World Music Review



Iraqi Music for the Oud: Still a Living Tradition

September 16, 2003 - Durham, NC:


The Duke Institute of the Arts' Living Traditions series almost always lives up to its name. Dedicated to showcasing world music and dance with some of the most famous international performers, some of its most interesting offerings are hybrids of traditional music with a contemporary - and usually international - sound. Last evening's performance by Iraqi musician Omar Bashir was no exception. Bashir presented a solo recital of music for the oud, the Arab ancestor to the western lute (al-'oud), in memory of his father Munir Bashir (1930-1997), one of the Arab world's most renowned oud players.

Like so many other musical traditions, Iraqi music is based on a system of modes, called maqams - Indian ragas and our own more meager fare of major and minor modes are other examples - believed to elicit specific emotional states in the listener and performer. The system of maqams utilize not only combinations if half steps and whole steps, but also the complete range of quarter tones. Omar Bashir's program included a mix of improvisations (taqsim) based on specific maqams, and set compositions by his father, Munir Bashir. But in both types of music, there were definite incursions of western musical idioms in rhythm, harmony and the way the instrument was plucked and strummed. Not surprisingly, most easily recognizable was the incorporation of Spanish Flamenco riffs.

Even if one does not know much about the tradition of oud playing or about the specific way in which the Iraqis utilize the system of maqams, as compared with stylistic variations of other Arab traditions, it is certainly possible to recognize first class musicianship and virtuosity when one hears it. Bashir played a six-stringed oud, five are double-stringed and one single-stringed. The latter used mainly for rhythmic emphasis. In his playing, he alternated between finger strumming and plucking with the tip of a long metal pin. The two methods elicited totally different sounds from the instrument. These two tone qualities seem to take the place of variation in dynamics, which all came across at pretty much the same level, whether the playing was exuberant and rhythmic or slow and pensive.

Bashir began his program with a taqsim on the Hijazkar maqam, a mode that closely resembles our harmonic minor scale (with raised leading tone). As in all the taqsim, Bashir began slowly - almost hesitantly - as if exploring the direction in which he wanted to take his improvisation. Unlike Indian ragas, however, there appears to be no formal architecture for the improvisation, in other words, there is no gradual increase in tempo and rhythmic definition. Rather, this opening piece was decidedly contemplative, and Bashir gradually increased the flashy finger work as the program progressed.

Two more improvisations graced the first half of the program, as well as a composition by his father, Munir Bashir entitled Love and Peace. The elder Bashir's music can be compared to that of Duke Ellington in that, although it is musically "set in stone" as it were, the effect is still of free improvisation. Since Omar Bashir knows no English, it was impossible for us to ask him how much of the actual compositions are fixed and whether there is any element of improvisation at all. Nevertheless, with all Munir Bashir's compositions, especially the two on the second half of the program, Al-Amira al-Andalusia (The Princess of Andalusia) and Seville, there was the clear Spanish Flamenco aura, as well as the presence of western-type folk tunes and structure in the first. These international hybrids, while annoying to the purists and ethnomusicologists - especially when they incorporate rock, reggae or rap into their ancient ragas - are clearly in the mainstream among traditional musicians of today with their exposure to literally the entire world of music to spark their creativity.

For us, perhaps the most interesting piece of the program opened the second half. It was another taqsim, but this time a kind of medley, incorporating, seriatim, four distinct maqams. Bashir seems to have selected these particular ones because they so clearly illustrated the use of quarter tones. The effect of running out these four maqams in order was to take the audience from the most exotic (to our ears) to the most familiar (.i.e. incorporating the fewest quarter tones).

Duke's Living Traditions series also features a concert of traditional Afghani music. This and Bashir's concert are a poignant reminder that art must go on, even in the face of war and terror. We couldn't help noting, however, that the Afghani concert will be performed by two American scholar-musicians and Omar Bashir lives in Budapest.