Readers of this blog may remember that last year I found myself on a long, difficult and seemingly endless four-day quest in search of the elusive Bait al Oud – or House of Oud – while I was in Abu Dhabi. I finally found the place on my last night here, four hours before my flight left, and I spent an hour and a half being introduced to the oud by a master builder, a teacher and a student. And I played with them. This year, more than the very opposite has occurred: Without realizing it, I booked my room for five nights in Abu Dhabi in the very hotel that I had used as a reference point for finding the Bait al Oud, which is located behind the hotel. It was only after booking the hotel that I suddenly realized that I was now a neighbor to this extraordinary oasis of Middle Eastern music and yesterday, the House of Oud was the first place I went after booking into my hotel – finding extraordinary moments of oud-ness, jamming and recording of one of my songs with an oud master.
Absolutely astounding are the most common but certainly the best words I can think of to describe the two visits. Let me backtrack a little, though. For those who do not know what an oud is, just imagine hearing music from the Middle East, imagine the sound of the stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a guitar and a lute. In fact, it is a kind of lute. It is a rounded shell-shaped instrument with a short next and four strings – or rather, four groups of two strings – and a bass string. It is held on the knee like a guitar, and most often plucked with a long plastic pick that looks like a coffee stir stick.
I just don’t know where to start to get all the emotions and experience of my two visits there yesterday. Let me back track a little more: The House of Oud is a project created and funded by a wealthy patron, and the first of these institutions was created in Egypt. The second was in Abu Dhabi and is also supported by an Abu Dhabi governmental cultural foundation, called the ADACH. It is located in a large mansion-like house with two or three floors and out back, the oud workshop of the master craftsman Amr Fawzy, an Egyptian. The Bait al Oud offers oud playing lessons, shows, jams and various other cultural events. Its goal is to support and promote and prolong the cultural history of the oud.
Yesterday on my first visit, as I approached the workshop I heard the beautiful sound of an oud coming from within and my first thought was that it was a recording – although it sounded live. I walked into the room and found a woman playing the oud. It turned out to be a very interesting woman in addition to a great player, and the oud she was playing belonged to the luthier himself, Fawzy. The woman was Shirine Tohamy, and she is an Egpytian who teaches the oud to students at the Bait al Oud.
Shirine was, in fact, I would learn, the first woman graduate of the original Bait al Oud in Egypt, where she graduated 12 years ago. She allowed me to film her with my iPhone doing a tune. It was apparently a famous tune, but I’ve forgotten the name…. something like “Sunshine,” I think….
I had not brought my guitar, but they invited me to return later in the evening with my guitar. So I did. But by then Shirine had left for the day. No problem. I spoke to Amr and watched as he worked on an oud from Iraq, on which he had replaced the wood on the neck. I showed him my guitar and played one of my songs. While I was playing, we were joined by another oud player, who had come to pick up the oud Amr was working on. This was Layth Aldaene, who is a professional musician and composer who lives in Abu Dhabi, but who is an Iraqi. And not just any Iraqi musician. He is the nephew of one of the greatest oud players of the 20th century, Munir Bashir.
Bashir was an Iraqi too, although he ended up moving to Europe and settling in Budapest. Layth composes music for films, television and advertisements in addition to playing concerts and composing his own music. He also specializes in playing the oud along with a guitar player, which traditionally was not often done. He gave me his CD and I listened to it in the car on the way to the F1 circuit this morning – excellent.
But what was really surprising in listening to Layth was how he could not only play Arabic music, but he also slipped into some classic Spanish music, some blues, and get this: Bluegrass. That was all just in fun. As I had my guitar out, he tried to incite me to jam with him, asking me to do some basic chords that I could not quite figure out! (Problem especially with the rhythm.) But I suddenly realized that I had one of my own songs that used some of the same chords and that has a Middle Eastern feel to it, as I had written it about a Turkish woman I know. When I had recorded the song with a friend in Paris who played lead, he had worked out a Middle East theme. So it was perfect to try with the oud.
It is called, “Let Me Know,” and I suggested we play that. So we did, and he accepted that I record it on my Roland R-26. It was nothing more than a jam, and my voice is still a little fractured by my col – caught in India or Korea – and I even made a mess of some of the lyrics and rhythm. But as a demonstration of the possibilities, I wanted to put it up on the site here. Don’t come to any conclusions about Layth’s playing from this, though, go to Layth Aldaene’s excellent web site and listen to his beautiful compositions there.
In any case, I could never have imagined such an evening and good luck in my efforts to play with different musicians around the world…. Thank you Bait al Oud!