The award-winning Iraqi musician and poet Naseer Shamma is performing with the Global Music Ensemble on Saturday at the Abu Dhabi Festival.
Naseer Shamma a time lord with an oud instead of a Tardis
There's something enchanting about the way Naseer Shamma handles the oud. In his hands, the ancient Middle Eastern instrument becomes a time-travelling tool, transporting his audience to a different time and place every time.
The award-winning Iraqi musician and poet admits that once he begins to play, it is as if his "whole body has been taken out of this world".
Shamma, accompanied by the Global Music Ensemble, will perform on Saturday at the Emirates Palace hotel as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival line-up. It will be his eighth appearance.
"It is one of the greatest festivals in the world, because they care about art and education, not just music," says Shamma.
Since taking professional lessons at the age of 12 in Baghdad, Shamma has created the eight-string oud, as opposed to the traditional six-string version of the instrument, opening the door for a greater musical range and improving the opportunities for people with handicaps to be able to play. The design was based on his careful study of a manuscript by the ninth-century music theorist, philosopher and logician, Abu Nasr Al Farabi.
"When everything is perfect - the audience, the sound - I feel like I am not there, like I have wings. I feel as if I am flying," says Shamma, in between rehearsals in Cairo where he is based. "Many times, people in the audience tell me they feel exactly the same way."
During his Abu Dhabi performance, Shamma will be joined by musicians from Italy, Colombia, Spain, Puerto Rico and Greece, to name a few, promising an "electrifying evening of creativity".
"I care about everything around me - the political situation - so there are a lot of different thoughts and feelings in my music," he says. "This is a special project and I know each of the musicians personally and they are unique. The concert is about freedom, love, peace and politics."
Shamma began preparing the original compositions a year ago when travelling alone to France to concentrate solely on the music.
Born in Kut in Iraq, he has also composed for Arabic television, film and theatre and founded Beit Al Oud 13 years ago in Cairo, an educational facility raising awareness on the traditions and history of the oud, with a presence in Abu Dhabi, Algeria and Alexandria.
He also studied under the direction of the Iraqi musician Munir Bashir, who is known for introducing the contemplation technique to the oud.
"Bashir is a master of this instrument; when I was in Baghdad he had heard me play and told me that one day I will add something to the music world," says Shamma. "Through meditation, I feel we can help people everywhere."
It was when he was just five years old that he knew exactly where his life would lead, following a number of dreams featuring a "magical" instrument, the name of which he would later come to know.
"I saw my life play out like a film - playing at concerts around the world and during festivals. I now feel I've organised my life to where I want to be," says Shamma. "The first time I saw the oud with a music teacher, I immediately recognised it from my dreams and I knew it was my destiny, but they said I was too young to play."
Shamma would later find a teacher who was a family friend and willing to coach him and one year later, in 1984, he was playing in Geneva. In 1985 he gave his first original concert in Baghdad to a crowd filled with notable personalities from the arts.
"I wanted to build my own tradition. I was about 16 and the concert was so rich and I felt this vibration through my whole body. I worked very hard and practised every single day," he says.
Following his Abu Dhabi performance, he plans to return to Iraq for the first time since 1993, where he will give a concert and perhaps open a branch of Beit Al Oud.
"All my thoughts and feelings about returning, it will be like a revolution in my body. Everything will be different. I have friends who are no longer alive, an audience to perform for - it will be a strange situation," he says.
Following the Gulf War, Shamma had accepted an invitation to teach at the Higher Institute of Music in Tunisia and now lives in Egypt.
"This was an important time. I felt like my country had been destroyed, many were killed and there was no infrastructure, and Tunisia was a new life for me," he says.
In 1991, he founded Tazc.org, which aims to help victims of war in Iraq and a large portion of his concerts around the world goes directly in support of Iraqi children.
In February, he also composed Baba Amro, dedicated to the innocent victims of the unrest in Syria.
• Naseer Shamma & the Global Music Ensemble will perform on Saturday at 8pm in the Emirates Palace Auditorium. Tickets start at Dh295. Shamma will also be signing copies of his first book Dreams of Naseer Shamma today at 11am in the Emirates Palace. For more information, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae
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