this, and on the shores of Lake Qairun the evidence of Stone Age settlements is liberally scattered across the ground. Are these ancient curios sufficient to win over a heart? The song leaves this for the listener to decide.

Ultimately, I’m really happy with the finished article. Thanks Reem for pointing out what I had; otherwise Angel Coins would have remained a brief little musical doodle played in an Egyptian garden – played and then forgotten.

These are the lyrics:

ANGEL COINS

Verse 1

Well, I came out of the desert

With my heart as barren as the moon

From a horizon indistinct

And with my faltering faith extinct

Marching to misfortune

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Verse 2

With my pockets rattling heavy

With the pearlescent coins of djinns

Out beyond the barren hills

The bones of ancient beings spill

Parched seas and bare ruins

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Bridge

Well I’m not a man of means

Yet I’m still hunting my very own dreams

And the wind still works the dunes

To form your face

I’m waiting for your alms

With these desert-creased, broken palms

And once in a thousand years the rains will come

So I’m standing at your gate

Left here by the laughing fates

With jackals wondering when I will succumb

Verse 3

Your uncle’s a man of circumspect

With no mood for caprice

And with no pennies to my name

I know he will not entertain

My petition for his niece

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Just a sky full of stars and angel’s coins

Just a heart full of love and angels’

Angels’

Angels’ coins


*Well, not a hit, but by any stretch our most popular song.

Video

Pass Without Trace

A few months have passed since I resolved to write four songs in one month, but finally I have a full recording to present of one of the tunes written during that project. This is Pass Without Trace, recorded in Abu Simbel, the most southerly town in Egypt, site of Ramses the Great’s famous temple, and a mere twenty minute drive from the Sudanese border.

An anti-protest song

Writing from the folk music tradition as I do, the concept of the protest song stands tall. Pass Without Trace though, might be considered an anti-protest song. Six years ago I wrote Nyabinghi 11-01-11, a song celebrating the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of the ‘tyrant upon the throne’ in Egypt. However, the promise of those days has long dissipated, and now most of the Egyptians I meet turn their energies mainly towards escape, be it an actual escape or just a creative one. So Pass Without Trace works as something of a sister song, reflecting that desire. It’s a thesis that spreads itself more widely – as the world strides towards its own destruction, it becomes harder and harder to muster the energy to battle the forces of darkness (and I mean you, Mr. Trump!).

Magical Realism in songwriting

Since I left the UK, one of the most interesting considerations I face when lyrics writing is finding the right world for my songs to inhabit. My day to day experience is no longer the familiar culture of pastoral England, but it’s not a world I can pretend to fully understand – be it Egypt (where I live now), or the other countries I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in. Mixed up in this, my musical influences veer further away from the traditional canon of Western music, and as a result, I find my lyrics begging a different setting.

In magical realism, I think I’ve found an answer that suits my natural proclivities. Magical realism is a genre perhaps most famously illustrated by South American novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Novels such as 100 Years of Solitude, present a version of Colombia which is recognisable as our own world, yet where fantastical places, characters and events exist naturally alongside the familiar.

I find using such an approach helpful, as it allows me to excuse my own ignorance while stealing all the best imagery Egypt has to offer. In Pass Without Trace, this is best demonstrated by a reference to the High Dam, the great civil engineering work of President Nasser, which blocked the Nile, controlling the inundation and allowing Egypt to exploit its limited water resources like never before. Beyond the High Dam, Egypt does indeed get wilder and emptier, and like in the song, there are crocodiles to be found. Yet unlike our protagonist’s journey, there is no swamp to negotiate, just the largest man-made lake in the world, and the desert on all sides. Thus the real world provides the starting point, but in service of the song, fictional and fabulous details emerge.

crocodiles-lake-nasser

Some well-placed foul language

Front and centre of the chorus of Pass Without Trace is some rather Anglo-Saxon language in its most expressive form. Sheepishly, I must admit being an enthusiastic fan of bad language in song. ‘Fuck’ has such an aural aesthetic – it might batter the ears but it’s a delight to say. And there are many songs which benefit from its deployment, such as the gleeful contempt in Cee-Lo Green’s Fuck You, or the quiet exasperation and befuddlement expressed in the chorus of Thom Yorke’s Black Swan. I must admit to being a bit of a serial offender in this department, another song in my repertoire is called Your Shit Still Stinks The Same.

1 month 4 songs progress report

So whatever happened to those four songs that were supposed to be finished in a month? Well, the initial burst of creativity bubbling away during the project got 80% of the songs written, but in perfecting them and mastering the singing and playing of them progress has slowed. It’s not surprising that Pass Without Trace was the first to surface, as guitar-wise it’s the simplest to perform. Of the others, Bold Little Weasel is complete, but still a challenge to pull of successfully to the tempo as written. But for a few fiddly bits, When The City Is Home is also more or less together. Let’s Make Our Bed Together lies a little in limbo, as I’m not sure whether it completely works as a song, and I’m undecided as to whether to kindly euthanize it or throw it out in public and see if it can survive.

Blog posts relating to the writing of Pass Without Trace during the project can be found here:

Day 2: Stones in the Stream

Day 7: Zoom Zoom

Day 25: Reggae on the River

And these are the complete lyrics:

 

 

Pass Without Trace

Verse 1

These shackles hamper our every move and rattle with each twitch

No doubt that the turnkey would start awake should you even scratch an itch

So crash the system, dupe the world, and set the currency aflame

Usurp the tyrant on his throne, though you’d end up just the same

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 2

There’s no move that could salvage the game, you’ve not even a pawn to play

The only move that you have left is to simply turn away

To the swamps above the High Dam, where the vapours take the scent

The primeval ooze it fills back in and your footprints leave no dent

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 3

The crocodiles still linger here to devour the tracking dogs

The spy drones can’t probe the undergrowth, the murk through which you slog

Sleep in all your clothes tonight, they’ll slowly tear away

And there’ll be no trace left of the modern world whose presence would betray

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Pass without trace

Pass without trace

Video

Foolin’ with an Oud

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.

oud-zamalek-stairs

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.

Oud-House-Cairo
source: cairo.gov.eg

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.

Foolin’ with an Oud