x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

What happens when you cross an electric guitar with an oud?

After three years of effort, the Dubai-based musician Kamal Musallam knows the answer: an instrument that plays both Western and Arabic music.

The musician and producer Kamal Musallam with the KMMV1 at his studio in Al Nahda, Dubai.
The musician and producer Kamal Musallam with the KMMV1 at his studio in Al Nahda, Dubai.

DUBAI // To the untrained eye it seems like any other electric guitar - six steel strings, a polished wooden body and an unmistakable twang emitting from the amp. But as Kamal Musallam begins to play, it is not rock 'n' roll or blues that comes out, but the distinctive Arabic sound one would expect from an oud.

His Arabic guitar - a hybrid between the guitar and the oud - has all the features of a normal guitar, with the added capacity to play quarter tones that give the oud the sound that sets it apart from other stringed instruments. The guitar is the result of three years hard work by Musallam, 39, a Dubai-based musician from Jordan, and Ibanez, a Japanese guitar manufacturer. "It doesn't have the wooden acoustic sound of the oud, but it hits the same notes," Musallam said. "So, for the first time, we can play both western and eastern music from one instrument."

On a standard instrument, raised metal strips called frets placed along the neck of the guitar allow the user to pinpoint the exact location of the notes. In the standard western system, in which a musical scale is divided into 12 semitones, each guitar fret represents one semitone. The Arabic scale, or maqam, is further divided into quarter tones, or sika, providing the rich possibilities of 24 sounds.

"If you compare it to architecture, the major and minor scales of the West are like high and low columns," Musallam said. "The quarter tones are medium height columns, somewhere in the middle. It can sound off to the western ear, but it is that which gives the depth of emotion to Arabic music." On the KMMV1, which carries Musallam's name and signature, all 24 tones are signified by frets of different widths. The new instrument enabled musicians for the first time to be accurate with the location of the quarter tones rather than relying on improvised techniques or their own aural perceptions, Musallam said.

"It wasn't an easy process to get it right and we had to go through five prototypes," he said. "But now we have an instrument that will really stretch the innovation abilities of musicians to create a true fusion sound." The prototype of the instrument will have its public debut next week at the Cannes International Film Festival, when Musallam plays on the Abu Dhabi stage with the Emirati group Sokoor al Magabeel.

In August, the first batch of 100 will be shipped from Japan for distribution across the Arab world. The guitar will retail at somewhere between US$600 (Dh2,200) and $700. Mitsuyoshi Uematsu, a member of the Ibanez development team, said yesterday that Musallam's passion for creating the guitar was the main drive behind putting the instrument into mass production. "We have had a good relationship with Kamal for years," he said. "At the moment, we have no idea what the reaction will be like in the market, even though the orders have started to come in, we still need to wait to see when it goes on sale."

The Kamal Musallam guitar was tailor-made for the Middle East, he said. "The tuning was the most difficult part, it is based on a western guitar but we applied the essence of the Arabic culture coming from the example of the oud to create the hybrid. At the moment it is unique, there is nothing like it from our competitors." Alaa Medhat Yousef, 29, an oud teacher from Beit al Oud in Abu Dhabi, said mastering the new guitar would involve much more than learning new chords. The technique would be totally different, he said, predicting that it would be very difficult to play. "I have heard of people trying to do this before, putting things between the frets and even bending the strings while playing to achieve a different sound, so it is not a new idea," he said.

"I'm not sure if it will be useful to the Arabic musicians, I suppose it depends on their opinion. "One thing is for sure, no new instrument will ever be able to produce the same sound as the oud. If someone can play the guitar it does not mean he can play the oud. Even if he learns where the bars are, I'm not sure if he will be able to play the same melodies. The two are totally different." Musallam had the idea for the guitar 25 years ago when he was at school and saw music videos of Omar Khorshid, an Egyptian who played with Umm Kulthum's band. Khorshid used makeshift frets under his strings to reach the Arabic scales.

"I remembered those videos years later and decided to draw sketches of a guitar with the frets already added," Musallam said. "Instead of adding just a few I worked out the whole scale and indicated the markers. It would take a guitarist a little time to get used to the new layout but we expect them to want to work hard to master it." @Email:aseaman@thenational.ae