The Oud at the Junction of the Nile

By Gabriel Lavin

 The oud is commonly associated with musical cultures of the Middle East, but is it also an African instrument? Does the instrument represent a bridge between the Arab world and civilization south of the Sahara? Meditations on such questions occurred during the Second Khartoum Festival for the oud that took place this past February. The three day event was sponsored by the DAL group, a private Sudanese industrial conglomerate, and its goal was to create greater awareness about Sudanese contributions to the oud while hosting other oud players from the Arab world and the United States, which I myself was representing. The festival also hosted famous Iraqi oud player Nasseer Shamma, who brought along his band Global, featuring players from Brazil, Europe, and the United States.

Lavin Baqir Shamma Faruq
From left: Mazen Baqir, Gabriel Lavin, Ahmad Shamma, and Nancy Faruq

Historically, Sudan has been pinned precariously between pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, an ideological split that remains pivotal within struggles for peace, justice, and national unity. However, the Festival strove not to highlight cultural “divisions” created by politics, but rather demonstrated Sudan’s cultural connections with Africa, the Arab world, and beyond through the oud. An additional aim of the festival was to encourage an already enthusiastic younger generation of musicians in Sudan to continue playing the oud.

According to Sudanese music historian Muhammad Seif al-Din Ali, the oud was first introduced to Sudan in the late nineteenth century during the British-Egyptian offensive against the Mahdiyya in Khartoum. The British Empire’s army at the time consisted of British, Egyptian, Syrian, Turkish, and local fighters and the first Sudanese oud player was among them, a man named Muhammad Tamim according to Ali’s research in oral histories and urban legends. The fact that many influential Sudanese oud players of the twentieth century such as Ahmad Mustapha (b. 1926) and Barai Muhammad Dafallah (b.1927) began playing oud at an early age, further indicates that the instrument was present in Central Sudan during the early-to-mid twentieth century. Finally, and thanks to the opening of Sudan’s first radio station during the 1940s, documentation is available of many oud players who performed and recorded in Khartoum during this time.

Barai Muhammad and Group
Barai Muhammad Dafallah on oud. To his right, singer Abdulaziz Muhammad Daud.

After Sudan gained independence from Egypt in 1956, the oud became an increasingly popular instrument in Khartoum and the surrounding regions. Ali notes this was due to the founding of music conservatories in Khartoum, which were undoubtedly influenced by their Egyptian counterparts in Cairo. Many players of the oud throughout Sudan were composing songs with nationalistic sentiments before independence in the late 1950s. Certainly, there is a connection between the spread of the oud’s popularity and Arabization policies taken up by Sudan’s government after independence in conjunction with the cultural dominance of Egypt. However, Sudanese oud players did not merely copy their Egyptian and other Arab counterparts in tonality and rhythm. For many musicians, what defines Sudanese oud playing is the use of scales and rhythms specific to Sudan. Pentatonicism (scales built from five note scales) in particular, is a musical phenomenon that stands in contrast to the performance of standard Arab maqamat and similarly points to the Sudan’s cultural connections elsewhere in Africa.

Arab World Map

Iraq, North Africa, Turkey, the Gulf, and the Levant (including Egypt), are geographical regions used by musicians throughout the Arab world to define various “schools” (madaris) of oud playing, each with their own technical, tonal, and rhythmic attributes. Many musicians and scholars in Sudan hold that pentatonicism is the defining characteristic of the Sudanese school of oud playing (al-madrasa al-Sudaniya). As musicologist and composer Dr. Kamal Yousef has explained, the pentatonicism of Central Sudan evolved with musical practices during the twentieth century as musicians from throughout Sudan migrated to Khartoum. Contrary to what has occurred elsewhere in the Arab world (with the institutionalization of maqam pedagogy), there is no academic standardization of pentatonicism in Central Sudan. This is despite the efforts of several Sudanese theorists who have identified various pentatonic modes existent within popular and folk musics of Central Sudan. Nevertheless, such pentatonic modality is the highlight of Sudanese oud playing and has caught the attention of other musicians throughout the Arab world. This includes the oud virtuoso Nasseer Shamma, who is the founder of the oud conservatory Beit al-Oud (Arabic Oud House) that has branches in Egypt, the U.A.E., Algeria, and soon in Baghdad (according Shamma’s statement during a press conference in Khartoum on February 26, 2017). Working with the DAL group this year, Shamma hopes to open yet another branch in Khartoum with the help of recent Sudanese Beit al-Oud graduates.

Shamma

With his virtuosic, guitar-like approach to the oud, Naseer Shamma has developed a considerable reputation throughout the Arab world. Since its initial founding in Cairo 1997, Beit al-Oud has also provided an accessible space for younger musicians, including many women, who desire to play the oud despite social pressures and stigmas surrounding their involvement with music, and instruments in particular. The Khartoum Festival featured two recent Sudanese graduates of Beit al-Oud in Cairo, Mujahid Khalid and Abdo Ibrahim.

 

Mujahid Khalid and Abdo Ibrahim 

After jointly winning an oud competition during the First Khartoum Festival for the Oud in February 2013, Khalid and Ibrahim both received full ride scholarships from the DAL group to study at Beit al-Oud in Cairo for three years. With them was also Ariza Amin, a female winner of the 2013 competition who was unfortunately unavailable to participate in the 2017 Festival.

