Spotlight on Oud Masters

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Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem Photo courtesy of and © Marco Borggreve/ECM Records

I recently saw the African strings trio 3MA in concert at the Getty Center here in Los Angeles. The three “MA”s stand for MAroc, MAdagascar, and MAli—the countries that the musicians call home. Driss el Maloumi (oud, Morocco, aka Maroc), Ballaké Sissoko (kora, Mali), and Rajery (valiha, Madagascar) completely wowed and charmed the audience that night with their masterful performance. Three artists from three countries weaving together the sound of three different instruments and musical traditions proved once again that music can bring people together like no other art.

I loved Driss el Maloumi’s playing so much that it inspired this spotlight and playlist on the oud, the Arabic lute. The oud (also spelled Üd) is the progenitor of the European lute and guitar. Prominent in medieval Islamic music, the instrument came into Ottoman Spain in the 13th century. It is a pan-Arab instrument, played in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran, and Turkey. Some music historians say the oud originated from the Persian barbat.

The oud usually has 11 or 13 strings, which are played with a plectrum (pick). The neck is shorter than a guitar’s and has a small extension at the top that slants 90 degrees from the main stem. The neck is unfretted, permitting the musician to play quarter tones, the notes-between-the-notes of the European/Western scale that is typical of Arabic music. The European scale and music system is based on an 8-note diatonic scale and a 12-note chromatic scale. The quarter-tone nature of much Arabic (and Indian) music means that there are many more notes in an octave—quarter-tone notes that may sound “wrong” to Western ears upon first hearing. For me, it’s the quarter tone that gives Arabic music its unique character. 

The oud has been called “the king, sultan, or emir of musical instruments.” It is indeed a gorgeous instrument, crafted from a range of light woods, including maple, walnut, palisander, and mahogany. The top surface, like modern guitars, is made of spruce. The bowl is often striped and ornamented, with the rosette covering the sound hole carved from ivory, bone, or horn. I interviewed Egyptian oud master Hamza el Din years ago, and the Arabic writing on his rosette noted the type of wood, the date and place of creation, and the name of the luthier who made it. I’ll never forget what he said when I asked him where and when he found his beautiful oud: “McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 1966”!

In this week’s playlist I showcase the oud and the top musicians who play it, such as Egyptian giant Farid El Atrache, Iraqis Munir Bashir and Naseer Shamma, Tunisian Anouar Brahem, Algerian Alla, Syrian Abed Azrié, Armenian-American Ara Dinkjian (founding member of the group Night Ark), Turkish maestro Necati Çelik, and the aforementioned Hamza el Din. Some tracks are solo and spare, while others are orchestrated. I think some of the purist solo oud comes from the late Iraqi master Munir Bashir. I particularly love his album Mesopotamia.

3MA, the trio that inspired this spotlight post:

NPR’s tiny desk concert by Iraqi-American oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj: