x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

How an Emirati oud pupil became a master of the instrument

Faisal Al Saari is only the third oud player to graduate from Bait Al Oud since its launch in 2007 – so just how good an oud player do you have to be?

Faisal Al Saari, a new graduate from the Bait Al Oud of Arabia in Abu Dhabi, will now be teaching at the school.
Faisal Al Saari, a new graduate from the Bait Al Oud of Arabia in Abu Dhabi, will now be teaching at the school.

It resembles another of Al Nahyan Camp's nondescript homes, but the sense of occasion inside is grand. Slowly the seats inside the villa - the home of the Abu Dhabi branch of the global music school Bait Al Oud of Arabia - are filling and the VIPs start to arrive. Tonight the school will graduate its third student since it opened its doors in 2007.

But the celebratory mood among the crowd is undercut by nerves. Abu Dhabi's Faisal Al Saari, the would-be graduate, must pass his final music exam - an hour-long oud performance of 10 varied compositions - in front of a three-man specialist panel of oud composers and performers.

The performance hall is in what could be the villa's majlis. Those not able to find a seat in the main room are content sitting in the small reception area outside, watching the live proceedings on a projector screen.

Al Saari emerges from the dark side of the stage, his silhouette revealing a navy blue khandoura and hands clasping two ouds.

Mumbling a soft greeting to the crowd, he launches into his first piece, Sama'i Shat Araban by the classical Ottoman composer Tanburi Cemil Bey.

Hidden among the crowd is someone possibly even more nervous than Al Saari.

It is the modern day oud virtuoso and the school founder Naseer Shamma.

With arms tightly folded across his chest, Shamma's nerves are not only for his student. Both have a stake in the evening reaching a successful outcome.

For Al Saari, graduation from Bait Al Oud is his calling card to a global music career as a performer.

It is also a culmination of a journey spanning nearly four years that saw him entering the school as an intermediate student and graduating as a soloist.

For Shamma, it is another step in his quest to return the oud to its rightful place as what he deems "the soul of Arabic culture".

It was in 2007 that Shamma first met Al Saari. The Iraqi composer had just opened the school and Al Saari was one of the first students. What struck Shamma about his pupil was that his enthusiasm was not only limited to playing the oud. With a diploma in sound production from Abu Dhabi's Higher Colleges of Technology, Al Saari's interest extended to the physical production of the instrument itself.

"I had a sense of how serious he is about learning," Shamma recalls. "Every discussion we had would raise questions for him, and he would later research these points and write about them."

For Al Saari, enrolment in the school was a dream come true. It also saved him travel expenses as he had planned a trip to Egypt to track down the maestro in the school's Cairo campus.

"I was going to buy a ticket and just go there and see if I can find him," Al Saari says. "I thought if I can go and ask him about the different plucking methods he used than it would be a successful trip. Then I heard the school will come here and basically be down the road; I could not believe my luck."

But Al Saari's road to mastering the instrument began with a few broken strings. He remembers first becoming interested in the oud 15 years ago while living with his family in Sharjah. In his early twenties, Al Saari was contemplating a career in painting, but the oud's resonance struck a deeper chord. "It is really hard to explain," he says. "The first time I heard it I was surprised by how deep and flexible it sounded; I felt this thing could do anything and it had so many possibilities."

However Al Saari's conservative parents were not so impressed. Believing that music is a violation of Islamic teachings, they destroyed the first three ouds he brought home. Running out of options, Al Saari decided to take matters in his own hands. Returning home from an evening out, his parents found the family television missing.

"They asked me where the television is and I said I threw it out because the drama show they were watching had music in it. My mother said that she listened to the dialogue and not the music and I said that it was not my problem because you could still hear it," he laughs. "Later we agreed that I will return the television home if I could bring the oud home."

Al Saari shakes his head when recalling the story, amazed by his audacity. But it also hints at the steely determination that allowed him to seek out visiting oud teachers in an era where the instrument was viewed as a relic.

When Shamma brought his famed Bait al Oud to Abu Dhabi in 2007, Al Faisal was there with his enrolment papers on the first day.

For Shamma, opening Bait Al Oud in Abu Dhabi was a result of 20 years of performances in the UAE. He would return annually for a series of solo and festival shows playing his own material and desert classics. Shamma recalls how after each performance, audience members would approach him, expressing delight at being enchanted by an instrument they deemed quaint.

"They would speak about how they fell in love with it," he says. "This is very important because it is part of the culture of the Gulf. The Gulf even has its own style of playing in that it is very rhythmic and melodic. So when ADACH (Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage) invited me to open the school here I immediately said yes."

Born in 1963 in the Southern Iraqi city of Al-Kut, Shamma studied at Baghdad's Institute of Music, specialising in the oud. He blames the oud's waning profile in the Arab world on the dearth of music institutions teaching the instrument. This was his primary reason for founding the first Bait al Oud school in Cairo in 1998. Mirroring his education at the Baghdad institute, he wanted the oud to be taught with rigour and with a focus on technique, composition and performance.

Bait al Oud courses run up to two years, with education streams ranging from beginners to the advanced soloist level. With all the schools' instructors hand-picked by Shamma, each student must commit to three half-hour classes per week, as well as group performance sessions and an additional six hours of home practice daily. The courses also includes music theory with a focus on the Turkish, Egyptian and Iraqi schools of oud composition, with each style having its own modes and focus on either ensemble or solo performance.

In between touring, Shamma visits each campus "every 30 or 45 days" for masterclasses and to give private tutorials for advanced students.

Shamma's methodical approach proved to be successful, with the school growing to include campuses in Alexandria, Algeria, Abu Dhabi and a new one in Madrid to be opened next month. The Abu Dhabi campus currently operates at full capacity with 80 students enrolled, some as young as six. This year the school is set to graduate up to 10 students, with monthly graduation ceremonies to be held at the villa until December.

Shamma expects his graduates to blaze their own path using the oud. "With their instruments they will be holding their culture," he says. "The best way one can speak about themselves is through their culture and by understanding the technique of the oud they will be able to do that."

As well as sharing Emirati culture with global audiences, Al Saari hopes the oud can also embrace some of the best music from the West. A fan of the 19th-century Austrian composer Franz Schubert, Al Saari says the oud can be a unique addition to western classical music.

Indeed, included in his exam performance is Nino Rota's The Godfather film score and Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude in D Minor.

He introduces the latter as "possibly the first time it was ever played on the oud". The judges are impressed with the performance and Al Saari graduates with distinction. After the ceremony, Al Saari meets his beaming teacher as he emerges from the audience.

"You can relax now," Shamma says after their warm embrace.

Al Saari says he plans to follow Shamma's lead and go on the road immediately. But first, Al Saari agrees to one more request from Shamma.

He must return to school. This time, however, as a fellow teacher.