During their performances at the Festival, Beit al-Oud graduates performed original compositions featuring pentatonic modality characteristic of Sudanese oud playing, yet combined with techniques characteristic of Nasser Shamma and soloistic virtuosity that defines the Iraqi School of oud playing. While addressing the audience during his set, Khalid stated that going to study in Cairo was like a cultural exchange. He was relatively unfamiliar with Arab maqamat having mostly played pentatonic music he grew up with.

Mujahid Khalid 3.jpg

Over time however, he mastered the basics of maqamat while many Egyptian students took an interest in Sudanese music and its pentatonic modality. The festival featured two other Sudanese graduates of Beit al-Oud, Ashraf Awad and Mazin al-Baqir, who also combine Sudanese and other styles oud playing through performance and teaching.

Mazen Baqir and Ashraf Awad

Nasser Shamma’s involvement in the festival and the prevalence of his students featured in performances, meant that the Second Khartoum Festival was significantly shaped by the influence of Beit al-Oud. Nonetheless, the Festival also paid respects to older generations of oud players and musicians outside the sphere of Shamma’s influence, and their own unique approaches to the instrument. Among these players were Mujahid Omar, Ali Zain, and Awad Ahmudi. Ali Zain is a renowned music professor and oud teacher whose oud playing style is greatly influenced by guitar playing. He uses finger positions inspired by guitar technique to play scales in the upper octaves, his hand placed close to the body of the oud on the fingerboard.

Awad Ahmudi was perhaps one of the most anticipated acts of the Festival after Naseer Shamma. A blind musician, Ahmudi has adapted his own way of holding an oud plectrum (risha), almost as if he is holding a pencil between his thumb, index, and middle fingers, and plucking the strings with the point. This can be seen on the video recording here. Although he is a singer, Ahmudi is known for performing instrumental versions of Sudanese songs in addition to some of his own compositions. With his focus on instrumental music, many at the Festival saw him as a source of inspiration for solidifying a Sudanese school, or madrasa, of oud playing.

Awad Ahmudi

Preceding the performances and during intermissions, Festival audience members were entertained by musicians playing traditional Sudanese instruments such as the tanbura (a harp-like instrument).

Traditional Musicians Sudan 2.jpg

Musicians playing these instruments were affiliated with The Sudanese Center for Traditional Music, which is an institution that organizes performances, retains a musical instrument display in Omdurman, and offers music lessons on Sudanese instruments using traditional methods of oral transmission. Hours before I left Khartoum, Ashraf Awad, Dr. Kamal Yousef, and myself paid a visit to the Center.

Sudan Traditional Music Center
From left: Dafallah Haj Ali, Ashraf Awad, and Kamal Yousef

The manager, Dafallah Haj Ali, along with some younger men, was unloading a truck full of instruments, as they had just been performing at the Omdurman Theatre. They unloaded a variety of drums, wind, and stringed instruments including different types of lutes and fiddles, a musical representation of Sudan’s immense cultural diversity. As Dafallah showed us around the center, showing us an even greater array of instruments, Kamal Yousef explained to me that the oud can also be considered a traditional Sudanese instrument. Considering the widespread popularity of instruments such as the tanbura (it is much cheaper to make and easier to maintain), the oud is perhaps a “king among many” in Sudan.

Before visiting the Center, we stopped by the home of the renowned singer, composer, and oud player Abu Araky al-Bakhit. While playing some of his new songs for us, he also demonstrated his unique oud playing style: instead of using a plectrum, he uses his thumb to pluck the strings while simultaneously using fingerpicking techniques. Abu Araky stated that he preferred the soft and warm sound of the vibrations produced by skin contact with the strings. Lyrically, much of his music has a political air speaking to the hardships faced by many in Sudan from bad infrastructure, war, displacement, and to an overall struggle for peace and unity within a nation stretched between competing politicized identities. Recordings of his oud playing can be found here and here.

At the junction of the Blue and White Nile rivers flowing up from Uganda and Ethiopia, Khartoum and its surrounding regions have always been a crossroads of civilization and cultural flows. Undoubtedly, this is partly why the nation has experienced so much identity conflict since independence, which has led musicians like Abu Araky to create his particular style of music. But perhaps the oud’s migration to Sudan demonstrates that intersections of culture are not always points of conflict, even if they occur in troubled regions. On the contrary, it seems the intersecting worlds of the oud in Khartoum last February were points of engagement and innovation, setting an example for future communications between Africa, Arab states, and the world.

 

Photo Credits

Photo of Barai Muhammad Dafallah and Abdulaziz Muhammad Daud by Salah Shaib.

Photos of Nasser Shamma, Mujahid Khalid, Abdo Ibrahim, Mazen Baqir and Awad Ahmudi by Isam Abdelhafiz.

 

Sources

Ali, Muhammad Saif al-Din. 2010. Styles of Lute Playing in Sudan (Burai Muhammad Dafallah as a Case Study). MA Thesis. Sudan University of Science and Technology, Khartoum.

Kamal, Yousef Ali. Tonal System of Central Sudan: Analytical and Comparative Studies, Doctoral Thesis. Sudan University of Science and Technology, Khartoum.

Kuka, Hajooj. 2014. Beats of the Antonov. Refugee Club and Big World Cinema. 68 minutes.

Sharkey, Heather J. 2008. “Arab Identity and Ideology in Sudan: The Politics of Language, Ethnicity, and Race.” In African Affairs Vol. 107 (426), p. 21-43.

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