The region’s most iconic instrument will be in the spotlight this weekend at an all-star string summit, during the opening weekend of the Sharjah World Music Festival.
On January 7, Legends of Oud concert will welcome four contrasting musical talents from across the region: Naseer Shamma and Khalid Mohammed Ali from Iraq, Necati Çelik from Turkey, and Husain Sabsaby from Syria.
The concert was conceived in part by Shamma, who pledged to deliver “something special” for his second appearance at the festival, following a prestigious slot at the inaugural edition of the event two years ago.
“I think the festival will grow year after year,” says Shamma. “I remember when it started two years ago it was very small, but is has very quickly grown up. There is a very good audience, so the festival will succeed.
“I feel Sharjah has developed [the culture] very high and very deep, to a very good level and quality, and ... when they asked me about the concert, I said of course I will come, and organise something very new and important.”
Across the Arab world, there is perhaps no musical instrument more integral – or more culturally important – than the oud.
A descendant of the lute, its roots stretch back more than five millennia, and it still holds a powerful sway, with the power to hold audiences spellbound.
The concert concept Shamma developed will juxtapose the contrasting geographical backgrounds and musical personalities of the distinct virtuosos – “four different sound colours of the same instrument”.
Bookended by opening and closing ensemble spectacles, the bulk of the evening will be split into extended solo segments from each player.
Typically, much of an oud recital is improvised, with lengthy solo passages spinning out of framing themes and scales. At their best, these empathetic excursions sound effortless and subconscious – but a great technical ability is required to coax such subtle, transcendent soundscapes.
Shamma says his best playing comes when his mind empties, his environment forgotten.
“I don’t think about the place around me, the audience, anything,” says the 53-year-old. “This is very important. When you feel good and ready to play, you can fly – I can’t remember anything.
“In this time, I feel I am like a bridge, and all the audience is flying with me.”
Shamma’s relationship with the oud spans more than four decades. The first time he laid eyes on one, at age 11, his life’s course was set.
“In the first moment when the teacher came in with the instrument, I felt it in my heart, like I saw my girl. I felt something – I felt this was my destiny,” he says.
Within a few months of plucking the strings for the first time, Shamma performed his own compositions to more than 1,200 parents and pupils at a school concert, and within a year he was teaching the instrument to friends.
In his teenage years, he received support and tuition from Munir Bashir, the Iraqi “King of Oud” credited with redefining contemporary solo improvisations. He says that he spent the last four of his six years at the Baghdad Academy of Music teaching his contemporaries, after completing the necessary studies in record time.
The experience – both the teaching and the wait for his diploma – inspired Shamma to open his own dedicated educational institute, Bait Al Oud (Arabic Oud House).
After launching in Cairo in 1999, further schools opened in Alexandria, Constantine and Abu Dhabi, with 80 students now enrolled in the Al Nahyan-based institute.
Among the previous graduates is Emirati musician and composer Faisal Al Saari, who made headlines performing the high-profile world premiere of his genre-melding piece Zayed’s Dream – which pitted Emirati traditions against the might of the 120-piece Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester orchestra – at the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s official pre-opening concert on Saadiyat Island.
Shamma’s tireless commitment to sharing his expertise with the virtuosos of tomorrow sets him apart from most other modern oud stars.
“All the soloists, they don’t teach, they don’t want to give anything,” he says. “Even great musicians everywhere – they don’t have one student.
“This is not normal, because if you have talent, this is not just for you, this is a gift for human beings, for the people.
“If you just take everything – the stardom, the money – this is not a great artist if he doesn’t give anything. I don’t want to be like them – I want to teach and give everything. I don’t do something for myself, never, everything I give to my students.”
So committed is Shamma to furthering the study and appreciation of the oud in the GCC, he is considering moving from his home in Bahrain to teach in Abu Dhabi full time.
“Maybe I will come back to the UAE soon,” he says. “My school is very important in Abu Dhabi. There’s a lot of students coming from the Gulf area, it’s now the centre of the region – in Abu Dhabi they care a lot.
“For that, I feel when they care, I will care more.”