By Joseph Cortes,VERA Files
In every part of the world that Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma goes to, he makes an effort to familiarize himself with the local culture and music. By getting to know the traditional music of a country, he hopes to find ways of introducing the Arabic instrument into the local sound mix to further enlarge its compass worldwide. He is curious to hear the traditional music of the Philippines to hear if a collaboration is possible between the Arabic and Filipino sound worlds.
Shamma, who is known throughout the Arabic world today as the chief exponent of the oud,is performing at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Theater on Dec. 3, 2012, (Monday) 7 p.m. It is his first time to visit the country.
The oud is a six-stringed instrument, which is considered to be ancestor of the guitar and other similar instruments. In form, it resembles the lute, which is its closest kin. However, the musical possibilities of the oud are vastly bigger than the lute, which is not considered to be a contemporary instrument. In the Arabic world, the sound of the oud continues to be an ubiquitous presence, be it in worship, in concert halls or in the privacy of one's home.
"The oud is a very important instrument for composers and philosophers in the Arab world," he explains.
While the oud is common throughout Arab countries, he says it is only in Iraq where it is considered to be a virtuoso instrument; elsewhere, it merely provides accompaniment to singers.
Although he started studying how to play the oud when he was 11, in interviews Shamma said that even as a child he knew that he would find his calling with the instrument. He has since been bringing his knowledge of the oud to students and listeners around the world.
In fact, he is standardizing the method of oud playing in the world in order to make it a viable instrument in modern-day concerts. At his school the House of Oud in Cairo, where he is now based, he tells his students to keep an open mind about the instrument. He also exposes his students to a wide range of musical styles.
"The oud is a classic instrument," he points out. "A musician must have good technique and an open mind to be able to collaborate with other musicians. In my last concert, the oud was featured alongside a full orchestra in a program of works by Vivaldi and Paganini and my composition. It is possible to play the oud with other musicians playing other musical styles, including jazz."
His school has branches in Iraq, Abu Dhabi, Algeria and Alexandria. The school has students from around the world, and they have brought the instrument outside Arabia. The oud now has a following in Europe, as well as Muslim countries in Asia.
To enlarge the presence of the oud in contemporary times, he has been seeking new ways of promoting the instrument. As a composer and musician, he believes he must always be on the lookout for a "new sound" that would keep the public interested in listening to his instrument.
One of the new sounds he has created is a 30-man ensemble of oud players. The instruments come in four different sizes and voices. He describes the music produced by 30 oud players performing together to be a "new sound."
He has also gathered together various musicians in different groups for different occasion. His eight-man Al-Oyoin Group was designed to play contemporary Arabic chamber music. He has assembled a 70-man orchestra of Arabic and Asian musicians for collaborative sessions that have produced not just new compositions but also another "new sound." The project is a unique a meeting of musicians from the different countries in the Silk Route.
But it is not only through collaborations that Shamma has expanded the oud's sound world. Following his study of ancient manuscripts on the instrument, he created an eight-stringed instrument that was thought of more than a thousand years ago. It was never created until he made one in 1986.
He now plays both six- and eight-stringed instruments in his concerts and recordings, depending on the sound he wants to create.
"I use the eight-stringed oud for wisdom music," he declares. "It is also better for bigger spaces because it has a deeper bass and more soprano."
Because of its size, the oud possesses a small sound more suited for intimate performances. The use of microphones has greatly enhanced the instrument's sound making it suitable for any size of theater. He has performed in concerts with an audience of 4,000.
Listening of a recording of the oud cannot compare hearing and seeing the instrument played before a live audience. He hopes to share with Manila concertgoers the same experience his audience in Arab and European countries get at his shows. He will play his own compositions
"I will do my best in this concert because it is my first contact with this country," says Shamma. "I love this country. There is always a smile on everyone's faces. I feel as if I am home. I want to translate that feeling when I play my instrument."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")