Naseer Shamma: Guardian of sound
As early as age five, Iraqi composer Naseer Shamma knew he was destined for the lute. Indeed since then he has spent his life learning, teaching and travelling in search of this instrument, giving endlessly of his imagination to listeners not only in the Middle East and North Africa but the world over. His technical prowess is bewitching, but rather than making for a dry performance, it transforms listening into a mystical experience. All it takes him is a properly tuned oud to lead you far into the depths of metaphysics, then back onto the political plane.
By Serene Assir
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'Nothing about the oud is sacred. Only God is sacred. No rules or limitations can stand between music and me, because this is what gives me life: to create something new where there was nothing before'
Downtown Cairo is suffocating. Unable to battle the heat any longer, I fall asleep in the back seat of the stalling taxi. Sweet slumber can't be had for long, however, for crawling around the vehicle in their dozens, other cars begin to honk their horns; no one can take the traffic, it seems. When finally we make it up the bridge and into Islamic Cairo, the streets have grown significantly quieter.
Beyond Al-Hussein Mosque and to the right, past Ghouriya and Al-Azhar, I arrive at a spot so beautiful and removed it seems hardly different from the land in which I took refuge during the traffic jam. And checking the time I breathe a sigh of relief: I am not late for Naseer Shamma, the man whose name has become, paradoxically in this electronic age of ours, synonymous with classical Arabic music and its instrument of composition, the oud. So much so that the office in which we are meeting, the headquarters of a school he set up in October 1998, is labelled Beit Al-Oud (House of the Oud). A unique initiative, Beit Al-Oud is Shamma's way of sharing knowledge and skill with students from all over the world. And he chose the perfect setting for such a brave endeavour: the historical house of Al-Harrawi.
A remarkable monument, Beit Al-Harrawi, as it is better known, reflects the absolute peace for which Shamma's music strives. The courtyard, in which young men and women practise, is like the invisible core, the heart of the oud ; it has perfect acoustics, too, a place "where the imagination can be truly free". This notion is linked to perfect technique, something of which Shamma is a firm proponent. And watching him play in close-up demonstrates, to an even greater extent than in concert, just how astounding perfect technique can be. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, "this is not my oud, you'll have to forgive me," the eye can hardly follow his fingers; so fast, fluid, coordinated and, importantly, well timed, is their movement.
But it is impossible to separate technique from imagination, Shamma insists: "Technique is a prerequisite for the imagination, it must come first. I worked on mine for years before I let myself go to the places I imagined. The imagination is born only once the musician can translate it into sound, real sound -- and this can only be done through mastering technique. Otherwise the mind remains stilted, it cannot give life to new music. There are hundreds of musicians in the world, but only a chosen few can heighten the sensitivity of a given instrument. Not until you achieve a correct reading of an instrument can you extract a sound that speaks to the soul."
And such a feat requires experience: "A musician must read -- both music and words -- and he must search far and wide to attain an experience strong enough to emerge fearlessly." A constant theme, this: the bid to liberate humanity of fear, which constitutes the greatest obstacle in the way of expression and hence realisation. On his own personal journey, Shamma says, he has moved further and further away from fear; to a point where he no longer acknowledges its existence anywhere in himself. In musical terms this translates to ceaseless mental activity -- a kind of endless preparation, technical, physical and spiritual. The idea is to move away from the everyday and into a private retreat in which he can play -- and play.
"There are no rules as to how a new piece comes about," Shamma says. "Sometimes, I try and try -- nothing happens. At other times, perhaps when I least expect it, inspiration comes. I must play. I may be with friends, in the middle of something. But an idea flashes and I must translate it to sound. I must disengage from the mundane to realise what comes to me, in the form of sound." Surely, then, he will find inspiration beyond the experience of art? "Music is such an integral means of expression it must have the capacity to say all that I might want to say myself, at any level," Shamma responds. "While many classical musicians are happier respecting the so called rules and laws of oud music, for me nothing about the oud is sacred. Only God is sacred. No rules or limitations can stand between music and me, because this is what gives me life: to create something new where there was nothing before."
Much of this musician's strength derives directly from self belief. He has no doubt that there is a small planet somewhere in the universe that guides true "creators". And he believes in fate: "Why does someone take up the oud at the very early age of five? Think about it: my generation was far more curious about pop and what we call Western instruments. I had no idea why I wanted to learn the oud, I simply had to follow a hunch -- the idea was born with me." Shamma goes even further: a Sumerian oud player embarked on a musical mission thousands of years ago; he died before completing it. "I exist so as to accomplish what he left undone."
