|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
1 - 7 November 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The heart of the craftAs Cairo plays host to the 10th annual Arabic Music Festival, Fatemah Farag combs the backstreets of the old city in search of the soul of the oud
The audience is settling into their seats as musicians shuffle into their places on the stage. The discordant notes of various string instruments being tuned fill the air with nervous anticipation. The lights dim and the tension finally breaks as the darkened hall is overtaken with the sound of music.
As the 10th annual Arabic Musical Festival opens tonight at the Cairo Opera House, this commonplace, but always thrilling scene will play itself out once again. But one instrument -- the "sultan" of Arabic musical instruments -- will occupy pride of place: the oud.
Discerning ears will be listening for the technique of the musicians, the artistry and skill with which the oud is played. Festival audiences will look to the instrument as the star -- listen to its sound and its player. Few, if any, will give a thought to the fact that an oud is only as good as the man who crafted it.
Fathi Amin is one of Egypt's few remaining master oud craftsmen. When I phoned him, he told me his address was easy: "Just turn right from Sayeda Aisha Square and when you hit Zalouma restaurant, turn left and you will find me." Not exactly. On the afternoon I went to search him out I found myself winding deeper into the narrow alleyways of Sayeda Aisha than I had expected. When I had all but given up hope of finding him, a woman sitting in the doorway of her house told me that "the man who makes the oud" was in fact right behind me.
So small is Amin's shop, so obscure, that it is easily missed. In the midst of the ruckus of women getting their homes in order, children playing in the streets, and goats and chickens roaming in between, a small man sits bent over a finely curved piece of wood -- an oud in the making. His glasses are thick, his clothes immaculate -- brown pants and brick-red shirt. A neat black work apron is tied around his waist.
Many ouds but what of the soul
"It takes me six months to make, but let me show you what I do," he tells me before opening up a large hard leather case that takes up a third of his workspace. He pulls out a beautiful dark wooden oud inlaid with intricate floral designs in mother of pearl. "It is quite something," he almost whispers as his dark hands trace the contours of the instrument.
"The soul of the craftsman lies at the heart of the oud," Amin tells me as we sit in front of the entrance to a cemetery just outside his shop. "Every good craftsman leaves a print on his instrument -- that print is the feeling with which he made it: the feeling it will convey to those who play it and listen to it."
Amin was only 14 years old when he discovered in himself the passion that, he believes, is an absolute prerequisite for masterful craftsmanship. "I was at school, but I was so drawn to the craft that I went to Hagg Ahmed in Mobtadayan to learn. Very soon I left school and in one month I had made my first oud -- a toy which sold for 25 piastres." We both chuckled. These days, a top Amin-style oud costs up to LE15,000. "Yes, in those days you could get a good instrument for LE2," says Amin, laughing. "Our masters used to tell us that in their day it cost 30 piastres!"
It took Amin four years, however, before he became a true craftsman. Since then he has become one of Egypt's five remaining masters of the craft -- a craft which, many fear, is already in its twilight years. Customers for ouds from Amin and the handful of craftsmen of his quality are few and far between. Most oud shoppers are not very particular. Most will head for the shops clustered along Cairo's Mohamed Ali Street -- the street that has for the best part of the last century been a centre for Arabic music and entertainment.
But even here, there is trouble. In the afternoon the street is bustling with business -- but most of the business these days seems to be low-budget furniture. "The business of manufacturing classical Arabic music instruments could no longer sustain the whole street, and so we moved into something that really sells -- cheap furniture," explained one carpenter whose father used to make musical instruments. He now makes sofas.
A few have survived -- but barely. Crammed into the narrow Fayrouz shop window are an array of traditional instruments: nays (flute-like instrument), tablas (drums), and various riqs (tambourines). These, in addition to the oud and qanoon (dulcimer) are the main staples of the takht, the Arabic music band.
Standing between bags of the dried horse skin that will be used to make riqs and piles of dried fish skin, used for the tablas, Khaled, whose grandfather established the shop, lamented the decline of the family business. He spoke dismissively of modern aluminium tablas and the plastic pieces that can be found on some ouds. "Quality," he sniffed, "is not what it used to be."
"People will want an aluminium tabla because it does not break, but the old earthen tabla has much better sound," Khaled said. And that is just one example of the deterioration in the business. Dealers and manufacturers who want to survive must adapt to both higher manufacturing costs and weaker purchasing power. "Even the tourists are no longer a strong source of income." As he spoke, my eyes travelled to some particularly gaudy tablas nearby. The bodies had been designed with Pharaonic pictures and dancing girls. Khaled looked at me sheepishly and mumbled, "For the tourists."
On one of the backstreets a foul-tempered Ibrahim El-Masry oversees his craftsmen. "Everything is going from bad to worse," El-Masry declared. "Customers for a really good-quality oud do not seem to exist any more." All the same, people in the business were quick to condemn the kind of oud El-Masry's workshop produced as "a crime" and "not instruments but trash."
