… she played them a tune on her oud that would make solid rocks dance.
From some of the oldest historical sources about oud playing – al-Isfahani’s The Book of Songs, Ibn Hayyan al-Qurtubı’s al-Muqtabis, stories of the 1001 Nights set in Medieval Baghdad – we know that women have long been accomplished oud players. We also know from sources of the 19th and early 20th centuries that women were admired as oud players in Arab domestic spaces during the late Ottoman Empire, and that women cultivated the oud at home in the Turkish Republic later on. Yet something changed in the mid-20th century. Thanks to the efforts of Şerif Muhiddin Targan, the so-called Iraqi school and most prominently Munir Bashir, the oud took the stage as a solo instrument in the public sphere. Another powerful influence was the singer, composer, oud player and actor Farid al-Atrash, a Syrian immigrant to Egypt who became a media star. Since then at least, the dominant perception in many countries has been that the oud is a male instrument.
Oudmigrations is dedicated to drawing out some of the hidden stories about ouds, and in this interest we are starting a series focusing on women and women’s histories. This very first one presents an interview with Rihab Azar, an oud player who came originally from Homs, and who graduated from the Conservatoire in Damascus in 2014.
Rihab enjoyed a career from 2006 to 2015 playing with the Syrian Oriental Female Takht and as a solo performer in Syria; she taught music theory at the National Conservatoire as well as teaching oud privately, and she worked on music projects with refugee children in Damascus. Rihab moved to London in 2015 with a British scholarship in order to study for a Masters degree in Music Education. We met in London in October 2016 to talk about her ouds and her oud playing. Rachel Beckles Willson asked her to talk about how she first came to the oud.
RIHAB: When I was a child there was music all round the house – listened to, played and sung. My mother sang with the Homs Ensemble for Reviving Heritage in which my father played the violin (and conducted for a while); for a while they rehearsed in our home and I used to stand next to the choir and sing along. My father plays many instruments but mainly the oud, my mother plays it too and they both sing. My mother had an Ali Khalifa oud as a present from her siblings.
My father, Samir Azar, taught me pieces and songs from the classic Arab repertoire when I was a child. It was a unique thing that my father was my first oud teacher. It had so many aspects to it as he was my best friend. He was very patient and made it so much fun. I didn’t feel forced to learn or anything. I participated in children’s competitions between the ages of 7 and 12 and I won the first prize of oud players for five years.
RACHEL: Tell me about your instruments.
RIHAB: My father started to make ouds in 1990 and he made me a very small oud when I was 7. It had a bird next to the rosette made from a tree bark. I was able to learn my first song in less than a week. My mother went to Egypt with an ensemble she was singing with and when she came back I was playing. I used to enjoy it a lot and even hug my oud very often! It was very emotional for me and as a child I called it my friend. Before then I had played the melodica and keyboard.
RACHEL: How do you think your experiences as an oud player have been shaped by being a woman?
RIHAB: When I was accepted as a student at the Conservatoire in Damascus in 2006 I was concerned that it might be because I was a woman. But then I realised I was very wrong to think that way. At the time of the audition, I didn’t know where I fit in the professional world of playing oud and I had never played before with piano (which was part of the audition). Playing along with recordings or listening to other musicians didn’t give me enough perspective about my abilities. I didn’t realise I was good enough. I had only been playing for myself. I was accepted that year, but I was also admitted to university in Homs to study to be a pharmacist so I did not start until later.
The qanun player of the Syrian Female Oriental Takht, Dima Mawazini, was in my audition and the ensemble needed an oud player at the time. I joined them that summer, rehearsing and travelling all the time while I was studying. It was very tiring but it was also amazing. We performed in Syria and other Arab countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Bahrain, UAE. The furthest we went was Russia. They toured a lot more before my time. Waed Bouhassoun played oud before me with them.
When I finally started the Conservatoire in 2009 I was the only female oud player. By the time I was in the 3rd year another had been admitted. Gradually I realised my place as a player, as good as the guys around me and in some aspects unique. I discovered that I have much patience in terms of practicing on what we had been asked to perform. The first teacher that was there when I started was an Azeri professor, Askar Ali Akhbar. His emphasis was on Azeri and western classical music so we used to play those. As you know, Western classical music in particular demands patience and persistence in practice. You have to focus on the detail and play by the book. Not many people tolerate such discipline, especially on an instrument from a different musical culture.
