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Grandfather of the Guitar: The Arabic Oud

Commonly denoted as the most important instrument in Arabic music, the oud has been considered the ‘king’ of instruments in the Arab world regions including North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant. Dating back to 3000 BCE, the Arabic oud is from the family of lute instruments. A lute is considered to be any musical instrument that exhibits strings organized parallel to the soundboard. The oud eventually made its way through North Africa and spread to Europe, serving as the most influential predecessor of the guitar. The oud is thus known to be the father of the lute and the grandfather of the guitar as it is one of the world’s most ancient musical instruments.

Beautiful Oud Piece Played for PaliRooters by Abduallah Mutan

Within the first ages of Arabian civilization, the oud had four single strings that ranged from lowest to highest in pitch. A fifth string, which was the highest in pitch, was occasionally added as well. More modern oud instruments generally consist of 11 strings grouped in 5 pairs, or courses (tuned in unison) and one remaining singular bass string. Historically, strings were made from animal gut; most commonly from the small intestine of sheep and sometimes combined with metal. Authentic oud strings are still generally made like this today and commonly sold amongst their cheaper substitutes, which are made of nylon combined with metal windings. Strings of the oud were also commonly plucked with a feather, otherwise known as a ‘rishe’ in Arabic.

The word oud ((/uːd/)) in Arabic literally translates to a thin piece of wood. Various types of wood have been used to create this musical instrument. Some woods have been more favored for their aromatic properties and others most commonly preferred for their exquisite professional quality. High-quality ouds will most commonly use ebony for both their tuning pegs and fingerboard and the top will typically be made of two pieces of spruce solidly fixed together. Amongst the most commonly used woods for the bowl body, are, maples, walnut, South American rosewood and African coralwood. Skilled craftsmanship often coincides with these higher-grade wood types. For example, lower quality ouds will undoubtedly never use ebony wood, and thus will be made clear with the difficulty that a musician may face while attempting to tune the pegs. Correspondingly, oud instruments come in a wide array of price ranges varying from as low as $400 and increasing upwards along with the quality of the instrument.

arabic oudA beautiful High-Quality Arabic Oud 

Price ranges have also increased due to the limited market of handmade ouds in comparison to mass-produced instruments from large factories. Unlike many of the more modern day stringed instruments, the oud’s neck is extremely short and seamless relative to the rest of its body. The oud’s peg box is bent back at a 45-90° angle from the oud’s neck allowing for musicians to bend and slide notes while also adding vibrato. The neck, also referred to as the fretboard, ironically has no frets, which contributes to its utterly unique sound. Frets are the silver strips of metal that typically run horizontally up and down the entire neck of the instrument. The oud’s pear-shaped body on the other hand consists of between 1-3 oval or circular sounds holes that often remain decorated with ornamental borders. Though termed sound holes, these decorative features have no impact on the actual sound of the oud but rather add to the instrument’s aesthetic value. Originating from Arabic culture, there is also a growing tendency to add inlay work to the oud that sometimes causes the weight of the instrument to exceed 800 grams. An oud’s body has a bowl-like back made of 15-25 strips of wood, which is enclosed with a fairly complex soundboard system. The sound of the Oud vibrates within its hollow body.

Arabic ouds are most commonly known for a nice, deep, round sound, with a preferred low sustain. And while Europeans expanded on the sound of this instrument, the original oud remained a central part of Arabic music. Lebanese composer and singer Marcel Khalife is the most renowned oud player whom contributed to the significant development of possibilities for this instrument. Khalife toured the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the United States while performing solo shows simply using an oud. Marcel Khalife had a strong sentiment for the Palestinian struggle and regularly collaborated with national Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Khalife composed and sang Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry on nationalism and revolution, while echoing the struggle of the Palestinian people worldwide. Similarly Palestinian music began to reflect the Palestinian experience more and more. Longing for peace and the love of the land of Palestine, a shared Palestinian identity was exhibited within an upsurge of composers and musicians whom had also arisen amidst all the struggles of living under Israeli occupation. Sharing distinct Palestinian themes of statehood and a mounting national sentiment, the expansion of Palestinian cultural expression of nationalism was initiated through the influence of traditional Arabic music.

Marcel KhalifeMarcel Khalife Playing Palestinian National Music Live in Vienna

Due to the relevance of the subject matter and the necessity to maintain tradition and culture, PaliRoots aims to inspire Palestinian youth around the world to love their Palestinian heritage – not because it has been taken from them; but rather their Palestinian heritage is a source of joy and positivity. It is true that there is strong importance of engaging with the Palestinian narrative either on a national or personal level when observing the broad context of resistance. Though it is one thing to be well informed of the history of the Palestinian struggle, and another thing entirely if the narrative of loss completely overshadows the Palestinian identity. Music is one way that Palestinian youth can especially ensure that their identity remains one of hope and productivity, not of loss and mourning. Revival movements of historical music have been making a comeback, and we hope that this blog will inspire you to keep the strong traditions of your Palestinian roots flowing!

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