El-Masry obviously has a dynamic business, with at least five craftsmen working busily. The entrance to the building in which his workshop is ensconced is crowded with piles of ouds in their finishing phase. Hunched over his tea, El-Masry confided that to make a very good oud, the wood must be very dry. To dry it you cut it first and then leave it for a few months, or even a few years. "I have some of the wood that was cut 20 years ago," he says. "The kind of client who can appreciate that and make such an order is very rare nowadays."
Imprinting the soul on the oud; furniture and instruments vie for space at the workshop; on the back alley ways of Mohamed Ali Street vestiges of an old tradition are kept alive Clockwise from top: as aluminium tabla's replace those made of earthenware and the guitar moves in on the oud, what of the future; some of the makings of a takht; many ouds but what of the soul
photos: Sherif Sonbol
El-Masry is aware of the fact that times have changed. "Just watch television and see these popular singers. None of them has an oud in his band -- in fact they bring foreign musicians to play in their bands! Where are the days of Abdel- Halim [Hafez], who had not one, but two and three ouds behind him? Or Farid [Al-Atrash] and [Mohamed] Abdel-Wahab, who not only had ouds behind them but held them in their hands? Even Umm Kalthoum -- when El-Qasabgy died, she was forced to find a replacement because she could not sing without an oud. Where are we today, after days like those?"
El-Masry's workshop can turn out an oud in one week and several people may work on the same instrument. But El-Masry does not acknowledge that his shop's quick turnout and assembly-line style has compromised the quality of his product. Many of the craftsmen he employs speak with great pride of their work. Lovingly polishing the back of an oud he was working on, one craftsman, Ahmed, remarked: "I could have done something else, but I love the oud so much I could never change,"
Ahmed has been making ouds for 25 years and specialises in the "finishing." Today he finishes five to six instruments per day and he believes that "the fact that we now have around a hundred different kinds of wood to work with, as opposed to the traditional three, means that we can make things we never could before. In this way, you could say the craft has developed." He takes a moment from his work to show me the area where the sound "collects" inside the oud before it projects through the shamasy -- the lattice grids on the face of the instrument. And despite the fact that he is impressed with the variety of wood available to him, he acknowledges that "Of course, and without a doubt, the old times were much better. Today, life leaves no room for people to enjoy such things -- to appreciate them."
"Before, who was the customer of the oud?" Ahmed asks. Answering his own question, he elaborates, "If it was not a professional musician, it was someone who really loved Arabic music and wanted to play at home. Where is such appreciation of Arabic music today? Where is the time for people to indulge in what they enjoy?" On that sad note, we left him to his work in the dimly lit entrance of a crumbling building, bent over his beloved oud and listening to Abdel- Wahab crooning on the radio -- a sight and sound from a time long past.
On our way out of the alleyway, El-Masry cannot resist making one more argument: "The origin of the oud is Egyptian," he says, his scowl creasing the lines above his eyes even further. "Do not believe anyone who says otherwise. That is why the Gulf has tried to manufacture the oud and failed to make one that has a sound like ours. They brought in Indian workers and took ouds from here and pulled them apart but failed to reproduce them. There are specifications of the instrument that only the craftsman can control -- that only the craftsman knows. These cannot be copied."
Well, according to some, the instrument from which the contemporary oud descends actually originated in ancient Iraq, specifically in the Akadian era (2350-2170 bc). It was further developed in Sumerian era (2100-1950 bc) and much later on, the instrument was adopted by other societies. In Egypt, the first use of the oud is dated to the Modern Kingdom (1580-1090 bc), after it had already been adopted in the region that is now Turkey and Iran. In time, a variety of oud was taken up in both Syria and Greece, according to Mohamed El Rashidi's History of the Oud.
Master oud craftsman Amin acknowledges that the oud "did not originate here, although the harp -- which, unfortunately, we do not manufacture -- did." Yet over the years the craftsmen of the Egyptian oud developed a distinctively local sound for their instruments -- a sound that continues to be sought out by musicians both professional and amateur. And so we are back to the soul of the craftsman and the heart of the instrument -- an elusive concept that everyone involved in the craft cannot fail to make note of.
"When you ask people about how to tell a good oud from a bad one, they will tell you 'the wood'", scoffed Nasser Mustafa, who owns one of the largest musical instrument shops on Mohamed Ali Street (typically, a three-generation business). "That is because today people want something that they can see and feel with their hands, and that has become the language of our time. But what about what we feel with our hearts and our ears? If I close my eyes and listen to a good oud I can tell you who the craftsman was. A good oud conveys the feeling that moved from the hand of the craftsman to the wood he was working. And so every oud has what we call a fingerprint -- basma -- a singular mark that can only be heard and felt."
