An oud in layers

By Karim Othman Hassan

It is likely that this 6-double-course instrument was built long before its journey to Brussels in 1879, because it presents us with several layers of history and, perhaps, geography.

The fine-grained spruce or pine making the face reveals only minimal cracks, which bespeaks a high quality of material. The pickguard glued onto it is made from a bright hardwood, and reveals barely a trace of use.

Brussels face details

However, the walnut bridge is made very sloppily and painted with black paint as was common, then stuck on the face. The rosette was also painted black. Carved from walnut-coloured hardwood it was secured in the sound hole from inside, positioned by means of circles on the wood veneer. By today’s standards the sound hole is very small. It suggests the instrument would not project well, because the sound would be constrained by this hole.

The shell is made of 17 ribs alternating walnut and beech (or similar), and secured with a large clasp at the end with similarly alternating veneers. As the wood types and colours do not exactly match the wood of the shell, it is doubtful the clasp is original.

cropped small oud arbi clasp

A further interesting feature relates to the overall shape of the shell. Viewed from the sidMahillon Alexandria oud curvee it is clear that the curved line in the middle is different from its outline shape. The ribs must have been bent in varying forms. We could refer to this type of shell as ‘asymmetrical’. An advantage of this type of construction is the way it fits with the playing arm. Even with energetic playing the edge of the instrument does not cut into the arm, and it makes it easier to play with the oud on the breast (da braccia), as was once common with plucked instruments. Perhaps this comfort in playing is the reason for this elaborate ‘asymmetrical’ technique of oud making that was used on some Syrian instruments until recently. (See Syrian brothers in Istanbul.)

symmetrical asymmetrical oud

There is no purfling joining the face with the shell, but there are some traces of linen at the junction. We can assume that a band of linen originally surrounded the face to protect it, as was common on ouds from North Africa (oud ‘arbi, oud ramal, kwitra) until recently.

cropped linen edge mahllion

Apart from minor blemishes the neck bears similarly almost no trace of use. It is decorated underneath with alternating bone (or ivory), and diamond-shaped pieces of walnut wood. Its core is likely to be made of a light wood. The fingerboard is an applied veneer, which can be traced from the bulge at the lower end.

The pegbox contains 12 pegs cut on a lathe from a brown wood (rosewood or similar). It ends with a rather crudely worked piece of ivory (or similar material). The pegs are varied in form, suggesting that not all are original.

It is fairly certain that the instrument was opened up for repair prior to purchase in 1879. An endoscopic examination at the Musical Instrument Museum on 2 October 2015 revealed poorly-executed repairs and maintenance tests quite clearly. A hole in the body, apparently made by some rather unsophisticated mainteAlexandria oud repairnance work, was repaired by a small block of wood on the inside and cemented over on the outside with a mixture of wood and glue. Preservation work was undertaken by the Museum when the instrument was prepared for exhibiting at the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris in 2005. But that involved only repair to the pegbox, which had become separated from the neck; and the sealing of a crack in the body – all work undertaken without opening up the instrument. The endoscopic examination also revealed a number of interesting details of construction, for example hollowed-out join blocks (reducing the instrument’s weight), the arrangement of braces on the underside of the face, coloured lines sketched out for the later alignment of the braces, and a mark for the vertical middle point of the face.

From the reports of Victor Mahillon and his colleagues we know that it was no lesser figures than the heads of the Arab Guilds of Poets and Composers who were entrusted in 1879 to make a collection of Egyptian musical instruments for the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, a collection that included this oud. What led to the selection of this piece? We may with some justification ask whether the official delegation had a clean conscience in providing the Belgian collector with such a patchy and indeed damaged instrument.

With its strikingly small dimensions it provides a sharp contrast to the other 19th-century oud acquired from Egypt, which is by today’s standards extremely large.

2 Brussels ouds

This text was translated from German by Rachel Beckles Willson.

Thanks to Saskia Willaert and Joris De Valck of the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels for facilitating detailed research into this instrument.

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