While the music lives on, ensuring that the oud maintains its timeless magic requires dedication and commitment.
The calluses on Amro Fawzy’s hands tell the entire story. For 20 years, the Egyptian oud maker has eked out a living by meticulously assembling models of the traditional Arabian instrument from scratch – and by hand.
But this is more than a chore for the seasoned artisan: the pride and emotional satisfaction he derives from the painstaking routine outweighs anything else.
“The oud has transcended its role of being merely a musical instrument. It has become a symbol of identity in the Arab culture,” says Amro, who since 2008 has been the master craftsman at Bait Al Oud, the music institute managed by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.
Touted as the ‘father of all musical instruments’ in the Middle East and the ‘grandfather of the guitar’, it is estimated that the oud has been around for as long as 5,000 years, based on archaeological findings in ancient Mesopotamia.
The pear-shaped instrument has played a major role in shaping Arabic civilisation, making its way into every facet of the culture from literature and entertainment to philosophy and religion.
However, the art of oud-making has taken a significant hit over the years due to a number of reasons, including lack of training opportunities for aspiring young craftsmen, and instability in countries like Syria and Iraq – two countries that are home to multiple oud workshops.
Safe and sound
Part of Bait Al Oud’s goal is to help keep the Arabic culture alive both in the region and internationally. This is being done through lessons offered to those who want to learn how to play the oud and by organising public performances in an effort to bring the timeless lute closer to the public.
The institution is also set to start selling its own handcrafted oud instruments to retail outlets in the UAE and further afield in an effort to further spread awareness about it and the entire culture surrounding it.
At present, Bait Al Oud sells the instruments in-house with prices starting at AED 7,000, and with an aim to export by 2019.
Currently, the centre’s workshop, manned by Amro and an assistant, produces six models per month built around a total span of 22 working days.
While that may sound low in terms of output, it’s worth noting that each piece is created 90 percent by hand – with Amro himself painstakingly doing the measuring, cutting, carving and assembling of the materials to produce a single unit.
The wood materials – namely, rosewood, spruce, cedar and mahogany – are imported from India, Canada and America.
“The combination of these wood materials gives our oud that superb quality in terms of durability and acoustics,” Amro proudly points out, while showing the wood’s thick exterior for emphasis.
“There are only five oud workshops in the world that produce this same kind of quality. Other products in the market, while fine for practising with, are not as durable, and experienced players will know the difference when they use one.”
Aside from hoping to someday use a locally sourced wood, Amro dreams of finding more time to teach younger craftsmen the art of oud making.
“That is something that I would love to do more,” he beams. “Passing on my knowledge would help the tradition to live on for future generations. We need more oud makers.”
But what does it take to be a good oud maker?
“You have to love the instrument, first and foremost,” advises Amro, whose own journey started from learning how to play the oud.
“Building this kind of instrument, or any instrument for that matter, is never easy, so you have to have the heart to complement your skills to be able to stay in the game.
“You’re not just building an instrument; you’re upholding a rich culture that has stood the test of time.”
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez