By Rachel Beckles Willson and Karim Othman Hassan
On the sleeve of Salman Shukur’s solo recording for Decca is a picture of his oud that incorporates a picture of his head in profile. Its superimposition on the instrument conveys a strange sense of movement: the lines of ribs seem to have swept his head down to the base of the oud – or does the head have an energy leading the lines in this direction? The remarkable presentation won its designer, Laurie Richards, prize for best sleeve in the Classical category of the New Musical Express annual Awards to The British Music Industry in 1978.
The design suggests that a relationship between player and instrument could last after the player himself has passed on, as if his ghost could haunt the oud for ever. And one cannot escape the enchantment, on holding the instrument today, that it is the object that Shukur had in his arms while making this recording. The sound is delicate and subtle in timbre, suggestive of a happy alchemy between player and instrument.
While making one face visible, the sleeve photo hides another one, namely that of the oud maker, who included his name in the carving of the rosette, “Muhammad Ali ‘Awwad”.
Beyond the rosette we find the face. This Mohammad Ali (1930-2002) and his father ‘Usta Ali alias Ali Khanbaba (1904-1960) were for many years the most sought-after luthiers in Baghdad.
‘Usta Ali senior was born in Iran in 1904 but moved to Turkey, where he seems to have studied luthiery. He moved on to Beirut in the late 1920s, where Mohammad Ali was born, most likely lured there by the burgeoning and increasingly lively music scene. Then in 1935, when Mohammad Ali was 5 years old, the family moved yet again, this time to Baghdad. The timing was fortuitous, because 1936 saw the foundation of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, where the director was Sherif Muhiddin Haydar, a virtuoso oud player. ‘Usta Ali, known in Iraq as Ali Ajmi in reference to his Iranian origin, studied oud at the Institute with Jamil Bashir, Munir Bashir and Salman Shukur, and provided instruments for Sherif Muhiddin and Jamil Bashir.
This close contact might lead us to assume that Mohammad Ali made the oud discussed here specifically for Shukur. It seems, however, that the oud was originally made for someone else. Where the ribs are joined at the base of the instrument, a circular piece of wood is inlaid in which another name appears – Ahmad Ismail or Ismail Ahmad.
It is difficult to tell if ‘Usta Ali was influenced by the luthiery of Beirut, given that from the 1920s onwards it was such a melting-pot of diverse crafting traditions, particularly of Eastern Christians from the most differentiated parts of the former Ottoman Empire. The influence of Istanbul, however, is unmistakable in his son’s oud here. Most obviously, the 9.5cm diameter of the main rosette is typical of Istanbul ouds (mostly of the Manol school, and similar), rather than Egyptian or Syrian ones, which were more typically 11-12 cm. The ornamentation of the dark Indian rosewood rosette (Dalbergia sissoo, shisham) seems in the style of Istanbul as well. The two smaller rosettes are carved with decorations that were typical in the 1960s and ‘70s – treble clef, symbols, staves, notes and musical ornaments. This style seems out of place. The sound hole itself is left plain, without a border decoration or inlay. This simplicity of construction is present in the plain rosewood edging of the face.
The face is made of medium-grain spruce (perhaps Caucasian spruce). Its uniformity, and its highly professional workmanship, prevent us from identifying from how many pieces it is composed. Most likely there were more than two.
A piece of light walnut veneer serves as a pick-guard, in the elongated oval shape that was standard in Istanbul luthiery. Veneer of the same wood is attached where the right arm wraps around the instrument, protecting the face from body moisture.
The rosewood bridge is relatively wide and thick, obviously to withstand high string tension. The form is once again typical of Istanbul instruments.
The neck consists of rosewood veneer at both front and back. A small strip of light wood on either side of the fingerboard stops at the end of the neck rather than continuing onto the section on the face.
The pegbox is also similar to Istanbul ouds. It narrows unusually sharply to the outer end, where it closes in a gently zoomorphic ornament. It contains 11 simple ebony pegs.