You know how most Arab oud players deal with their instrument – without much patience or articulation, many details are left to the moment. Many miss the subtle level of articulating the material properly… Even my colleagues talked about that as one of my strong points. Classmates and teachers noticed it. I used to get the highest mark in my class, always as far as I remember. On the other hand, I lacked the musical sense of adventure most of them had, and the confidence to explore improvisation like them.
RACHEL: It is great to hear that you didn’t experience any prejudice at all.
RIHAB: Well, there was some. I could sense that if someone didn’t know how I play, hadn’t been to one of my exams for example, they would assume that I play less well than guys.
As to oud teaching, I think being a woman facilitated my access to the world of children. Children open up to you more as you are a woman. Especially the very young ones. But I felt it was harder for me to have an open channel of communication with older students, probably because I was insecure about whether they (as part of the society) considered me good enough as a female oud teacher! My most amazing teaching experiences were with students aged between 8 and 16 and our lessons were very comfortable and enjoyable.
As a woman carrying an oud in the street, I would hear silly comments like how beautiful I look with the instrument. A kind of verbal harassment. I ignored it but I always used to feel embarrassed, for instance, waiting for the bus at the station travelling to or from Damascus. I was not comfortable at all because I knew that I was a spectacle. A rare, almost unique sight. That was the bad part of it. This put more pressure on me when I travelled for rehearsals. I felt like a strange creature, exposed to everyone’s eyes. That didn’t feel any good.
RACHEL: The music business depends a lot on what we look like. Many artists want to be looked at. How do you feel about this?
RIHAB: I’m not willing to push myself into the market. It takes so much energy, which I prefer to save for the music itself. Here in London, there is an expectation that I play Arab music and that I represent Syria. This is the frame I have been offered. Also, since the war started, as a Syrian musician in exile you’re seen as a human from a war-torn country to be exhibited in events, or to give events more validity, which I strongly hate.
RACHEL: Tell me more about your thinking on improvisation and the varied styles of oud performance.
RIHAB: I have always avoided improvisation as it felt to me like showing what I perceive as an intimate side of myself and it made me feel fragile and exposed to judgement (also this fast-paced world is losing the ability to listen to these kinds of performances). Another reason for this avoidance is that I’m not convinced about improvising in the classical way – which is predictable (improvisation was never part of our training). On the other hand, many “non-classical” ways of improvising don’t convince me as I notice weaknesses in terms of the logic of maqam shifts, the narrative and/or the structure.
I do feel that Arab music needs filling, The pieces of music need improvisation inside, as a type of arrangement. But the 5-minute-long improvisation as soloist is still not where I can feel comfortable as a person. For solo work the oud is really very very challenging. Nobody appreciates how hard it is to play it solo. It is a limited instrument, especially for the ears of this impatient era we live in. The sound fades quickly unless you fill everything with notes. And even when you fill everything, it sounds like too much. Many players do that. They make so much effort. I can do that too, I can make a lot of sound. But would I like it? Can I enjoy listening to as many notes? Usually I can’t.
RACHEL: Let’s return to your oud here.
RIHAB: This one was my 5th oud and was made by my father in 2010. I like the purity of the tones that it produces but other ouds give me a more “bass” sound.
I like ouds that give more continuous sound when you slide your fingers on the neck.
RACHEL: Do you still feel the intimate connection with your oud that you had as a child?
RIHAB: I’m not sure I’m completely fascinated by the oud as an instrument. I love music of course but by the age of 17 I started to feel that I would like an instrument that allows me more sensual contact with it (I had played the violin also and loved the feeling it gave me, the sound closer to my ears). Instruments like the harp, the violin family, the blown instruments, make you feel the sound closer to your ears, which adds a very powerful dimension to the experience of playing. I lean down over the oud when I play because the sound goes outwards, away from me.
Another thing is that, in my observation, oud in the Arab world isn’t considered glamorous like Western orchestral instruments. Also oud isn’t perceived as a feminine instrument. That might have had an influence on my relationship with it. To sum it up, “he” is my old stubborn friend with whom the relationship is a continuous challenge!
The adapted quotation that forms the title of this post refers to an oud player known as Zubaida in the story of ‘Ali ibn Bakkar and Shams al-Nahar; she plays on Nights 256 and 257 of The Arabian Nights. See Volume I of the Penguin Classics translation by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons (2010).