BEIRUT: Two years ago the multi-instrumentalist and composer Khyam Allami began a PhD in composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. It was to be the beginning of a challenging undertaking — the creation of experimental compositions based on the fundamentals of Arabic music.
“I’m developing some weird and wonderful works for solo electro-acoustic and solo acoustic oud, alongside many other things,” says Allami, the founder of Nawa Recordings and a co- founder of the band Alif. “So far, my approach to oud performance is developing in a very strange and abstract way. I think it will be difficult for listeners to appreciate, but I feel it has to be done so that we can hear the instrument anew and begin imagining other possibilities, for it and its family of instruments across the world.”
For anyone interested in the evolution of the oud, the Iraqi-British musician’s research poses a number of important questions, not least how contemporary Western compositional processes can be translated to Arabic music without the latter losing its identity. Or how the codes and systems that govern Arabic music can be applied to Western instruments and composition. Central to this research is the oud, the primary instrument of composition in the Arab world.
Reimagining the oud is not for the fainthearted. One of the world’s oldest stringed instruments, it is the foundation stone of traditional Arabic music and is bound up with such symbolism and emotion that it’s almost impossible to disentangle from the past. As such, it is central to any concept of Arab culture and remains a principal instrument within ensembles known as takht. Even the names historically associated with the oud — the Egyptian composers Mohamed El-Qasabgi and Riad Al-Sunbati, the Iraqi brothers Munir and Jamil Bashir, and the Syrian singer and composer Farid Al-Atrash — evoke deep feelings of nostalgia.
“In our culture, the oud is the most important instrument,” says Samir Joubran, one third of the hugely popular Palestinian group Le Trio Joubran, along with his two brothers. “It’s the instrument that we compose on and is at the heart of our culture and identity. It is also central to my own personal identity. I was born in a house where my father used to make ouds, and in the kitchen we could smell the wood in the food we were eating. I was five years old when I first held an oud and eight or nine when I started to learn.”
Given its popularity and cultural significance, modernizing the oud is a complex and sometimes daunting challenge. It is viewed not as an instrument of innovation and exploration, but as a fundamental component of the Arab world’s musical heritage. As such, perceptions of the oud remain bound to the past, with all the implications that that entails. “This problem of perception, representation and association is something that I’m well aware of,” says Allami, who lives and works between London, Berlin and Beirut. “I’m not actively working to counter it, I would rather let my work speak for itself. In that sense, I’m trailing my own path. But I am concerned by the lack of interest in Arabic musical culture across the board, and that is something I am trying to figure out how to navigate. I’m currently developing some tools to help teach Arabic music using digital tools, rather than relying on acoustic instruments, and I hope that this can help attract younger musicians away from the traditionalist and exotic representations that surround this culture.”
Allami is also developing modernist and avant-garde approaches to both the oud and the Arabic maqam system through his multi-part solo project Kawalees. This is in addition to his exploration of the application of contemporary acoustic, electro-acoustic and electronic compositional techniques and processes to Arabic music for his PhD. In doing so, he faces the multiple challenges posed by the codes and modal systems that govern Arabic music. “It is a big challenge,” he admits. “Without the tuning systems (microtonality) and the grooves (microtimings) a lot of detail and uniqueness gets lost, and many opportunities for digging deep into this culture and creating new ideas are missed. I’ve started developing my own tools but continue to bang my head against the artistic wall when searching for new ways to explore the instruments and this tradition without losing their identity or mine.”
That’s a challenge others are familiar with too. Palestinian singer-songwriter Kamilya Jubran, perhaps best known as the former lead singer and qanun player in Sabreen, has also explored new territory, either individually or as part of an ensemble. Most recently, she has worked on experimental projects with the Swiss composer and electronic musician Werner Hasler, unraveling “a musical universe of possibilities” in the process, and has collaborated with the French double bass player and singer Sarah Murcia.
“My work with Werner, and with Sarah, is a meeting of musicians who have different histories, traditions and references, but we share the present,” says Jubran, whose recent collaboration with Hasler was the single-track album “Wa.” “We’re contemporaries. We share opinions and perspectives. And the point of our meetings is finding ways (to develop) a common musical dialogue despite the differences in histories and traditions. So the encounter happens first as an intellectual one — a meeting of minds — that can lead to a musical one. The latter involves getting to know the musical traditions of the other and from there thinking about the exchange, the collaboration and co-composing.”
Jubran insists that any desire to experiment with the oud or to place it within any other musical genre should be a matter of personal choice. “Musically, we have to think about contexts that allow an instrument like the oud to have its space — to function, to be heard, to be effective,” she says. “The possibilities are endless, yes, but it’s a fragile instrument that you can’t just throw anywhere without properly thinking about it. The question has to be why the oud and what sonic context is it in?”
That’s why Jubran wants to see an increase in the development and performance of new work for the oud. Only then will a new vision of what’s possible be found. “There is still a lot to be done and I am sure there are many people out there who have similar concerns and I would love to see more of their work,” she says.
“I would love to see the oud become more of a tool for exploration, regardless of the genre or output,” adds Allami. “It is an incredibly rich and symbolic instrument that can provide much satisfaction if only one is prepared to give it the time and dedication it requires. I don’t think its sound is particularly easy to use in ‘modern’ genres, but I do believe that its potential is untapped. For it to continue to evolve we need to rid ourselves of the associations and representations embedded within our conscious and subconscious, and approach it with an open mind. This is particularly difficult in light of colonial and nationalist manipulation, but it needs to be done.”