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Oud master Naseer Shamma’s new book shows how music can be a tool for peace

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Naseer Shamma has launched his debut book at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Written over a space of six years, the Iraqi oud virtuoso and founder of the Bait Al Oud music conservatory has managed to distil over three decades worth of knowledge in the immensely readable Al Uslubia Al Mousiqiyah: Muftah Al Sir.

Written in Arabic and translated to Styles of Music: The Secret Key by Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism publishing arm Kalima, the work is as much an introduction to music appreciation to an argument on the important role the arts can play in society.

“I wanted to discuss the many ways that made these big personalities great and what they contributed to their respective forms,” Shamma said, during his panel session at the book fair on Wednesday, October 16.

“I also wanted to show how many of them came from societies where there is a love for culture in general.”

What made Um Kulthum great?

At 180 pages, the book is brisk and split into numerous chapters. In prose both knowledgeable and evocative, Shamma explores various aspects of music composition in addition to providing advice on how the general listener can appreciate the best the form has to offer.

“Let’s take a look at someone like Um Kulthum for example. What I find interesting about her is that she is probably the only thing where there is unanimous appreciation about her from the Arab world. Everything else we argue about, from music to the way we pronounce words, but with her there is an understanding that she is the best,” he says.

“So I wanted to shed light on why she was great and how, through her strong personality and power of her voice, she managed to influence composers to create songs in her mould. She created a music tradition that lives to this day.”

This is the biggest feature of the book. Shamma is at pains to show how the music we love today comes from both pioneers and a wider music tradition.

Poetry’s role in advancing Arabic music

A fascinating chapter discusses the important role poetry has played in the evolution of classical Arabic music.

“It’s involvement with music really began about 1,300 years ago in the Levant were there was no real interesting music being produced,” he says.

“So a lot of composers, in need for expressing themselves, started getting into poetry. The poetry, especially in Iraq, would be sung and from there the Maqam music tradition was born. That revitalised the spirits of the composers who went back to creating music but in a new and exciting way.”

More than just music

As interesting as they seem, Shamma says there is more to the book than a series of colourful historical takeaways. He wants the work to act as a plea to reinstate the importance of music and the creative arts in Arabic societies.

“Music should not be viewed as simply a hobby,” he says.

“If you approach it right and understand its effects, it can change people’s lives for the better.”