PARIS – Today I stumbled on a recording I did in Abu Dhabi exactly 10 years ago and I wanted to post it again to mark the occasion. It was one of my musical adventures following the Formula One season as a journalist, and that year, 2012, I had set myself the goal of recording a song with a local musician in every one of the 20 or so countries that I visited. The idea was a real challenge, and I think I succeeded in my goal, but unfortunately the sound quality of the recordings was not of CD-level quality. But what a treasure to find this one of a star oud player and musician living in Abu Dhabi named Layth Aldaene, who is an Iraqi, and who is still playing around the area and farther afield, including recently with a symphony orchestra. I decided to post this today because this weekend is also that of the season-finale 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Formula One, so it seemed a great moment to post.
This recording took place in the House of Oud, which was a community center and workshop for building ouds, teaching the oud, spreading oud culture and everything else oud that you can imagine. I suggest you check out Layth Aldaene’s web site, as it has lots of his amazing music on it, and some cool videos.
I chose as a song to play my song “Let Me Know,” which I always felt had a middle eastern sound to it. In fact, I had written it purposefully with a middle eastern sound – although the guitar chord progression had itself been given to me by Laurent Guillaume, with whom I recorded the song on my CD.
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!
Who will ever be able to trust my rambling accounts of playing music around the world ever again? Yesterday, despondent, having failed after three days of effort to find the elusive “House of Oud,” or “Bait Al Oud,” I wrote a post talking about how great it was to fail! But at the end of my working day at the racetrack I found myself with two and a half hours available before I had to go to the airport for the flight back to Paris. So I decided to make one more attempt to find the mecca of oud.
That would require a half-hour cab ride downtown from the track, followed by eventually another half-hour cab ride from there to the airport. That would leave one and a half hours to find the oud joint and hope that it was open and hope that I could jam, film, talk and sing with whomsoever might be there. What spurred me on to having a little hope at the end of the day was that by changing my search method online to “Bait Al Oud” I discovered a Facebook page for the House of Oud AND a web site talking about the Oud House and on these I actually finally found a photograph of the building – so it was now an identifiable object. (What a saga!)
The Time Out story about the place had said people could just walk in off the street and see the place and ask for a jam. So I took a cab to the same place behind the One-to-One hotel where I had been before, and I asked the cab driver to drive around ALL of the surrounding back-streets. We were almost ready to quit and go directly to the airport when suddenly a seeming mirage appeared before me: The very same majestic image of the House of Oud that I saw online! All was pretty dark, but the front door was slightly ajar. So I asked the cab driver to wait while I explored. Picture a horror film where the victim enters an empty, massive, mansion in the middle of nowhere – “Hello, is there anyone here? Helllooooo? Anyone home????”
I just kept following the lights from within to a back room, and there I met up with a man in Arab clothing and with an oud – a beautiful handmade oud – by his side. On the table next to him was an interesting auto-harp type of thing too, and there was another man as well. The Arab with the oud spoke the best English, and so I explained that I was a musician on a visit to Abu Dhabi and I was about to leave the country but I had been searching for three days for this place, that I had heard there were jam sessions. Could we jam?
Another man came and joined us, and it turned out that they were all about to leave for the day, that the place had closed for the day. But they were curious about me, about my guitar – which was still in the cab – and they invited me to join then, get my guitar, and we would jam. Eureka! It was no longer just a mirage.
musicians at house of oud
I got my instrument and my luggage and asked the cab driver to return an hour and 15 minutes later to take me to the airport. I went back into the House of Oud and proceeded to have the time of my life, jamming with the oud player and the harp player. They also let me play the oud myself, they allowed me to film us and interview them for my film. And they took me on a tour of the workshop where the ouds are made, in a back room of the same building. The third man who had shown up was the luthier who made the ouds, the man in the Arab dress was a student, and the harp player was an oud music teacher. He and the luthier were both from Egypt, which is the greatest land of the oud. I immediately fell in love with the instrument and its beautiful feel and sound, and I regretted upon leaving that I had not tried to see if I could buy one.
The luthier, whose name is Amr Fawzy, builds around 40 of them per year, if I understood correctly. He showed me how they are built, and with what wood. He later inspected my guitar, and liked it. The oud, an ancestor of the guitar, has existed since 2350 BC! It is central to Arabic music, and this Bait Al Oud is a project that was started by a man named Naseer Shamma, who also started one of these institutions in Cairo, and I believe elsewhere as well, as he tries to develop and maintain the oud. In fact, he brought about some changes with the making of the oud to bring it up to more modern standards, without detracting from the traditional instrument. One of these, Amr – who was trained in the Cairo House of Oud and is a master luthier – pointed out to me, was that the tuning head is made entirely from one single piece of wood, which is carved out in the middle.
The House of Oud, which was founded only two years ago, is partly sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which provides wood, strings, budget, I suppose. And the villa is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. There are rehearsal spaces, concert spaces, a library, all sorts of rooms. The institution chooses students through a system of try-outs, and they follow a course with the teacher I met – who is also Egyptian – and in turn can go on to teach. Aside from the regular free jams, all the students usually gather on Thursdays to play amongst themselves.
