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.

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Foolin’ with an Oud

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

Over a week ago, I called time on my 1 month, 4 songs project. My month was up, but the business of writing the four songs was not. Although I hadn’t quite met the challenge I set myself, it had nonetheless been fruitful – I have a quartet of two-thirds finished songs.

I wonder if anyone in the business of writing songs has ever settled upon a strict methodology and found it to work consistently. If this project has taught me anything, it’s only to reinforce for the umpteenth time that songwriting utterly resists one’s efforts to shoulder it with a formula. Over the month I experimented with a number of different approaches, and in this post I want to reflect of their relative values and lessons learnt from the project as a whole.

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I began 1m4s by filling my notebook with pages of unfettered imagery, words and phrases all based around a different song title. Despite my intention to write with utter freedom and try and disconnect my brain from the eventual end goal of turning these scribbles into songs, some premeditation and rhyme-chasing did creep in. But the real benefit of this starting point was beginning with this massive bank of material to draw from and guide the lyrical direction of the songs. Filling those pages felt like hard graft, but rewarding work, and so provided a really positive launch point. And later on, when tunes started forming, I had a wealth of lyrical matter to dress the melodies in.

There was also neat cross-fertilization happening from song to song; I found choice phrases from songs I didn’t use finding a home in others. Even so, there’s quite a lot of stuff left over which I really like that might its way into future songs. It’s definitely an approach I will use again when I want to compose a bunch of songs.

My early ventures into the musical side of things were not as productive. I came at things with an inflexible, structural approach: rhythm > chords > vocal melody > fingerstyle arrangement > embellishments and ‘solos’ (although this last part isn’t done yet). Such a progression is quite logical, and it’s not to say it didn’t work, but there were times when I found I was forcing myself to shuffle along when I should have been running on ahead. My commitment to my method saw me shying away from potential fruitful explorations of the musically ‘frilly’ bits at the end of sequence because ‘it wasn’t time to do those parts yet’.

Is there a better way? As I guy without any real grasp of theory, the musical composition aspect boils down to flailing around in hope of coming across something productive. The occasional stroke of luck aside, that’s inevitably going to take time. But I think I’d benefit from abandoning any preconceptions of how that should happen. I feel that simply doing a lot more guitar playing, without rhyme, reason or application of brain might reap some rewards.

I’d also be interested in experimenting with reversing the process. From an early stage, I tend to come at the song from a macro level. In my mind’s eye, I’ve already plotted the whole course from intro to outro, and I construct each segment little by little before slotting them all together. I wonder what might come if instead I focused on getting one tiny part perfect before moving onto the next, and built from bar to bar. This could lead to something more exciting, and also steer a song away from feeling too formulaic. Introducing the chord change, or the chorus, or whatever it needs, only when it feels necessary, not just because that’s where a change would be expected.

A third way I want to explore is writing melodies completely free of the guitar. I’d tried on 1m4s with Let’s Make Our Bed Together, but wasn’t tremendously satisfied with the results, but I think it’s a methodology which might be worth pursuing further.

Ultimately though, I must accept the musical road will always be messy, and recognise that large degrees of blundering and stumbling are natural parts of the process. Songs will take their own sweet time, some fast, most slow, and all you can do is keep working at them.

Overall, I think the greatest benefit of publically setting myself this challenge has simply been the motivation. Although I don’t kid myself that many people are paying attention, having announced to the world I would try and write these songs, I wasn’t able to slack off. I became accountable, and that helped me force myself to push on when my enthusiasm and energy were flagging, and also to recognise and document the progress I was making towards my goal. In the past, I’ve tended to use this blog to present mainly finished pieces of work, but I can see the benefit of replicating the approach of 1m4s for future projects, be they recording projects, live performances or even 2 months, 8 songs!

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking

Despite my best efforts, life is settling back to normal, with such undesirable elements such as a steady job and a place to call home creeping inevitably into view. Still, the few scant months of no fixed abode were fun. Travel is as much a passion as music, and in some ways, the two go hand in hand. But a guitar’s not always an easy travelling companion.

