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The Iraqi oud's journey, from prosperity to the brink of extinction, underscores the need for efforts to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage.
Hussein Ali Alzoubi
The oud instrument holds a unique significance in Iraq and is cherished by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi oud has consistently been in high demand both in Arab and foreign markets. Nevertheless, the industry is currently confronted with significant challenges that threaten its existence.
Most sources concur that Iraq is the ancestral home of the oud, which emerged as the earliest stringed instrument around 3000 years ago during the Sumerian and Akkadian civilisations.
Myths Surrounding the Origins of the Oud
Studies and opinions regarding the origins of the oud are conflicting. Some accounts resort to myth when discussing the instrument’s invention.
According to one narrative mentioned by the Sultan Qaboos Higher Centre for Culture and Science, the oud was invented by Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Mehujael, son of Irad, son of Enoch, son of Cain, son of Adam. Lamech, who experienced immense joy with the birth of a son ten years before his death, faced tragedy when the boy died at the age of five.
Distraught, Lamech hung the child’s body on a tree, vowing to keep his image before him until his death. The story continues, “His flesh kept falling from the bones until nothing remained but the leg. Then Lamech shaped a wooden stick to resemble the leg, from the thigh to the foot. He hung strings on it to resemble the veins and then began to cry and wail with it until he went blind. He was the first to mourn and sing about the loss of his son, and the instrument that accompanied him was called the oud.”
There are various claims about the origins of the oud. Some sources suggest that the first person to craft the oud was Jamshid, a Persian king mentioned in Shahnameh and Zoroastrian accounts. He supposedly named it Barbat, meaning the door to salvation. Another belief is that the oud emerged during the reign of the Prophet David.
Additionally, it’s been mentioned that the jinn created the oud for the Prophet Solomon. While Arab sources attribute the invention of the oud to Lamech, the Torah attributes it to Jubal, the son of Lamech, who is described as “the father of all who play the harp and flute.”
In his book al-Kamil, the Abbasid philologist al-Mubarrad asserts that Prophet Noah was the first to craft the oud. On the other hand, the prominent archaeological researcher Sobhi Anwar Rashid affirms that the earliest evidence of the oud’s existence dates back to ancient Iraq during the Akkadian era, between 2350 and 2150 BC.
Journey of Strings
The philosopher al-Kindi wrote seven treatises on music, including his work on the introduction to music making. Al-Kindi said the oud was already known in the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia.
In its early form, the oud had only three strings, a compact music box and a long neck without any tuning pegs. However, during the Islamic era, the soundboard was expanded, a fourth string was added, and the base of the pegbox was introduced.
Antiquities from the Akkadian era indicate that the oud originated in the third millennium BC.
At the time, it had one string and was distinguished by its long neck and small soundbox. As it moved to Persia around 1700 BC, two more strings were added, bringing the total to three. A significant development in the evolution of the oud occurred at the hands of the renowned musician Ziryab.
Abu al-Hassan Ali bin Nafi’ al-Mawsili, commonly known as Ziryab, was born in the Iraqi city of al-Ray. He lived during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Ziryab earned his nickname due to the sweetness of his voice, speech eloquence and dark skin colour. Ziryab refers to a black bird with a sweet voice, now commonly known as the blackbird.
In Baghdad, Ziryab introduced a fourth string to the oud. Following his rise to prominence in the city, he disagreed with his teacher, Ishaq al-Mawsili and, in response, relocated to Andalusia.
In Andalusia, Ziryab added a fifth string to the oud. Additionally, he introduced a novel practice by using eagle feathers as a pick instead of a wooden pick.
Iraq is renowned for adding the oud’s remaining strings. However, Iraqi musicians have differing opinions regarding the introduction of the sixth string.
In an interview with the Saudi newspaper al-Yaum, the well-known Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma credited Muhammad Salem Bey with adding the sixth string around two centuries ago. On the other hand, the Iraqi Watar7 Center for Art & Sustainable Development attributes the addition of the sixth string to Sharif Muhyiddin Haidar.
The seventh string of the oud is ascribed to musician Rouhi al-Khammash, who hails from Palestinian origins. With this addition, the oud’s sounds are complete across its three stages: qarar (tonic), jawab (octave) and jawabul jawab.
Recently, Naseer Shamma introduced an oud with eight strings. In an interview with al-Yaum newspaper, Shamma explained, “I created the octagonal oud, which is not my invention but rather the oud of the philosopher al-Farabi. A thousand years ago, al-Farabi designed this oud with eight strings and presented it to the governor. I found the manuscript and verified it.” Shamma further mentioned, “In 1986, when I was a student, I presented it in Baghdad. It was like a doctoral thesis as it involved a year of research and another year for the manufacturing process.”
