The magic lute
In the buildup to a House of Oud concert held during Ramadan, Giuseppe Acconcia speaks to one of Nasir Shamma's brighter students
Bahir Ghazi, 21, oud player and teacher, is preparing for his 12 of September performance at the Amir Taz Palace. When I meet him, in the small square near Beit Al-Harawi, a big concert is taking place. It is one of many events organised for the end of Ramadan. Historical buildings in Islamic Cairo, Beit Al-Harawi, the Ghoury Palace, Beit Al-Sehemy and the Amir Taz Palace host traditional oud concerts until the 25th day of the month. In the extremely interesting courtyard of this palace, built in 1731, 23 musicians, among them six women, are comfortably seated. Al-Harawi, restored in the 1990s by a joint French-Egyptian project, hosts the Arab House of Oud, run by the famous Iraqi oud player and composer Nasir Shamma. Bahir conducts the musicians in the absence of the master. When Nasir arrives, he gives the rhythm, and Bahir gives up his position in the middle of the small orchestra, letting his maestro take over.
"We composed two pieces during this rehearsal", Bahir explains. He admires his teacher very much. "I grew up in southern Syria, in the town of Daraa. When I was young, I used to listen to Nasir Shamma. I fell in love with the way he mixes the traditional Iraqi technique with new sounds and distortions. And so I was enthusiastic when, after his concert in Damascus, he wanted to listen to my music. After that, I was invited to Cairo and he supported me financially on my trip. Finally, I moved to Egypt three years ago."
According to Bahir, Nasir is one of the most talented oud players in Egypt. And the Cairo scene is the best in the world regarding Arab traditional music. "Mounir Bashir and Hazem Shahin are among my favourite musicians. I started learning the Iraqi techniques, concerning how the pick touches the strings. I was later introduced to the Turkish school of harmonious sounds for the sake of spiritual peacefulness. More recently, I have been fascinated by the Egyptian style, which aims to excite the public".
Bahir is proud to be part of an orchestra. "It is a new idea to put together more then 10 or 14 oud instruments. The biggest success was two years ago in Abu Dhabi, where 60 performers took part in a single concert". Bahir became a teacher in the Arab oud school, but his passion is the live performance. "I teach technique of music at the second year of our Academy, where also the expert of theory of music, Ahmad Tawil, teaches. But I flip when I see a good student giving up. For this reason, I prefer live performances".
One of Bahir's best concerts took place in Qatar last year. "They invited us for a ten-minute performance. We played in the presence of five heads of state who had come from all over the Arab world". One of his next concerts will be on the islands La Reunion, French territory. He will play with the great talent, Mahmoud Abu Zikri, a young oud musician who has moved to Lyon for his studies. "Mahmoud is one of the best musicians among the new generation, his concert in the French Cultural Centre of Cairo was amazing. Moreover, he won the most important prize for oud players under 20 in Damascus".
Two days later, in the courtyard of the Amir Taz Palace, all the members of the orchestra, ranging in age from 15 to 50, dress in white shirts, sit around. Nasir Shamma introduces the pieces to be played to a huge audience. His compositions are performed: "A flying bird" by Munir Bashir, "When will you know that I love you", the Asmhaan song, and -- for Bahir's solo -- "Touta" by Fard El Atrash. After the successful concert, I talk to Bahir again.
"I was surprised during the performance because Nasir introduced me as the first solo player," he says. After him, the two youngest musicians of the orchestra played.
The interpretation of the group was excellent with the exception of a few elements that were not totally in tune with the rest of the players. In those last days of Ramadan, the old Cairo breathes the atmosphere of the feast. And the new generation of musicians and composers are the protagonists of the events on show.