By Rachel Beckles Willson
When in 2006 Ritter Instruments made an oud in its ‘Royal’ series that sold at auction for $620,000, it pushed the so-called King of Arab instruments into new territory. The price was partly a result of its materials, but wood was not the deciding component. Rather, it was the 103-carat black diamond, 24-carat gold and 10,000-year-old ivory.
Just a few years later luthier and oud player Wissam Jubran built a custom-made oud using rare Indian rosewood among other woods, but also incorporated ivory and 24-carat gold: it became his Oud of the Year 2015. And last week, the workshop of Faruk Türünz presented ouds at the expo in the United Arab Emirates hosted under the patronage of His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan bin Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development. One of these incorporated 14-carat gold decorations.
If this is the way forward for the oud market, most of us might as well give up. But as the name of the UAE expo Big Boys Toys proclaims, it relies on exclusivity. It’s just for boys. Just for big ones. And just for those who need toys. (Big toys, bigger than anyone else’s.) But this Boys group is expanding: within the display this year is a new, separate area called ‘Woman’s World’. 20-25% of top-end assets in the Gulf Corporation Council are held by women, so they too have been recognised as targets for these luxury goods. They are being shaped as Big Boys who need Toys. It’s in an apparently inclusive politics – but within it, these women are vehicles of masculinist ideals.
It is not new for ouds to be acquired as luxury goods or objects for display. In the 19th century, rich European men collected items such as instruments to demonstrate their wealth and sophistication, and in the 20th century North Americans were doing something similar. Some of these collections formed the basis of state-run and municipal exhibitions of instruments today – as we see at the Horniman Museum and Royal College of Music in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Some of them were originally part of international expos – and the bejewelled oud ‘arbi donated by the Khedive of Egypt in 1867 bears decorations that are testimony to its diplomatic role. In the afterlife of such expos we grasp the potential for collecting to be in the service of public education.
Nevertheless, unsettling questions of power are never absent. When the collection that included an oud made by Yousef Nahat was displayed in London for the first time, one reviewer for the Daily Telegraph (3 May 1894) remarked that the steel around the exhibits’ glass cases were:
‘finished like a gun barrel’.
The military observation was apt, for England played a role in the 19th-century unrest in the Levant that led to the massacre of tens of thousands of citizens of Damascus, and the destruction of the Christian area of the city – where the Nahat workshop is likely to have been. It is this troubled history that has led to the dearth of historical instruments, and that continues to plague instrument makers today.
The featured image of this article was taken by the author in a field in Hungary on the border with Serbia in September 2015. It was a territory in which the priority was not music or even money, but food, drink, and shelter for the refugees from the war in Syria. Even the most basic oud was a luxury item here. The children were excited to grab its steel strings, although they’d just passed by the steel string of the freshly-erected border fence. The next day, that border was closed by a train a train carriage with a forest of steel wire mounted on the front.
We all know a little about the war in Syria that has led these people to flee, and some of us are away of the international trade in armaments that facilitates it. Just as the peace activists demanded at the US airbase at Greenham, UK, in the 1980s, those of us who are witnesses should insist: Take the toys away from the boys!
Some readers might want to separate these toys from those of Big Boys Toys. And some readers will shrug their shoulders and say ‘boys will be boys’. Or they will claim that there is no harm in the luxury goods market. But the violence even within that market is palpable: the seductive celebration of big toys inculcates a desire for speed, size and shine; worse – it streamlines both men and women into highly reductive types of behaviour. Moreover, as a refugee poem by Jehan Javed says, We’re all under the same sky – and we’re all after the same natural resources too. The forum of big finance is inextricable from competition for fossil fuels in Asia and the race for access to the European market in order to sell them. Exactly this play of power has energised the war in Syria, which precipitated the movement of citizens.
How would it be if those making decisions about global fuel and finance had to live in the presence of the people bearing the consequences? How about trying to make connections between the oud in a field in Hungary, and the gold-leaf ouds sold to billionaires for whom a few hundred thousand Euros is an insignificant trifle? (The golden image is the rosette of an oud, apparently modelled on the wheel of a car.)
If you would like to sing the song separating boys from toys I recommend learning it from the punk band Poison Girls.