By Rachel Beckles Willson and Karim Othman Hassan
At some point during the mid-1980s, an Iraqi Armenian businessman visiting Aleppo chose this oud as a gift for one of his Iraqi associates in London, Saad Jadir. Very shortly afterwards it arrived in the UK, where it spent around three decades.
The oud had been made in 1919 by one of Damascus’ most celebrated luthiers Antoine Nahat. But at some later stage it was damaged to such an extent that a new face was put on by a luthier in Aleppo, Jamil Yorgaki Kandalaft. Like Antoine Nahat, Kandalaft had studied the craft of instrument-making within the family. His father was Yorgaki Antoun, who had an instrument workshop in Aleppo.
Kandalaft added a note on a paper strip to the inside of the instrument when he made the repair: ‘face made by Jamil Yorgaki Kandalaft’. Thanks to this we have the combined work of Nahat and Kandalaft documented within the instrument. Kandalaft’s paper is undated, but the general condition and the darkening of the face suggests work of the 1950s.
For Saad Jadir, who received the oud as a gift, it was a remarkable encounter. He had been familiar with ouds from Iraq until then, including some from Mosul where he was born. And by in the mid-1980s he owned several instruments made by the celebrated luthier Mohamed Fadel, received as gifts from Iraqi musicians such as Sadoon Jaber, for whom he arranged performances in London. Several of his ouds had been commissioned specially for him, including one made with a pale body on which Saad’s name was written. He also owned one by the similarly famous Fawzi Munshid that was a gift from his friend Faruq Hilal, composer, musician and head of the Musicians’ Union in Iraq.
But the Syrian gift was different from these other ones.
‘I was very impressed because it was so much better made than the Iraqi ouds. Refined… light, small, you can handle it. Mother of pearl. I wasn’t used to seeing that on ouds from Iraq. I’d seen Syrian ouds covered with decoration, mother-of-pearl … and I was surprised that the famous musicians – Farid, Abd al-Wahhab – have ouds covered in that. I’m sure it dulls the sound, although I’ve never played one.’
Jamil Yorgaki Kandalaft made some highly decorated instruments – including one that according to legend was played by Farid al-Atrash and another played by Asad Al Shater. But when he turned his hands to the repair of a Nahat, he focused on a restoration that was in line with the original conception behind the instrument.
For example, he recycled existing components such as the bridge and camel bone rosettes, sawn with breath-taking precision. The large rosette, made of walnut with a bone veneer, presents a circle of names of the most prominent maqam-s of Arab (Ottoman) music in the Thuluth form of Naskh calligraphy. In the centre is the name of the maker Antoine Nahat. In the exquisitely-carved small rosettes we can see songbirds on vines. Inside, the bars under the face, their height tapering from centre to edge, appear in cross-section as acute-angled triangles. Unfortunately their exact dimensions cannot be measured at this stage, but it seems they reproduce the work of Antoine Nahat.
It is possible that Kandalaft was commissioned to restore the instrument in line with Nahat’s own work – and that he was extremely successful. In the words of Karim Othman-Hassan, it is characterised by an ‘unbelievably sonorous, fully present sound with a warm bass and crystal clear upper register… It is in general more reminiscent of a good instrument from Istanbul than any Arab oud.’
The shell consists of 15 walnut ribs separated by 5-part filaments. The central ribs have the inlay typical of Damascus ouds, in this case cut and arranged in angular filaments, forming small dragons and six-point stars out of mother-of-pearl and ebony. But the ribs are of varying dimensions. It seems that Antoine was working very quickly. Typically of its time, it has a deep shell (20 cm) relative to its maximum width (35cm).
The 20cm-long neck is spruce with a walnut veneer. The mother-of-pearl laid on top can also be found on the 12 original pegs (Prunus domestica or Prunus armeniaca). The well-made pegbox ends in a small ivory ‘chess piece’, not uncommon of Nahat ouds of this time. Could this serve any purpose beyond the aesthetic? The join between pegbox and neck is fragile, breakable even with a small blow; the ivory end piece could reduce that shock and may have been there for protection, keeping this one intact for around 100 years.
An endoscopic examination indicates that the upper and lower join blocks were hollowed out, reducing the weight as was common in quality instruments at the time. It is less often found today because it is time consuming, and because string tensions have increased so much. A significant, but rarely mentioned detail is also visible, namely the securing and binding of ribs with a type of putty over the glue line. From around 1910 this replaced paper strips in the ouds of the Nahats. It may have been a time-saving measure too. Glue would be applied directly into the join and then covered with sawdust. The process could be repeated once it was dry, and until a firm bond was created. Glass dust may be added to the sawdust – as can be seen on some ouds by Abdou Nahat, the older brother of Antoine.
Since this oud was made and restored, its value – and the value similar instruments – has been radically transformed. As we know from published memoirs and the work of today’s collectors, ouds are often cherished because they are a link to a family member or a homeland that is no longer available. But alongside this network of love and memory, a commercial marketplace has emerged in which prestige trumps nostalgia. Today, restorations are often projects of exploitation, rather than gestures of respect for historical luthiery.
With an awareness of the plight of Aleppo today, writing about an oud that was once so carefully restored in that city is a poignant process.
And for local groups of music and musicians, the international sphere of commerce often seems contrary to artistry, only destructive. But it is worth acknowledging the munificent role that business communities can play, when individuals will it to happen. The journey that this oud made from Syria to the UK – product of a generous business association – is one reason that it survives today.
Thanks to Saad Jadir for sharing his oud enthusiasm so generously.