By Rachel Beckles Willson and Karim Othman Hassan
Photos of Jamil Bashir playing oud reveal that he cultivated a very intense physical relationship with his instrument. He often turned in to it and curved his back, or drew it up high towards his face, even lifting the neck to make the oud slant unusually steeply.
Like other instruments in his collection, the one featured in this article was made by the celebrated ‘Usta Ali alias Ali Khanbaba (1904-1960) and his son Mohammad Ali (1930-2002). Their workshop was from the 1930s onwards an established supplier for Baghdad’s oud virtuosi, and by the time it was made around the 1950s (the label of 1956 may refer to a repair), Jamil Bashir was leading among those. We have discussed one of Mohammad Ali’s oud‘s in posts about Salman Shukur.
The body is made of 21 finely-worked rosewood strips (Dalbergia), separated most probably by maple. Although rosewood is a relatively heavy wood, the oud is very light, so the body must have been made very thin.
It is smaller than most Arab instruments of the time, but the face is 2cm wider than on a classically-proportioned instrument (17.5cm deep and 37cm wide). So it may have been made to order. And it is not difficult to imagine that a smaller instrument could have had advantages for Bashir: an oud by another Baghdad maker, Yusuf Abdul Razak al-‘Awad, looks very large in relation to his body.
It is possible that Usta Ali took an oud from the Manol school as a model, because these were smaller than most Arab instruments. He may have even used the much-loved Manol of Serif Muhittin, played on many recordings (and now preserved in the Galata Mevlevihane Museum in Istanbul.) Details about the instrument reinforce this suspicion. For example, the vibrating length of the strings is 58.5cm, typical of larger Manol instruments; the shape and dimension of the bridge are also suggestive of a Manol model, as well as the contour of the face, which is made of at least two sheets of spruce. Even the sound holes are somewhat smaller than Syrian and Egyptian instruments, and the filaments of black and white wood surrounding the sound holes are often seen on ouds from Istanbul. Compare it, for example, with an oud made in 1959, by Garabet der Bedrosian, an Armenian maker in Damascus.
Here as with many other instruments of Usta Ali, simplicity has been a priority. The instrument lacks the ornamentation and extensive inlay characteristic of Syrian and Egyptian ouds made in the period. The rosettes are simple rosewood carvings. The two smaller ones present songbirds facing one another symmetrically, symbolising fertility, eternity and luck. The finely-worked neck probably has softwood at the centre, and is overlaid with rosewood and light dividing strips. The pegbox with its 11 (rather than 12) pegs completes the very simple appearance of this very significant instrument. Aside from the typical signs of wear on the (particularly large) raqmah and the lower end, the condition is outstanding.
Since the 1920s, and thanks largely to the experiments of Serif Muhittin Targan, oud playing techniques came increasingly to require the left hand to move up the neck and fingers to press strings down on the face. It became necessary to extend fingerboards beyond the neck, as can be seen on the walnut fingerboard here (again, compare with the Bedrosian oud above made more traditionally). Of Serif Muhittin’s students it is probably Jamil Bashir that explored this potential in the most concentrated ways.
We can trace this in his virtuosic compositions, but also in the way he formalised and systematised the extended use of the oud in a method and repertoire book. This was published in 1961 and made obligatory in music schools by the Ministry of Education.
The method is based on an oud tuning from Sol to Sol, with the lowest string in pitch placed on the right. (The reissued method in transposition to a Do to Do tuning was made without permission of the copyright holders.)
Following an introduction to some musical rudiments and notation, students are led through six long sections of exercises and pieces, presumably corresponding to six years of study at the Institute of Fine Arts. Movement up the neck of the oud is indicated by fingerings on scale exercises.
By section 6 the student is plays intricate patterns and double notes on the upper reaches of the fingerboard.
This remarkable oud method grew out of many years of work in education, in which Bashir was active on a number of different fronts. It may have benefited from his study of western methods while learning violin: his violin playing is a little-explored, but remarkable area of his musicianship. He taught both oud and violin at the Institute of Fine Arts where his many students included Atika al Khazraji, a renowned poet and lecturer at the university in Baghdad. According to Jean-Claude Chabrier, an early commentator, his students regretted that he did not advance his performing career in Europe in the 1960s. But early in that decade, he suffered cardiac problems that necessitated a step back even from his work at the Institute for Fine Arts.
Two years before he died (at the age of 57), Bashir threw down a challenge for virtuosi in the Lebanese magazine Achabaka. Whoever could play his Samai Nahawand would win a substantial prize.
Nobody volunteered so the prize went unclaimed.
The instrument featured in this article is now in New Jersey, USA, in the collection of Bashir’s son Junaid. Many thanks to Junaid for providing access to his archive and being available to share his memories. Thanks also to Francesco Iannuzzelli for sharing his documents.
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].