Middle Eastern Music and the Art of ‘Ud

Here is a very interesting essay about Middle Eastern music written by professor Simon Jargy in 1971. Enjoy!

The Islamic civilization of the Arab world inherited many of the ancient traditions of the Near East and has always placed music at the forefront of the ‘supreme arts’, assigning it divine origins and a magical effect which is still known to these days as tarab, literally ‘ecstatic state’.

‘Thus, when Moses encountered God in the Sinai Desert, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and said: “Strike the rock with your rod”. And twelve springs gushed forth, each one giving a different and pleasing sound (sawt). The are the origin of the twelve maqam or basic classical modes. By virtue of a divine gift each of the great prophets sang in a different maqam: Adam in the maqam Rast, Moses in ‘Ushaq, Joseph in Iraq, Jonas in Ma a-Nahr, David in Hasayni, Abraham in Hijaz and Ismael in the maqam Nawa.’

Music is then of divine origin and its genesis is directly linked with Creation and the cosmos: the planets and all the elements of nature form a setting in which music has an integral part. This gives rise to a symbolic vision of the universe, according to which the two principles of creation – the god of good and the god of evil – were both singers and everything is animated by music, which is itself part of god; the planets which guide man’s destiny play a primordial role. Each of the twelve maqam corresponds to one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. This in turn leads to associations with the four elemenrs: wind, fire, earth and water, as well as with numerals and letters of the alphabet, in a mystical allegory. Asthe 10th century chronicler Abd Al-Mu’min al-Balkhi, wrote: ‘The maqam Rast is influenced by fire, its sign is Aries and its hour Venus in the 3rd sphere of Friday. The maqam Ushaq is under the influence of water, Gemini is its sign and its hour is Mercury in the 2nd sphere of Wednesday…’. It is not therefore surprising to find that behind this symbolism lies the theory of ethos, of temperament (tabe’), so dear to the Greeks, which is affected by different climatic conditions and the psycho-physiological states of man. Just as each maqam manifests heat, cold, humidity or dryness, it is also linked to spiritual states: joy, sadness, serenity etc.

This same vision applies also to instruments of music, to which biblical sources attribute identical origins: it is written that Allah gave to the sons of Cain the faculty of making musical instruments: Lamek madetha lute (‘ud), Tubal invented the drum (daff or tabl), Dilal (the daughter of Noah) the harp (mi’zaf), and Lot’s people the pandore (tunbur).

But it was the ‘ud which was to enjoy an unrivalled prestige in Islamic civilization throughout the Middle Ages. It is rather amazing to think that this simple and unpretentious-looking pear-shaped box with its five or six double strings – the Iraqi ‘ud of Munir Bashir has a supplementary pedal string – would seem to indicate that it derived from the musical bow, which was one of the earliest fruitsof human endeavour in the realms of art. It was a favourite instrument of the Sumerians and the Assyro-Babylonians. It is mentioned in the Bible and was featured in the instrumental ensembles of the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC). It quickly established itself as the undisputed aristocrat of classical Islamic music and reached its zenith at the time of the ‘Abbassid Caliphs: every page of the fabulous Thousand and One Nights of 9th and10th century Baghdad resounds to its magical tones. Moreover, the founder of the ‘ud school of Baghdad, Ibrahim and, above all, his son Ishaq Al-Mawsilli, were among the most esteemed and honoured persons in the kingdom. Of Ishaq, in his old age, Caliph Al-Wathiq said: ‘He is one of the graces of the kingdom. If youth and health could be bought I would have acquired them for him, though it cost me half my kingdom. ‘ And on the day of his death Caliph Al-Mutawakkil explained: ‘Today a great part of the beauty, splendour and adornment of the kingdom has passed away.’

The influence of the grand master of Baghdad was such that one of his most brilliant disciples, Ziryab, transported the art of the ‘ud to the banks of Gualquivir in Moorish Spain, at the far extremity of the Empire. Together with his master he was its most brilliant exponent. In 822 he settled in Cordoba, which was at the time the centre of a prestigious civilization, and madeit the cynosure of all poetry and music lovers, a sort of nursery of Arabo-Andalusian art.