According to Shamma, al-Farabi wanted this octagonal oud to encompass all human voices, including “bass, tenor, alto, soprano and mezzo-soprano.” Shamma elaborates, “Humans fall within the scope of these sounds, and all of them are absorbed by the octagonal oud, which is a genius invention by al-Farabi that almost combines all the octaves of the qanun (zither), which al-Farabi also invented.”
It is worth noting that the prevalent oud used by prominent players in this era is the six-string oud.
Iraqi Oud Features
The Iraqi oud adheres to standardised measurements, with a total length of 91 cm and a neck measuring 19 cm. The Egyptian oud stands as an exception, featuring a neck of 20 cm and sometimes 21 cm.
Emirati researcher Faisal al-Sirri affirms that the fundamental measurements of the Iraqi oud are grounded in precise mathematical and physical calculations that allow no margin for error.
The Emirati newspaper al-Bayan featured al-Sirri’s research titled ‘Scientific Measurements of the Oud Instrument,’ in which he asserted that “through ongoing exploration for the optimal scientific dimensions of the oud instrument that offer the best capabilities for the oudist, the researchers determined that the ideal length for the oud’s neck is 19 cm. This measurement facilitates better control for the oudist than any other measurement.”
According to Muhammad Fadel al-Awwad, a celebrated Iraqi oud craftsman, the Iraqi oud is crafted from several types of high-quality wood. This meticulous selection suits each part of the oud, enhancing its sound to be more beautiful, sweeter and with more prolonged vibrations.
Najm al-Awwad, another skilled craftsman from the same family, explains that the body of the Iraqi oud, also known as the belly or bowl, is crafted from two types of wood: Roman beech and walnut. The pegs are typically made of black ebony or walnut, while the pegbox is constructed from beech or Indian rosewood.
The neck of the oud is crafted from walnut, and a nut is affixed to its end to secure it to the oud’s body. This is done to reinforce the neck and enhance its flexibility. The soundboard is typically made from white spruce wood. The wood needs to be free of knots, and the grains should be closely spaced. The greater the number of grains, the finer the soundboard, and the better the wood will withstand stress.
Najm al-Awwad emphasises that where the oud’s sound quality is concerned, the soundboard holds greater significance than the bowl, which reflects the sound through the three holes on the soundboard. The lighter the soundboard, the more resonant and mellow the sound.
However, it should not compromise on durability. Ideally, the thickness of the soundboard should be around 2 mm and composed of two or three pieces, with a preference for two pieces. Ensuring symmetry on the left and right sides is crucial for natural and harmonious vibrations and sounds.
The soundboard is secured on seven wooden braces crafted from the same wood. These braces are glued and fixed on top of the bowl. The braces must not pass underneath the bridge used for tightening as this would dampen the oud’s sound.
The bridge, made of beech wood, is perforated with ten or twelve holes, depending on the number of strings on the instrument in question. It is carefully glued to the soundboard, ensuring that both will withstand the tension of the strings during and after installation.
Al-Awadin Market, situated along al-Rashid Street in central Baghdad, is one of the oldest in the Iraqi capital and focuses on culture and the arts. It hosts numerous artistic cafes and scholarly libraries, especially on al-Mutanabbi Street.
Given the presence of workshops dedicated to handmade oud, this market is the perfect destination for those seeking to acquire an Iraqi oud. Various types of wood, such as walnut and lemonwood, are used to craft the oud, each imparting its unique influence on sound quality.
The challenge facing the oud industry is not related to materials but rather concerns the diminishing number of craftsmen specialising in handcrafting the instruments. At present, these skilled artisans are no more than a handful. In combination with the adoption of “mechanised” production methods in some countries, the profession runs the risk of disappearing.
The families that produce ouds are committed to handing down the craft to their children. Fouad Jihad, the master of the Iraqi oud makers, began making ouds in 1958 and has since passed on the art to his son Laith.
Currently, Laith manages his father’s workshop and, in turn, imparts the profession to his son Hussein. Despite studying pharmacy, Hussein actively participates in the workshop alongside his education.
The commitment to preserving the oud crafting tradition extends beyond the Fouad family to include several other families in this field.
Noteworthy contributors include Ali al-Abdali, Ali al-Ajmi, and his son Muhammad, Alwan al-Saleh, Najm Aboud, Najah al-Baghdadi and Muhammad Fadel al-Awad. Muhammad Fadel’s name gained prominence in the 1950s. His reputation was such that Oxford University acquired one of his ouds for display in its museum. The mere presence of his signature on an oud is enough to increase its value.
Iraq’s modern era has seen the oud swing from prosperity to the risk of extinction. The 1970s and 1980s, characterised by the numerous cultural and artistic festivals hosted in Baghdad, marked a golden period for the instrument.
However, all the challenges that have plagued Iraq since the 1990s have led to a dwindling interest in oud manufacturing. The oud industry is at risk of fading unless measures are taken to preserve it. Without protection, Iraq stands to lose a cultural legacy that would be difficult to replace.