Khalil Hamouda sits in an empty music shop on Mohamed Ali Street in downtown Cairo, where three generations of his family have spent their lives crafting oud, a guitarlike instrument. In its height, Mohammed Ali Street was the artistic centre of Cairo. Once the stamping ground of cabaret dancers, musicians and their craftsmen, the street is now crowded with furniture makers and paint stores. Hamouda says only a handful of traditional oud craftsmen remain.
"No one is teaching the craft of making an oud, really, and to our employees this is just about the commerce. But, that isn't the case for my brother and me," said Hamouda.
Now, master craftsmen have decamped to less crowded parts of the city and rely on the internet and reputation to draw customers to their workshops. One such craftsman is Sayid Fathy Amin, who builds ouds that cost thousands of dollars, and have been bought by celebrities such as George Michael and Abdulrab Idrees.
Amin's shop in Giza is only reachable by motorised rickshaws, known in Egypt as tok-toks. Located in a narrow alleyway, Amin says musicians from all over the region visit him in search of the mellow, rich sound the oud produces.
"The musicians can tell their instrument from the sound. They come and try five ouds, but would discern something in one of them - something that calls to him in a way - and this is the voice he wants to have," said Amin.
Amin learnt the craft from his father, the famous oud-maker Fathy Amin. Much like his father, who passed away last year, Amin has dedicated his life to improving the sound of the oud. Though he produced his first oud at 18 years of age, Amin says he spent his childhood playing in his father's workshop. "As a little boy, I'd sit in the workshop and make toy cars or fashion things from wood," said Amin, "I love challenges and whenever anyone came and asked me to create some bizarre instrument - such as the gambari, an African instrument that is a box covered in leather with three strings - I tried to make it. I love experimenting."
But, his first love is the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument that is played throughout the region but largely made in Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Making a quality sounding oud is no easy feat. Amin spends anywhere from two weeks to three months forming the wooden ribs of the body, hand-cutting the intricate face and, finally, stringing the instrument.
"Every oud maker has dimensions and measurements for the soundbox inside the oud that they keep secret. No one knows but the head craftsman, That's why every oud sounds different," said Amin. "A professional player, as soon as they play, can tell if there's something off about it - if its too metallic sounding, or too Western-sounding - but the Fathy Amin oud has a soft, tender sound."
The oud lent its unmistakable sound to the Golden era of Arab music when Mohamed Abd El Wahab and Umm Kulthum - whose voices are still ubiquitous in cafes and cabs - were synonymous with Egypt itself. Since the 1990s, Arab musicians have moved away from classical instruments, instead favouring more Western forms such as the electric guitar, says Amin.
In the last half decade, though, ouds are being strummed to new beats by young, hip musicians. The award-winning oud player Naseer Shamma has composed for plays, television and movies, while the Iraqi oudist Rahim Al-Haj recorded with Western musicians such as R.E.M. Egypt's Hazem Shaheen, who has been playing the oud since he was 12, started the band Eskenderella with friends he met at the famous Beit el Oud (House of Oud.)
"The world has opened onto each other and there are so many different dialects of music that in the last 10 years the oud has flourished," said Shaheen. "If you listen to Madonna and rap music, you can find the oud in it. Everything is open to each other and it's a new sound for people."
Indeed, Shaheen gets his instruments from men like Amin, but also from makers in Iraq and Norway. The tradition of oud-making is changing, becoming a global market. Most of Amin's clients are from Saudi Arabia. And, instead of dying out, the oud's distinctly oriental sound is likely to grow for generations to come, something Amin and Shaheen strongly believe. "This instrument has such a strange sound, an almost human quality," said Shaheen. "It's an old instrument, but like an old person that keeps developing even as it has thousands of years of civilisation within its sound."
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