For the craftsmen who make classical Arabic instruments, this is a very concrete concept. Within Egypt there is the "real instrument" -- and the "trash." More importantly, there is the "Egyptian- ness" of the oud, which makes the Egyptian oud distinct from, say, the Iraqi or Turkish variety.
When I asked craftsmen to explain the basma further, invariably, the response I received was a partial shutting of the eyes, a sway of the body and a look of serenity on the face -- the look of someone experiencing the intense pleasure of listening to very good music. But what is that? I continued to ask stubbornly. Time and time again, I heard the metaphor of the beauty of women. Mustafa said "let us say there are two Egyptian women and both are very beautiful in their own way, but one is well-coiffed and the other has a disheveled hair-do. That would be the difference in the basma between one craftsman and the other."
With the deterioration of the craft in the country and foreign competition getting hotter, everyone makes reference to Salmeen -- a Kuwaiti company started up in the late 1980s that is making a big impact on the oud market -- not to mention the Turkish oud industry. Mustafa imports violins and electric guitars and has seen what the international market for music instruments is like. "There is a huge annual exhibition of musical instrument manufacturers held every year in Frankfurt -- over 1,460 companies exhibit. And we do not exist. There are over 15 Spanish companies that manufacture the classical guitar, and for Egypt not one oud manufacturer," lamented Mustafa.
A few days later, Amin showed me copies of letters from the German-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce informing him of the Frankfurt exhibition amidst his newspaper clippings. "How can I go?" he asked me, exasperated. "What kind of means do I have, and what can I show them?"
To highlight the problems facing oud craftsmen in Egypt, Mustafa refers to the Turkish experience. "They have price lists and Web sites on the Internet. The government has helped institutionalise the craft and in these days of globalisation, only large institutions can survive the market. In Egypt we have the little craft shop at the back of an alley. It is where the craftsman eats and drinks and makes an oud. How can these people, many of whom are very talented, compete with the institutions required by today's market? Where are the means they need to develop and survive?"
Of course, it is not the problem of the oud maker alone. "All the traditional crafts are finding themselves in a hard place today, but perhaps the oud gets the least attention from the government," noted Mustafa.
A gloomy Amin compared the future of the oud craft to the fate that has befallen the long- defunct tarboosh (fez) industry. "The manufacture of taraboosh has effectively come to an end -- the whole tradition has gone to dust. If things continue as they are today, this will happen to the oud," he told me as we sat in front of his shop. "This area was originally a cemetery," he tells me, pointing to the entrance of a mausoleum in front of us. "It has collected those who have no place else to go. The marginalised poor -- me. I once had a shop on Mohamed Ali Street. The building was brought down and the owner promised me a shop that never materialised. That was in 1979. I worked on the sidewalk for six months and eventually came here. And when I go, that will be it."
Pushed deep into the oblivion of an inhabited cemetery, Amin has been unsuccessful in developing an apprentice. "Everyone is impatient. They need to make money to live and once they learn how to make the neck of the instrument, or the face, they run off to a larger workshop where they work on what is essentially an assembly line, turning out defective instruments to make more money. No one cares that once a hundred hands have been involved in the making of the instrument it will be no good -- it will have no heart because no real care went into its making."
young man playing the oud depicted on an Iraqi ceramic from the ninth century A.D
Back on Mohamed Ali Street, Mustafa is vehement that if things go on as they are today, oud- making in Egypt will have disappeared within a decade or two. "In Turkey, for example, they have the right finish, the right attention to perfection of quality. But here we have the right mood if you will -- the mood that comes from within our alleyways and our streets. The instrument is like the musician. For example, today you have a school at the Opera House specialised in the oud. But the emphasis is on technique. People learn to excel in making the instrument do what it was never able to do before. A skill learned with many long hours of practice and learning. But El-Qasabgy could do the simplest thing and it would be the most beautiful. He could execute that which is simple but impossible to attain -- something everyone could do, but couldn't. That is the mood," Mustafa told me.
So what is required to keep the craft of the oud -- the mood, the fingerprint, the Egyptian-ness, the heart and the soul -- alive? "Excellent and dedicated craftsmen," is Mustafa's simple and direct answer. Amin agrees, elaborating: "A school for the craft is desperately needed. I have called on the government many times to respond to this need. Give us a faculty at a vocational school -- anything -- but no one has answered and the master craftsmen left are all over 65. We are not going to last forever and we are willing to work, even for free. Also there should be a body that inspects the ouds exported from Egypt to make sure they satisfy certain quality requirements. Only in these ways can we protect the craft."
As far as Mustafa is concerned, "The Oriental feel of the Egyptian oud is exclusively ours. It is a feeling that belongs to us from A to Z. If someone else can recreate it, then we are worth nothing. If we cannot protect that and preserve it, we will have lost our soul."
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