Rare ouds from Cairo, discovered in Berlin
By Karim Othman-Hassan
On one of my first trips to Cairo back in the 1980s, while visiting a musical instrument shop on the famous Muhammad Ali street (today’s Al Qala street), I was offered two antique ouds. The rather energetic shop owner assured me that they were both original, made in the 1920s and previously owned by famous Egyptian musicians. Probably because the instruments weren’t in pristine condition (their soundboards were dirty and unvarnished, inlays were missing and there were small cracks), or because I was something of a miser in those days, I left the shop with a new oud by the late Fathi Amin, who is legendary today. Compared to the old ones this oud was rather heavy with a shiny, almost glossy varnish on the entire surface.
A few days later I showed this new oud to an Egyptian musician acquaintance, and recounted the story of my encounter with the two antique ouds that I had refused to buy. I’ll never forget his sudden excitement and his blushing face when in passing I mentioned that according to the printed label, the instruments were made by a certain Gamil Georges. He told me earnestly me that they were gems, and that it had been a great mistake not to purchase them, because it was almost impossible to find antique ouds from that era in Egypt. I needed little persuasion to return to the shop, but by the time I got there the ouds were gone. They had been sold to a Spanish couple on their honeymoon.
More than 30 years later I found two strikingly similar instruments in the catalogue of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.
Professor Rachel Beckles Willson was given the opportunity to examine them, along with other ouds in the collection, and her examination revealed two astonishingly well preserved antique instruments, both with labels inside identifying two Cairo-based makers.
One is Gamil Georges, mentioned above, a luthier who is said to have moved from Syria to Egypt around 1900. The other is Mahmoud Muhammad Al Hifnawi. While the labels inform us in detail about the workshop addresses, only Georges’ label states the year 1920 as the date of manufacture, but since many features of the ouds resemble one another, I would venture to suggest that the one by Hifnawi was made at a similar time. In combinaiton, they offer us a view behind the curtain of early 20th-century Egyptian oud making.
The ribs of both instruments were made from a similarly-coloured timber, probably rosewood (in case of George’s oud, likely to be mixed with teak), separated by alternating strips of bright wood (beech or maple) mixed with ebony. This pattern continues on the backs of both necks. Hifnawi’s oud is constructed from 19 ribs whereas that of George uses 21 slightly less regular grained wood. From inside one can see that the ribs have been sawn from a woodblock using a bandsaw. As in most ouds, the joints of the bowl have been reinforced from inside with paper strips soaked in hide or bone glue. These joints must have been very strong, because only a few areas have opened up over time.
At the base of each bowl where the ribs end is a semicircular plate decorated with marquetry. In the case of George’s oud there are black leaf tendrils set into an ivory-like material, while Hifnawi’s oud shows a similar but reversed design (white tendrils on a black semicircle). It should be mentioned at this point that the ribs of each instrument are identically shaped and proportioned, leading in both cases to symmetrical and relatively flat bowls (click here for definitions of symmetric and asymmetric oud bowls) and to an unfortunately sharp edge on the lower part of the oud. Egyptian ouds of this period were provided with leather strips at this point, protecting the skin from the sharp edge, and the wood from the sweat (hence the leather strips being named „ earaq“ (sweat)).
The soundboards, very likely made of semi-fine-grained spruce, are in very good condition despite their age (the one by George in particular). Hifnawi framed the face with bands (purfling) of walnut with beech or maple with ebony, while Georges alternated black and white material in a slightly angled arrangement. Both edging patterns are repeated on the frames of the fingerboards, which end with the ornament called the luza (almond) on the upper part of the soundboard. Like the small semicircular plates at the lower part of the bowls, beautiful tendrils have been inlayed into the luza and fingerboard.
The whitish material used for inlays, purfling, fingerboard and rosettes is not ivory but a casein plastic called galalith or matbukh (المطبوخ )in Arabic, which means ‘cooked’ (milk), widely used in luthery as an imitation or substitute for ivory. This polymer is easily workable like wood, polishable and satisfyingly glueable like ivory, but has a disadvantage, namely that it shrinks over the years due to the decay of its chemical compounds (i.e. casein and formalin), a process which is visible in the rosette of George’s oud. The slightly damaged, poorly-preserved rosette with its unique design was cut elaborately with a very fine jigsaw from a single galalith plate. It was glued under the soundboard to cover the 11.5cm-wide soundhole, which is surrounded by black and white marquetry with additional wooden strips.
There is a beautifully inlayed and slightly tilted raqmah (pickguard) between rosette and bridge, displaying the name Adeel Yameen who was probably the former owner.
Hifnawi’s rosette is quite typical for an embellished oud of this period. It symbolizes a kings crown (تاج ,taj in Arabic) which supports the hypothesis that the oud was made for a special player, possibly a member of the Egyptian’s sultanate (former Khedival) court. Perhaps to set the crown apart from the background of the rosettes, the latter has been stained black. The soundhole is surrounded only by a simple ebony filament. Compared with George’s pickguard this one is more tilted but resembles it in design and marquetry.
The bridges of the instruments are very similar to those found on Syrian ouds from the same epoch, for example by the Qudmany or Nahat families. They are probably made of walnut, or a similar timber, and overlayed with a tendril pattern. 12 holes for the 6 double courses have been drilled into the bridge.
From bridge to the nut at the end of the fingerboard (made of bone, with 12 grooves for strings) the string length of both instruments measures 63,5 cm. Unlike the classical geometry of oud constructions, the length of the neck of Egyptian ouds made prior to about 1940 were generally less than one third of the total string length. As a result, the string’s natural 5th position is above the soundboard, not at the junction of the neck and the body. In both cases the neck measures only 19.5 cm. This peculiarity led to many discussions about the gamut of Egyptian ouds and some oud players have even argued that in the early 20th century the higher register was not used at all. However, there is clear evidence that notes like „ramal tuti“ (the 5th degree of the highest string), and even notes beyond it, were indeed fingered on the soundboard!
For stability reasons and in order to allow the pegs to to turn smoothly, the sides of Hifnawi’s pegbox were made from two different timbers (beech and rosewood). The 11 elegantly-turned pegs (one is missing) were made of rosewood, each with a tiny ivory (galalith) knob. There is a pyramid-shaped block covering the end of the pegbox.
George’s pegbox was designed in a more elaborate manner, extending the black-white purfling found on the soundboard and neck. The top is embellished with a wooden pyramid glued on a thin galalith veneer. Like all parts of the oud the 12 original pegs have been preserved.
It is thanks to unusually fortunate circumstances that two instruments from the most fertile era of Egyptian music have survived in such an extraordinary good condition. Since there are absolutely no signs of use on the fingerboard and soundboard, one can assume that they were barely played, if at all. There is hardly an oud-enthusiast who would not be fascinated to hear these 100-year-old gems, strung with gut and silk strings and played with an eagle’s feather.
With grateful thanks to Lars Koch and Albrecht Wiedman for their assistance with the instruments at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.