The shell, constructed in the Turkish symmetrical style, and from top-grade Indian rosewood strips. It is a semicircle in cross-section, and gains an extra 2cm in depth from two ribs at the outer edges. With a consequent depth of 18cm the face of 32cm at the widest point is relatively narrow (32/2=16+2=18). The vibrating string length is 60cm.
Muhammad Ali worked carefully in every aspect of the construction. While simple, every detail was executed conscientiously.
If this oud bears witness to a delicate craftsmanship in Baghdad, it is also testimony to the network within which the city has variously prospered and suffered. We can explore this along a number of strands, all of which involve the remarkable figure of Sherif Muhiddin Haydar (1892-1967), son of ‘Ali Haydar Basha (1866-1935), who served as Emir of Mecca and Medina 1916-17, but who spent most of his life living in Istanbul. Sherif Muhiddin trained himself in classical musical traditions of the city, and became an accomplished oud player and composer in the local style. He also studied ‘cello, and travelled to America in 1924, where he stayed for 8 years, and was profoundly influenced by the virtuosi of the time. Famously, he strove to develop oud repertoire and playing styles so that the instrument might both extend its expressive range, and become a vehicle for solo performance.
The fingerboard of this instrument by Mohammad Ali is a result of this development, for it reaches beyond the neck right up to the edge of the large rosette, like that of a guitar. The range was extended beyond the traditional tiz neva upwards that way, and it became a widespread practice, but the extra veneer layer and finger pressure significantly restricted the vibratory potential of the face. Later players and luthiers have attempted to overcome this problem and amplify the instrument yet further by raising string tension, among other strategies. As we know from the recording, and the work of Jean-Claude Chabrier (1976/1996), Shukur himself placed extremely high tension on the instrument, tuning it from G to G, just as did Jamil Bashir. (He also strung it with the single bamm string in the lowest position, making the sequence 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1.)
Historical narratives about Shukur – both as published by Chabrier and in common circulation – tend to construct him as the ‘successor’ of his teacher Sherif Muhiddin, while others (the Bashir brothers and Jamil Ghanim) are understood as having forged more individual paths. Although it is not clear from the Decca recording we have that Shukur’s playing fell exactly in line with the extended Istanbul-style of Sherif Muhiddin, his compositions are exceptionally long and formally innovative for Arab instrumental music of the period, revealing his interest in compositional experiment. Additionally, private recordings that survive are testimony to his grasp of core works of Ottoman repertoire, and his exploration of chord-strumming indicates his commitment to extending the expressive potential of the instrument further. Finally, he seems to have served as Sherif Muhiddin’s assistant at the Institute of Fine Arts from 1947, and then to have work there from 1960 as head of the music department, so they had pedagogical and institutional bonds as well. When Shukur was in touch with Sherif Muhiddin’s sister in 1989, more than two decades after his death, she informed him that he was welcome to have one of his former teacher’s ouds.
At this stage it is not clear which oud this was, but it was apparently not Sherif Muhiddin’s most treasured ones, which he left to museums in Turkey. Possibly it was another of his ouds by ‘Usta Ali, as one such instrument can be seen in a recording by Shukur; late photos suggest he had other instruments. The interest in the gift here is that Shukur was so thrilled to receive an instrument from his former teacher that he gave his own, apparently favourite, oud away to his friend and supporter Saad Jadir.
For this reason, that oud, the one presented here, remains in London, in that friend’s private collection. In our next post we will explore in more detail how the life of this oud unfolded in the UK while it was still in the possession of Salman Shukur.
Thanks to Saad Jadir for sharing his oud, his private recordings and his memories of Salman Shukur. Thanks also to Francesco Iannuzzelli for sharing his research archive on Iraqi music.
‘Iranian oud‘, http://iranianoud.com/site/contact/1/123
Jean-Claude Chabrier, ‘Analyses de musiques traditionnelles: identification de systemes acoustiques, scalaires, modaux & instrumentaux ; representation morpho-melodique, structuro-modale & du langage instrumental’, Paris: Arabesques, 1996 [completed in 1976 as a doctoral dissertation].
‘If it ain’t Stiff!’, New Musical Express, 8 April 1978, p.21.