Of course, the guitar’s great success as a music-making machine stems not only from its versatility but its portability. That being said, when you’re planning on doing a bit of backpacking on a budget, lugging your favoured instrument around the back of beyond isn’t always an appealing option. It’s unwieldy, and it’s likely to get into all kinds of knocks and scrapes. My main guitar isn’t particularly expensive, but even so, I baulk at the thought of it lurching about atop a fifty-year old mini bus, rattling down a dirt road, with only a fabric carry case to protect it from the elements. Yet the thought of going travelling for a goodly stretch without something to play is equally unappealing.

Here are some solutions I’ve tried out over the years.

An old beat-up guitar

Being so ubiquitous as they are, if you play for long enough, a second, third or fourth hand guitar is likely to fall into your lap at some point. For all of us who play, there must be an equal number of friends and family who picked up a cheap guitar, gave it a go, gave it up, and let it languish in the dusty corner of a spare bedroom for years. It’s often easy to liberate such forgotten relics for your own purposes. In my case I found a forgotten guitar mouldering atop a cupboard at work, stringless and caked in so much grime it looked like it had been abandoned to the ash cloud of some volcanic eruption. In this case I didn’t even ask, instead concluding anyone mistreating their instrument so didn’t deserve to keep possession of it. I swiped it.

hitching_guitar_laos
The beat-up guitar providing some tunes during some fruitless attempts at hitchhiking on Laotian back roads.

Even so, I didn’t particularly hold the thing in high esteem. It sounded better with strings, but only a little. Even after a liberal oiling, tuning the guitar produced creaks and groans reminiscent of an old galleon at full sail.

But my disregard was liberating. We went on several trips to Laos together, and the whole time I was happily unburdened by any concern for its welfare. I cast it casually into the back of pick-ups and tuk-tuks, squeezed it into too-tightly packed luggage compartments of buses, showed nary a wince at each woody clonk of rough-handling. I left it out overnight with the elements. I played it in the rain. Having come to me without the parting of hard cash, I was content knowing that should it be crushed, warped, set alight or stolen I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Of course, the guitar responded to this abuse by sounding better and better. In fact it proved quite invincible and eventually I gave it to a friend who had a greater need than me.

A ukulele

Of course, the cheapest guitar in the world is still of a size to make it inconvenient when backpacking; limited means usually mean one isn’t graced with a lot of luggage room, especially amongst the four to a seat, lemon crates in the aisle and goats on the roof conditions which mark the very best bus journeys the world has to offer. Although there are especially designed travel guitars available, they always seemed like a bit of a waste to me – effectively paying for something which might be convenient for the road but is ultimately inferior in all other spheres.

So instead of finding another guitar to go travelling, I instead decided to get a ukulele*.

uke small
Playing ukulele on the Padas Damit river in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Sorry about the knees.

Now the ukulele’s incredible resurgence of late is at risk of making it a bit passé, but I’ve never been cool. Despite the damage done by all the teenagers playing Taylor Swift covers in their bedrooms the world over, the ukulele’s got a wonderful sound I always get a kick out of. They’re tremendously popular in Malaysia (check out Borneo’s own Zee Avi for instance), and of course living a stone’s throw from the beach inspired that certain island sound.

Obviously, one of the great benefits of a ukulele is it’s tiny. You can take it just about anywhere – it’s not going to raise any objections if you carry it onto a plane, for instance. Mine flew to South America under my seat. It’s also very easy to play – which of course is a blessing for people just starting out.

Yet for someone who’s already been bashing away on guitars for over a decade, I quickly found my uke’s simplicity somewhat limiting. A ukulele only has four strings, which in standard tuning follow those of a guitars highest four strings, but with an important exception – what would be the lowest string on the guitar is an octave higher on a ukulele. When you strum all the strings, the first thing your fingers hit is this higher string, giving the ukulele its distinctive happy sound.

