Nur al-Din and the green satin bag

By Rachel Beckles Willson

Oudmigrations is taking a Summer break, but our research is in preparation for autumn, under wrap like the instrument featured here. It lies on a table in Naples, the thick paper covering it marked with a number written in red biro. What stories will it have to tell once we upwrap it?

In one of the Tales of 1001 Nights we encounter an oud whose story is released each time fingers pass over its strings:

I was once a tree on which the bulbuls lived;
I swayed with love for them while my leaves were green;
I learned from them as they perched on me and moaned,
And through that sound my secret was made known.

This oud still remembers the pain of being cut down by a woodsman, a separation and sorrowful death. But once the memory is expressed in music, longing and love for union awake in all that hear it. In the story we learn about the oud because Nur al-Din, the handsome son of a Cairene merchant, requests music to accompany his drunken delight in a beautiful garden. The gardener brings a lovely woman to assist but when she hears Nur al-Din’s request she says she needs her bag. So the gardener brings the bag, which turns out to be made of green satin and tied with golden bands…

It is rare to find such exquisite packaging for ouds these days. The one here one may be the oldest oud case that survives and it far from elegant, but such containers were crucial for long-distance travel. Made of wood and leather and lined with paper, it was sturdy enough to carry an oud from Alexandria to Brussels in 1839.

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These Cairo-made cases are more manageable for musicians on the move, and they safely house ouds of multiple sizes made in Beirut. Leather and thick padding cushions each oud from knocks and bumps, and a lining layer of damp-proofing fabric protects the wood from changes in humidity when its on the move.

Untying, unzipping, unclipping the oud case – or even unwrapping the oud from paper – offers a moment of excitement for an oud lover. Once the oud is lifted from the case there are multiple aspects to discover – its voice of course, most importantly. But inside there may be a label with a story, or two labels with stories, or labels with pictures, or labels in multiple languages… partly masked by an intricate rosette and the shadows it casts.

cropped Awadikian label

In the autumn Oudmigrations will move forward in time to open up research into the movements of ouds since the end of the Ottoman Empire. We will share our work on an instrument belonging to Salman Shukur that is now in a London collection, Syrian oud players now living in Istanbul, and new experiments in ouds made in Lebanon.

We will continue our Ottoman theme in parallel, presenting Armenian makers from Lebanon and Turkey and offering more detailed work on Egyptian ouds from the 19th century; we will also look at some hybrid instruments – a mandolin that became an oud, an Antoine Nahat oud that was transformed by Jamil Yourghaki Gandalft; and we will consider the oud heritage of Palestine in the light of the new Palestine Museum.

In the story from the Arabian Nights the girl does not take an oud out of her green satin bag. Instead, she takes out 32 strips of wood. She then joins them up – male to female and female to male – to make a highly polished oud of Indian crafting… and as she does this, she reveals her wrists.

The crafting of luthiery never stops, and it is always a collaborative process between woods, one or more makers, musicians and listeners… And the crafts of research and story-telling are similarly endless and collaborative. Several new authors will be presenting their research on Oudmigrations, among them Tarek Abdallah and Jonathan Shannon, and there will be more from Ahmad AlSalhi, Karim Othman-Hassan and Rachel Beckles Willson.  Please join us in the autumn whether to read or to offer your own research and stories.

cropped Naples instrument

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