05 August 2016

The Arts: Music from the Oud

By Lisa J. Yarde

Arabic oud
The oud or ud. One of the most popular stringed instruments meant to reverberate as if struck when played. It became synonymous with the music of the medieval Arabic world from the ninth century onward, but its origins aren't from the Arabs. From ancient Egypt and Greece, similar forms of the same type of instrument can be found. The Persian (modern day Iranian) barbat or barbud is one of the oldest version of what would come to be known as the lute in Christian lands and a precursor of the oud in the Middle East and the guitar in the West. The barbat has existed in Central Asia since at least the first century BC, where the first image of it occurred in northern Bactria, once comprised of regions in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. 
Persian barbat

The Persians adapted the barbat, carved from one piece of wood, covered in part with leather or some kind of animal skin. During the Islamic expansion of the seventh century, Arab musicians became aware of the instrument, which they called al oud meaning wood and specifically flexible or thin wood. Several kinds of wood have been used over the centuries; some chosen for their aromatic quality, like sandalwood but the beech, walnut, maple, pistachio, cypress, oak, cedar and pine trees have also been used in the creation of the oud.

The shape has typically remained that of a bowl or sound box connected to a short neck, with strings stretched from the lower half of the sound box across the body, which changed as the oud developed. The barbat's form revealed more of the neck than the oud. The slimmer, smaller body of the barbat's sound box became pear-shaped with a rounded, swelling back and a flat front surface in the medieval Islamic period. The body was pierced by two or three oval holes, rather than the one found in the barbat, often in an ornamental design. The oud began as a two-stringed instrument, but this evolved over time as well. Music from the oud also found further refinement in Spain through the musician Ziryab, discussed here in my 2011 article; he added additional strings. These are plucked with a plectrum held between the thumb and index finger, which sets off a deep but mellow, vibrating resonance when the instrument is played. There are pegs attached to neck as well. A maker of the oud, along with those who construct lutes, violins and guitars, is called a luthier.

Beyond the influence of Moorish Spain, other refinements to the oud occurred in Turkey during the Ottoman period and Egypt. Those instruments played in Turkey tend to be smaller than the Arabic version, with a lighter weight construction. There has not always been a great appreciation for the music of the oud. Over the centuries, some have condemned its soothing sound, as well as all other forms of music as sinful and a sign of indolence within society. As early as the Safavid period in 16th-century Persia and as late as 2003, religious fanatics have tried to forbid oud playing. Fortunately, today its music can still be heard all over the Middle East and in North Africa. 

A modern version of music from the oud from one of my favorite players.


All images are public domain, royalty-free. Oud (Bigstock from Shutterstock), Barbat (Wiki Commons) .

Video: Ahmed Alshaiba's cover of Adele's Hello, from YouTube

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa is completing a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, and Sultana: The White Mountains, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.