Such madness pays off, too: Shamma has succeeded where few Arab artists have even dared venture in these politically stagnant, silent, escapist times. Where others contribute to the illusion that poverty and injustice do not exist in the Middle East, that neither Iraq nor Palestine places the region under greater and greater pressure, Shamma produces work of great beauty that reminds of the political realities of life here. Yet he is able to do so, he says, thanks to a humanist, rather than a political, focus: "I am a firm believer in tolerance, in respecting difference -- and in the right of every human being to a just life. Ever since the first Intifada I have been vocal about Palestine -- for me the struggle for justice is restricted by neither space nor time. But perhaps it also has to do with the fact that, ever since I was little, my friends and I would pool our efforts in solidarity, gather our savings and send them to Palestinian children -- just to let them know they were not alone, that there were people who lived beyond their predicament yet still sympathised with them."
In 1986, he even wrote a piece about Hiroshima -- "in memory of those who suffered there". In beauty as in suffering, humanity transcends borders, a notion Shamma insists must be expressed through art. "The other," he says, "is but a reflection of the self -- my mirror." Though he has lived outside Iraq for 12 years now -- "I really want to return," he says, "but when the time is right." He has regularly dedicated concerts to the plight of his country. Never directly political, he has nonetheless been engaged in a long-standing struggle for justice, born, perhaps, out of the bleak political circumstances surrounding his life: "Though it is my fundamental belief that an artist must be removed from politics, [political] awareness is inevitable."
Experience became too real, the effects of politics on his life too tangible, for disengagement to be viable for long. The memory of Saddam Hussein's efforts to divide Iraq along sectarian lines has a marked effect on his voice, and makes his manner more vigorous, indignant: "There was never any sectarianism in Iraq. Shias, Sunnis -- we'd complete our university degree course without finding out which of us belonged to which sect. Now look what's happening -- the Americans are drafting a so-called constitution that draws on nothing but sectarian affiliations, which are completely alien to us, whether politically, socially -- or personally."
Disengaged as an artist should be, Shamma paid a high price for speaking out against injustice: "I spent 170 days in prison and I was condemned to death without the benefit of a trial. Not until the day came for my sentence to be carried out did the government give way to the demands of local and international organisations calling for my freedom, realising that killing me could only cause trouble, particularly since they had no real charge against me. They did decide to teach me a lesson." Shamma does not lose his poise for an instant, "by killing my sister and her four children -- just before releasing me. Officially, they died in a car accident. But assassinations were routinely described in this way by the authorities. It allowed them to convey the message they wanted without in any way implicating themselves."
In Iraq, he remembers, anyone who spoke against the government was automatically risking his life: "Saddam was sacred, and so the authorities decided to teach me a lesson." Surprisingly, however, on his release, and following the death of his sister, Shamma became more vocal than ever. "No one could believe that I wasn't in some way a protégé of the regime, for I was speaking and working truly without a hint of fear -- somehow I transcended fear, after these experiences. I wrote music that referred directly to that ordeal and I played them in government-owned cultural centres; government employees formed the bulk of the audience, too."
Likewise, now, Shamma absolutely rejects American presence -- and political manoeuvring: "Iraq is as far from democracy and sovereignty as it has been for decades. Iraq must see the end of foreign intervention, the destruction of its culture, its people and its history. I dream that one day I will live in a free Iraq, a country that boasts political transparency, a humane regime, democratic process -- though I suspect democracy doesn't actually exist anywhere in the world. The US have simply erased whole segments of what the Iraqis hold dearest; libraries have been burnt, and so has culture -- the soul. Americans like to do that: to encroach on a people and destroy its identity. And because they entered the country with no strategy other than to wreak havoc they paid a high price, but we have paid an even higher one."
Much as he suffered at the hands of the former Iraqi government, "Saddam is no different from any other Arab dictator. All Arab states are rife with political assassinations and incarcerations, and no one is truly free in the Arab world today. The US invasion had solely political and strategic ends -- nothing to do with democracy. The proof of this is that the new so-called leaders are routinely searched by American soldiers on their way into government buildings. Simply by looking at that fact, we know who's in power. If Saddam had been a saint, the Americans would have done the same. All that talk of freedom and democracy -- lies."
Shamma remains hopeful in that he believes the Iraqi people, their inherent pride and capacity to resist injustice, as much as he believes in himself: "Thousands of people died trying to oust Saddam, no way they will be silent about the US presence. They will resist until the occupation ends, whatever the price." Likewise, in his own career, Shamma wants to go on fighting -- to translate his dreams into reality. With branches of Beit Al-Oud opening across the world -- the latest addition being in Murcia, Spain -- the composer is seeking to enable students all over the world to share his love of the oud : "Humanity has failed to form a true global understanding through politics -- the UN is the proof of this -- music has succeeded. Imagine a global orchestra, with people from all over the world playing music, for all of the world."