I said yesterday that I was happy with failure as I travel the world and seem only to meet with success on this musical adventure seeking out the music of the world and places to play and jam, and I said that failing to find a place proved just how difficult a task it has been, and how different each place can be. But the feeling I had playing with these musicians, discovering the oud and their institution, and succeeding at the last minute after so many efforts, was far, far, far greater than that feeling of accepting failure! It was also, above all, a window into a real bit of Abu Dhabi and Arab culture – and hospitality – that I had before then had no inkling of. Before the House of Oud, my only experience of the country was the backstreets of the smokey cafes, and above all, the western bars in the western hotels. Soooo glad I made the last effort, so glad the House of Oud was so accomodating.
I made several videos, but the best one is too long, too big, to put up here – and I will put it in my documentary. It contains much more oud playing and me playing the oud and all three of us jamming with me on my guitar, and the other two on the harp and oud. But for the moment I have only these two shorter ones to put up, which have more of the harp than the oud! But the workshop one is fabulous, and I like the moment where the luthier tells me the oud is made of Indian rosewood, and that he had noticed part of my Seagull guitar was made of rosewood too….
Well, that makes four nights in a row where I have failed to find a place to play in Abu Dhabi. I decided to leave my guitar behind and go into “Heroes” bar in the Crowne Plaza hotel, but there is no live music there on Saturday night. I then went to the Intercontinental that someone else suggested, and there was just a very classy piano cocktail lounge thing with a jazz singer, and way too much class. Oh, and that story about the House of Oud I promised to talk about?
The House of Oud, according to Time Out, does have jam sessions, and clearly this would be a bona fide local scene. But four days is clearly not enough time in Abu Dhabi to cross the cultural divide and move from the world of expat bars in fancy hotels to a jam in a non-descript town house behind the One-to-One hotel. I called the number provided by Time Out to order up a jam session, and the person who responded only spoke Arabic. I therefore asked my hotel manager to call. It turned out no one in the hotel spoke Arabic, just Indian and English. So I then caught a cab for the second time in two days – this was yesterday, as I recounted that I already searched for this place on foot the night before – and the cab driver DID speak Arabic.
So the cab driver spoke at length to the man at the House of Oud and then hung up and told me he knew where to go. So he went and stopped just behind the One-to-One hotel and told me I was there. But I said, “Where?” I told him I had already been to this spot and saw no House of Oud. He said, “Here.” But I said, “You don’t really know where it is, do you?” He said he did, but that it was on a larger street on the other side of a field. So I asked him to take me and he drove me to the precise spot where he said was the House of Oud. The only problem was that he was dropping me off at the main gate to a military camp. I told him he really did not know where it was after all, and please take me to the race track. So he did.
At the track, I asked for the help of an Arabic speaking employee. Unfortunately, by the time the phone call finally took place, it was precisely 9 PM, which is the time that the House of Oud apparently ceases its oud lessons and starts the jam – if there is one.
So I failed.
But failure, I decided, in this case is what proves the rule. Failure, it seems to me, is exactly what I needed here in Abu Dhabi in order to give more value to all the other places where I have found open mics, open jam sessions and live music joints where anyone can play. If all the world was exactly the same, what value would there be to such an adventure. It would not be an adventure, it would be a formality. Abu Dhabi is the one place on earth where I have failed to find the kind of musical culture I have sought around the world. By the same token, this place is unique and wonderful in many, many ways, and partly for the same reasons there is not much free musical culture: Because Abu Dhabi is such a finely – if strictly – run society that it is clean, crime seems to be at a minimum, the cab drivers use their meters and do not rip you off, there is abundant housing, drinkable water and eatable food, and all the things we need to be comfortable and well off. Just not so good on the free-for-all live music scene.
But that, as I say, is precisely the story I came to find – an original tale of a place. This never-ending open mic adventure is not only about me having to mark my territory, it is about discovering the reality of the musical culture in the places I go. I found that here, and in that sense, did not fail. If the world was the same everywhere, it would be a bore…. I catch the night flight to Paris and doubt I’ll find a place to play – unless Paul McCartney wants me to join him later on in his concert tonight….
Things are looking grim on the battlefield searching for an open mic or jam. So grim that I can’t bear to go into details about it and don’t want to bore the dear reader. So here is a point-form, bullet-method, approach to last night:
Went looking for the House of Oud which is reputedly behind the One-To-One Hotel and which has jam sessions on the oud. Result: Spent an hour wandering the streets finding nothing.
Went to the F1 Fanzone on the Corniche where there is a small stage that apparently became a kind of open mic for locals on Wednesday and where further up the coast as part of the Yasalam festival of music and fun, there was a bigger stage that shows off local talent as well as international stars. Result: The small stage was closed, the action had moved to the big stage, but I was not allowed into the area of the big stage because I had a camera and no cameras are allowed.
Went to a small and cool pub at the Sheraton Hotel. Result: No music.
Wandered the back streets near the Sheraton for an hour in amongst the small gentlemens’ cafes and chicha joints in search of any sign of local or other music – an off-the-beaten-path serendipity approach. Result: Did not even see a single oud.
Went to the reputedly wild and crazy “Heroes” bar at the Crowne Plaza where there is a live band and a place where one person told me in the past that if anywhere, that would be the place to play. Result: The guard at the door stopped me and told me I could not enter the bar with my guitar. “Wait, isn’t this a live music joint?” I asked. “Yes, but only the artists can have their instruments.” He told me to check it outside in a closet. I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It did not, like on the first night, sound like my kind of place.
Returned to my hotel/apartment. Result: Played my heart out on my guitar and singing in my empty living room before packing it in and going to sleep.
One night left in the so-far barren adventure. I have a little tale about trying to find the House of Oud again this morning, but I will save that for tomorrow.