The incomparable Omar Khayyam (died c. 1123) in his immortal Rubai’yyat, conveys the echoes of its distant enchantment when he writes :’Hark to the melodies which lovers’ lutes exhale/ They are the true Psalms of David/ Have no care for Future or Past/ Live for the Moment!/ This is the secret of Peace.’

To lead us back to these living springs of traditional music and evoke its atmosphere and spirit, we could find no better guide than that incomparable artist of the Baghdad school, Munir Bashir, who comes from a long line of musicians and is known in the Arab world as The Emir of the ‘Ud. He founded his own school and, in post-war Baghdad, created a conservatory of music to train young talents in the art of the ‘ud. But his reputation as an improviser in the purest tradition of the instrument had spread far beyond the frontiers of his own country, Iraq. He was subsequently appointed Professor at the Fine Arts Academy and Head of the Music Service of the Iraqi Radio.

Seeking to widen his horizons, Munir Bashir then went to Budapest in Hungary, where he specialized in the study of popular musical traditions. In 1955 he obtained a Doctorate and became a lecturer in the Folk Arts Section of the  Academy of  Sciences in  Budapest. At  the same time  he gave a series  of ‘ud recitals  in Hungary,  under the  patronage of  Zoltan Kodaly.  The famous  contemporary  composer was  one of his  greatest  admirers and  encouraged  him in his  efforts to  promulgate  authentic Arabic music. He later appeared in various parts of the Near East, Asia and Europe. He is considered as one of the finest musicians in the Arab world and the uncontested master of the ‘ud.

It is no easy matter to describe the art and technique of Munir Bashir. Suffice it to say that he has remained faithful to the traditions of the taqsim, a kind of secular instrumental improvisation in which the talent and sensitivity of the artist, drawing upon inherited schema rooted in ancestral tradition, seek to revive and revitalize them in a modern context, as though to snatch them from the jaw of oblivion and shelter them from the implacable destiny which menaces any heritage, which is by its very nature fragile and ephemeral.

This improvisation is based on a musical system known as maqam, an expression which Western terminology cannot translate in an adequate and precise manner.It is not simply a ‘type of modal melody’, but implies a number of melodic-rhythmic formulas which, in ancient and modern music alike, can be combined in an infinite variety of ways. In theory Arab music has over one hundred classical maqam and four hundred are cited in ancient treatises.

But for all the incomparable mastery and virtuosity of his flowing maqam improvisations it is the long silences of Munir Bashir which bear the stamp of his genius. Each melodic-rhythmic formula is separated in such a way that the silences restore the original dimensions of the music, so that it becomes a sacred rite or meditation, behind which the performer and his instrument discreetly retire.

But although Arab antiquity boasted an almost infinite number of maqam, and those modern artists who quote these traditions as their authority still avail themselves of an impressive number of these ancient classical modes, acknowledged masters of the art have reduced them to a dozen basic types, with a number of secondary maqam which vary from one country to another.

In Iraq, whose culture stems from the rich heritage of the ‘Abbassid era, and which, thanks to its geographical situation, has remained in close contact with the ancient cradles of Islamic civilization (Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan) certain traditions of the maqam unknown in other Arab countries have been jealously guarded. […]

It is somewhat heretical to reduce these maqam to a simple musical scale along Western lines, particularly as they do not merely consist of a particular scale but of melodic-rhythmic formulas which develop whithin the limits of one or more tetrachords. […] The modern names of the different maqam are derived from their medieval designations; they can be place-names (Nahawand, a province in Persia; Hijaz, a province of Arabia), ethnic terms (Kurdi: Kurd) or allegorical (Rast: right; Awj: peak). Most of them take the Persian name of the degree as their keynote (Du-kah: second; Seh-Gah: third, etc.).


2 Responses to “Middle Eastern Music and the Art of ‘Ud”

  1. Captain Orange Says:

    hello out there. You have a picture on the Post which i own a copyright on. https://thegatesofdamascus.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/bedrosian-oud.jpg This photo was published at Flickr by me https://www.flickr.com/photos/10527553@N03/1462591033 and has a CC license on it. Please put the proper copyright or delete it. kind regards C.O.

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