All About the Oud — the Middle Eastern Predecessor of the Lute

Sep 27, 2017 | blog | 0 comments

Ronnie Malley

For our fall concert this year, taking place Nov. 3-5, we will be presenting a program of the music of the Sephardic Jews in Spain in the 15th century, and unlike some of our past Renaissance music concerts, this one will feature a Middle Eastern instrument our audiences may not have heard before: the oud.

The oud is a short-necked string instrument with 11 or 13 strings. It was first brought to Spain from Iraq in the 9th century, and eventually inspired the creation of the lute and the guitar.

For this concert, we are lucky enough to work with Ronnie Malley, a Palestinean-American who specializes in Middle Eastern music and teaches Arabic music workshops for Chicago Public Schools. Malley also regularly performs with several musical groups, including the University of Chicago’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble. He has also written and composed his own play, Ziryab, The Songbird of Andalusia, and was recently a musician and consultant on the Goodman Theater’s production of The Jungle Book.

We asked Malley to give us a little more insight on the origins of the oud and what audiences can expect to hear in our upcoming concert.

Q: How did you get exposed to Middle Eastern music and how did you learn to play the oud?

A: My musical journey began in elementary school playing percussion in band, and later guitar and keyboards in my family’s band with my father and younger brother. I started playing music professionally at age 13 on guitar and made a switch to keyboards at age 15. The family band played at weddings, clubs, and festivals around the country for Middle Eastern, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, North African communities, and more. That was how I mainly honed my skills in music from these regions; I was fortunate to perform and have apprenticeships with older master musicians of the craft.

I came to the oud when I was about 16 years old, but it was mainly to satisfy myself in learning a traditional instrument from my own heritage, Palestinian. I thought to myself, here I am playing this music on guitar and keyboards, Western instruments, and it only seemed right and respectable to learn a traditional instrument.

Q: How is the oud similar or different from the lute and the guitar?

A: The oud is basically like the great, great grandfather of the guitar. It’s the predecessor of the lute, which actually takes its name from “el oud.” The word “lute” is the Latin article for “the”, l’ with the word “ute” following. Hence, el oud is lute. The shape of these two instruments is similar with some tuning differences. However, the major difference to both the European lute and the guitar were the addition of frets. The Middle Eastern oud is fretless, like a violin or cello. The oud has a warm, deep, earthy tone with nylon strings plucked with a plectrum, usually made of plastic or bullhorn shaving. Traditionally, an eagle or peacock feather was used as a pick, which is why the word risha (Arabic for feather) is still used. Long ago, strings were also made of silk, gut, or a combination of both.

Q: The Newberry Consort’s performance will be focusing on the music of Spain in the 1400s. Was the oud played by the Moors, Sephardic Jews and Christians at the time? 

A: By the 15th century, Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula grew to have a similar national identity having shared in one culture with religious diversity for nearly seven centuries, almost three times the age of America. Thus, many of the inhabitants of the three Abrahamic religions were largely considered Spanish Jews, Christians, or Muslims, just like Americans are considered of many backgrounds sharing in the multiplicity of the American identity.

That said, any of them would’ve potentially played oud. Ziryab, a musician from Baghdad is largely credited with bringing the oud, and maqam music theory, to Cordoba in the 9th century. He began a school of music open to all. Though Andalusia was under Islamic rule, there are records that indicate people of all three Abrahamic faiths were in the musical and political courts. Indeed, Ziryab’s colleague, Abu al-Nasr Mansour, was a Jewish musician in the khalifa Abd El Rahman II’s court in Cordoba, which also contained Christian musicians and heads of state.

An interesting anecdote is that Sephardic Jews who went to present-day Turkey after the Spanish inquisition also made contributions to the already existing maqam music theory system in the Ottoman Empire. Andalusia and pluralism had a great influence on the advent of music with contributions by people of all three Abrahamic faiths. A lot of poetry and poetic forms, which is what Andalusia was well known for, came out of this region. Even Sephardic poets like Yehudi Halevi, who wrote in Ladino (the ancient Judeo-Spanish language), would use poetic forms like the muwashah, which were often written in Arabic. All of these things were products of Andalusian cultural development.

Q: Are there other Western instruments that were developed as a result of Middle Eastern influences?

A: While many people considered the “Moors,” or North Africans, as the Islamic rulers of medieval Spain, there was actually a strong connection to Syria and the Umayyad dynasty. The influence of Eastern culture juxtaposed to North African culture on the Iberian peninsula can’t be understated. The oud was brought to Spain from Iraq, which eventually became the lute and other lute-like variations, including the mandolin and guitar. Many other string and percussive instruments (e.g., castanets) also made their way there from various regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and even South Asia. Instruments like the rebab and kemenche found in Egypt, the Levant, Persia, and Central Asia (bowed spike fiddles) eventually led to the development of other medieval European instruments like the rebec and lyra, which in turn led to the invention of the violin. North African instruments like the gumbri eventually became the banjo and similar string instruments, just as the bendir (frame drum with tightened strings) led to instruments like the modern-day snare drum.

Q: Why are you personally excited about performing in this concert?

A: I’m personally excited to play this concert because, first and foremost, I love Andalusian culture and history. For me, it represents a long stretch of time (over 700 years) that can serve as an example of how societies can thrive with pluralism and religious diversity, while sharing in one culture, much like America. Anytime I play Arabic muwashahat (an Andalusian musical and poetic form), Sephardic music, flamenco, and even early Spanish classical music with various musical groups, I can’t help but feel that we are connecting the past to the present both sonically and viscerally. I think audiences will not only enjoy the rare instruments on the stage and the historic repertoire, but also the real people playing and bringing those instruments, and that era, to life, as it may have once been back then.

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