More than just a musical instrument, the oud has endured the passage of time and has played an important role in Middle Eastern civilisation.
Writer Ferdinand Godinez heads to the house of oud in an effort to discover the instrument’s magic – one string at a time.
What’s an oud?
The oud – which translates to both ‘from wood’ and ‘stick’ in Arabic – is a short-neck, pear-shaped stringed instrument that’s comprised of 11 or 13 strings, which are grouped in courses of five or six.
Considered one of the oldest stringed instruments, the Arabic oud is very much embedded in Middle Eastern culture and served as a companion to nomads and desert tribes throughout the ages. Famed philosophers including Al Farabi, Al Kindi, and Ibn Sina are believed to have based their thinking about music on knowledge garnered from the instrument and its influence is also thought to have contributed to the development of Western music.
How does it work?
Wanting to get my hands on the ancient instrument, I find myself at Bait Al Oud, the music institute backed by the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi with the primary task of preserving the UAE’s musical heritage and developing a new generation of local musicians.
After exchanging pleasantries, my teacher Sherine Tohamy wastes no time in handing me an oud and a risha (plectrum), which is what I’ll use to strum and pluck the strings when playing.
Sherine then asks me to place my right foot on a footstool under my chair. I’m about to find out why.
As it turns out, holding the oud steady is a frustrating task. The instrument’s bowl-like shape makes it challenging and awkward to keep it in position. The footstool acts as a base to try to keep the leg steady and hold the oud in the correct spot. Assuming a straight sitting position when playing is also imperative to ensure balance and a good grip of the instrument.
Playing the oud requires lots of scaling motions, meaning your fingers will be working overtime crawling across the strings.
Unlike the guitar, which I often play, the oud doesn’t rely on chords, which means you need to continuously pluck the strings to create melodies – no easy task.
Now, do you have to be familiar with the guitar to effectively play the oud? The answer is yes – and no.
Knowing how to play another stringed instrument gives you the advantage of being comfortable when it comes to moving your fingers across multiple strings. But the technique used to play the oud is different than that of the guitar, and with no chords to master it’s quite a unique experience. I soon realise that while my musical knowledge helps me in terms of finger dexterity, the skills required to play scales on a short-neck, fretless instrument is totally new territory and an exercise in patience to say the least.
Was it fun?
Despite the challenges, I find myself thoroughly enjoying learning to play the oud.
Sherine helps me to master basic scales, patiently guiding me step-by- step as I struggle to shift from string to string, occasionally producing dead notes along the way.
Like any musical instrument, mastering it requires enormous patience, practice and commitment.
If you’re already fond of musical instruments, you may find the oud a great means for adding a new string to your bow. As a melodic instrument, it’s a good choice if you’re looking to sharpen your ability to listen to, and then replicate, tunes by ear.
On the flipside, not knowing how to play the guitar, or any other stringed instrument for that matter, won’t hugely disadvantage you as learning to play this ageless instrument is a unique experience – which is why I can certainly see myself picking up the oud for
AED 3,255 for three months, AED 5,775 for six months of sessions. Discounts may be available. Bait Al Oud, Villa 72, Malqatah Street, Al Nahyan. Sun-Thu 10am-10pm and Sat 6pm-10pm. Contact: 02 641 5699, abudhabimusic.ae
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez