By Salvatore Morra
This oud, which arrived in England in 1867 thanks to some international diplomacy, may be the oldest surviving instrument of the North African oud family (today often referred to as kwitra, oud ramal and oud ‘arbi). It is not yet clear where it was made, whether in Algeria or Tunisia, or in Egypt on the basis of Algerian and Tunisian designs. But it features characteristics of 20th century Tunisian oudconstruction, so should in today’s terminology be referred to as oud ‘arbī.
In North Africa it was not the custom for makers to identify themselves on their instruments until the beginning of 20th century. At that point there was a change, in Tunisia in particular. Historical instruments contain labels from makers Ṭāhar Ben Muḥammad Surūr (1918), ‘Abd al-‘azīz Jemaīl (1923), and Muḥammad Ben Hassan Bellasfar (1931).
The ouds from North Africa found in European museums point to the long-standing position of spruce as the most important wood for making oud. But they also demonstrate that other materials were used such as rosewood, mahogany, and wood from various nut trees. The heterogeneous woods of the ouds can be traced today too, although according to Hedi Bellasfar, son of Muḥammad Ben Hassan Bellasfar, Lebanon cedar has a privileged role in for oud making. This particularly impressive oud is now at home in London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens.
In terms of its design, the instrument is significantly different from what we now think of as a standard oud (which is now referred to in Tunisia as oud sharqi). The proportions of the body (length 480mm) are smaller, the neck (250mm) and diapason (610mm) are longer. However, the shape speaks of an instrument that is something of a hybrid between an Egyptian oud and a kwitra. Eleven ribs (adhlā’a), about 50mm wide, make a beautiful shell with a depth of 185mm. They are locked by a large strip of wood (qafla) around the back edge of the body, which also functions as decoration. Inside the body, paper strips have been glued perpendicular to the ribs to fasten them securely, and nine harmonic bars (musāṭar) are placed in the area of the rosettes and in the upper and lower part of the soundboard.
The face is made from 6 parts glued to one another longitudinally. Most likely they are glued with the organic ghīra made from calves-leg, an abundance of which is found inside the shell. The well preserved face reveals that the instrument has not been played much. 3mm thick, it is fitted with a decorative edge made of goat skin that binds it to the body and protects the delicate edges.
Three rosettes (aqmar) with a geometrical design are carved directly out of the soundboard and enriched with colored foil/glass decorations. The upper rosette, which has a diameter of 60mm and elliptical decorations, is 135 mm from the fingerboard; the lower pair of rosettes, with diameters of 75mm, are 205mm from the base end.
The bridge (fars), measuring 170mm in length, is moustache shaped, glued directly onto the face, and covered by ivory and shell. The style is characteristic of Algerian kwitras and Tunisian oud ‘arbīs acquired by the Cité de la Musique in Paris, and the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels, in 1873, 1878, and 1896. A wooden pickguard, which is finely decorated with ivory around its edge, protects the surface from the strokes of the plectrum. Its shape recalls the layered pastry known as baklava.
The neck (raqaba), made perhaps of rosewood, is inset with pieces of animal bone. It joins the body three fifths along the length of the string, and it is wide (44mm at the join with the pegbox and 52mm where it meets the body). It is connected to the body with a dowel, today referred to as a ʻtail of swallowʼ (dhaīl al-khuṭṭāf in Arabic) in reference to its shape.
The headstock (bunjuq) is probably made of walnut then painted in black, and carved in only one piece of wood. It is 192mm long on the top side and 222mm on the back. The pegbox houses eight simple bone pegs, and is inlaid with bones, like the neck. All the original gut strings seem to have been preserved since its arrival at the South Kensington Museum in London in 1867. The pegs (malāwī) are probably made of rosewood. Although we have no record of their having been replaced, they seem younger than the rest of the instrument.
Thanks to David San Millán for the photgraphs of this instrument.