At the end of the day this means you don’t play the ukulele the same way as a guitar. As fingerpicker, the absence of bass strings to explore and add some counterpoint to the trebles was something I really felt. Whilst the ukulele is definitely fun to play, I am always aware I’ve got a broader palette of possibilities on the guitar.

A guitalele

Luckily enough, it seems there is a best of both worlds. At the end of last year I got hold of a Yamaha guitalele. A guitalele is basically a ukulele-sized guitar, but retains some of the ukelele’s lilting sound. I’d fiddled around with a guitalele a few times in Hollywood Music in Kota Kinabalu, and been  little worried about its relative lack of volume and getting my fat fingers around its cramped fretboard. However, it wasn’t too expensive, so eventually I threw caution to the wind and bought one.

guitalele_borneo_camping
Playing guitalele around the campfire in Egypt.

Crucially, because the guitalele has exactly the same configuration as a guitar capoed at the 5th fret, you can compose guitar pieces on it whilst enjoying the portability of a ukulele. That being said, it has a sound all of its own. If you’ve been following some of the songs I’ve posted on the blog of late you’ll notice I’ve been giving the guitalele a lot of love. In many cases, I’ve set out to write guitar songs on the guitalele whilst travelling but concluded I like playing them on the guitalele better. A little bit of practice was all I needed to adapt to the smaller fretboard – in fact it’s trickier re-adapting to space of a proper guitar’s neck!

So my conclusion – the guitalele is a great companion for a musician travelling light; not only as a stand-in for a guitar, but also as a bona-fide second instrument.


 

* Well, to be absolutely truthful, I bought it for my wife, then nabbed it. But that’s another story.

Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking

EP launch: A Crown on a Chain by Far Flown Falcon

Cover design by Van Quynh
Cover design by Van Quynh

My first EP under the name Far Flown Falcon is now available on Bandcamp. It follows the ‘pay what you like’ model, which means you can download the six songs for $1,000 or for nothing at all. It’s up to you! And please, don’t be shy about downloading the album for free. I want to share my music as widely as possible, and whilst a little pocket change is welcome, I’m more interested in it reaching as many ears as possible.

Follow this link to listen and download: A Crown on a Chain EP on Bandcamp


The songs on this EP stem from recording sessions, many one day or one weekend affairs, stretching back over several years. Two of the tracks were made whilst I was still part of my old band, The Lazy Lizards, whilst the others were made in fevered rushes during visits back to the UK from foreign shores.

I have to offer particular thanks to my friend Phill Ward, who produced all these songs, played guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and invariably pulled out all the stops to make them sound brilliant within a tiny timeframe. Another shout-out should go to Amjid Hasan and Emma Beecham, my bandmates from the Lazy Lizards, who were also involved in the creation of many of these cuts.

Whilst many friends reading this blog will have heard these old tracks already, I’ve haven’t before collected them together as a single work. Despite having being made in isolation from each other, I feel they stand together quite well – probably thanks to Phill’s firm hand behind the production desk.

The last couple of years have found my muse revived when it comes to making music and songwriting. I have another EP of new material written and recorded in the last six months which will hopefully see a release by the end of 2015.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

October 2015

EP launch: A Crown on a Chain by Far Flown Falcon

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

As well as talking about my own songs, I want to use this blog to explore the artists that have inspired me to express myself through song. But these two gentlemen, Richard Thompson and John Martyn, go back even further; they’re the musicians who delivered those very first ‘eureka’ moments when I was discovering how transformative, how inspiring, how vital to life good music truly is.

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I feel close enough to the music of Richard and John that I can’t bring myself to address them formally as Thompson and Martyn. We’re on first name terms, even if they don’t get a say in it.

richardthompson

Head and Heart is one of John’s, from seminal album Bless the Weather. I love the simplicity of the conga accompaniment, but that’s by the by – it makes a great blog title too. Both these artists are equally important to me, but in the most reductive sense, Richard appeals to the head, and John to the heart.

