MENA 101 is a series of featured articles about living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These posts include MENA history and culture, as well as advice for students preparing for travel to the MENA region. We welcome submissions from alumni of AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs. Please send your articles and photos to DocsEdAbroad@AMIDEAST.org!
If you do not know much about the Middle East or you are not a musician, you may not know about the oud. The oud is said to pre-date the lute and guitar. It is a stringed, gourd-shaped, instrument with four to six pairs of strings tuned to the same note. There are several regional styles in which the oud is played, among these are Syrian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Iranian. These styles are much like Arabian dialects; indiscernible to the foreigner, but to an expert, they tell stories about where the player is from. Since the oud has pairs of strings which are played together instead of individual strings like the guitar, the tone has a unique echoing sound which sets it apart from other stringed instruments.
The neck of the oud has no frets, so it is played completely by ear. It can be a quite a task for one learning how to play, especially when tuning the oud. The lack of frets also allows for more fluidity in the Middle Eastern scales than Western ears are used to. In Middle Eastern music, they have quarter tones. They sit between a note and its flat or sharp. To a Westerner, it may sound off-key. Played in context as a scale or song, the note has a unique sound that creates a step between the moods of major and minor keys.
Music in the Middle East is said to have gone through a ‘dark age’, during the time of the Ottomans and the British/French mandates (spanning around 700 years). This has not been helped by the fact that history in the region tends to be passed down orally. As a result, much of the traditional music history has been lost, although the songs have not. The most famous oud players have made their names in the past 100 years, unlike the great Western musicians, such as Bach, Mozart, and others. A few famous oud players are Nasseer Shamma, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed al-Qasabgi, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Munir Bashir. Despite these expert oud players, there are many songs that are very old, but are not attributed to a particular artist.
The cultural role the oud plays is similar to a piano, as the music played on the oud tends to be considered more traditional whether or not the musical piece is old. You can find the oud in ensembles, but often if you stumble across a cafe or restaurant with an oud player, it will be played solo. As a traveler to the Middle East, you will likely see ouds, whether they are being played by a musician in a cafe, or hanging from the ceiling in the tourist shop. If you get a chance to visit a Bedouin camp overnight, they will often play music and dance around a campfire in the evening. Especially for the musically inclined, it is a definite treat to see an oud in action.