I say reductive because the claim falsely suggests that Richard’s music somehow doesn’t connect emotionally, or that John’s doesn’t have depth and intelligence. Which is, of course, nonsense.

But I think it’s fair to say they have tremendously different (yet equally valid) approaches to songwriting, and here’s where the analogy holds more water. Richard’s songs have a sense of craftsmanship to them, a sense of being worked at and worked out. Like Nick Cave, Richard is a songwriter with an office, who puts the hours in. He has a vast catalogue of songs – I’d wager at probably triple that of John’s – and when you’ve written that many it inevitably becomes a more considered, methodical process. I can imagine Richard’s approach to a song is a bit like putting together a beautiful piece of furniture (although it’s not a very rock and roll comparison) – every part inspected, mulled over, even discarded and replaced if it doesn’t fit the whole.

John’s songs, on the other hand, are pure emotion. Richard might write a song because a certain situation or piece of imagery offers an interesting hook to hang a song from. But almost every one of John’s songs feel like visceral reactions to something that has happened to him, something he was feeling. Where Richard might square away such feelings (stiff upper lip and all), unpick them, find a way to frame them, remove them a little from himself, you get the impression John created an immediate torrent of song the moment his heart broke, or soared. Both men went through difficult divorces. Whilst in interviews Richard has insisted the songs on his ‘break-up’ album Shoot Out The Lights were not written in reference to his disintegrating marriage (I listen to Walking on a Wire and struggle to believe it), there’s no equivocation at all in John’s Baby Please Come Home or Hurt in your Heart from the album Grace and Danger. So raw is the emotion on display that label boss Chris Blackwell was famously reluctant to release the album, claiming it was ‘too depressing’.

I have the feeling that if Richard never discovered the guitar he could have made an engaging Dickensian author (with a hearty side helping of sexual misanthropy). The same can’t really be said of John, whose vocal delivery often disfigures and obscures the lyrics he’s singing. At times it verges on one of Vic Reeves’ jazz singer parodies in Shooting Stars, but as ever, there’s no laughing at the uncloaked honesty that John expresses with his voice. If I remember correctly, he himself claimed the words held little importance, that the delivery communicated all that was needed.

The ambiguity that comes from his singing often serves the song better. Is he singing “make no mistake it’s love” or “make no mistakes in love”? A compelling message, either way.

One of my earliest musical memories is my Dad teaching me to sing Richard’s Gypsy Love Songs* with him whilst probably still in primary school. My appreciation of John took a little longer – there was an age when electric guitar pyrotechnics was integral to me liking a song. John’s guitar skills are just as fiery when you think about it, but burn more like a lovely campfire compared to Richard’s screaming skyrockets and crackling explosions. Eventually though, the warmth seeped in. One particularly potent memory is from my student days, sitting on a rickety mini-bus as it rattled through the Syrian countryside, listening to a cassette tape of the Island anthology Sweet Little Mysteries and realising how in love I was with John’s songs.

My singing voice gets compared to Richard’s an awful lot. And despite being a big fan, it’s not something I’m very happy about. It’s certainly not a conscious impersonation, but perhaps not so surprising, especially considering the Gypsy Love Songs anecdote above. I’ve been singing Richard’s songs ever since I’ve been singing songs. I’d much prefer it if I played guitar more like Richard, and maybe sang a bit more like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but that’s the hand I was dealt. At the end of the day, you have to sing with your own voice. Mine naturally wants to resemble one of my idols. There’s not much I can do but accept it.

But such minor cross-bearing aside, I can only be thankful that my musically inclined parents had a record collection worthy of exploration. When I was young my contemporaries were listening to Take That and the Spice Girls. I got to listen to stuff like this:

Further reading:

http://louderthanwar.com/the-island-records-3-nick-drake-john-martyn-richard-thompson-celebrated/

https://songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/inside-out-john-martyn/

*Amnesia, one of my favourite RT albums contains Gypsy Love Songs and a host of other brilliant cuts. It was released in 1988, so I must have been at least seven.

Quang Tri, Vietnam

October 2015

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn