House of Oud, Al Nahyan Camp: a suitably mythical name for a location steeped in folkloric tradition. Hidden behind the One to One Hotel, the exact whereabouts of Abu Dhabi’s musical heart proves almost as shrouded. Best to take a map; an ancient chordophone marks the spot.
Part school, part jam house, Beit Al Oud is couched in a plush but nondescript villa, distinguished only by the tasteful oud motif that hangs above the entrance. From the moment you walk in, it’s obvious that there are artists in residence. It’s sparsely decorated with plenty of natural light, and the scent of freshly sawn wood plays in the air. A friendly receptionist greets us with fresh coffee and we’re introduced into a small circle of music makers, some of whom look like they’ve only just woken up, all of whom are eager to talk oud.
Musicians are the same wherever you go. None keep regular hours; all are enthusiastic to the point of geeky obsession. Time Out has been milling about among them for decades, so the conversation – occasionally hobbled by language difficulties – flows passionately, interrupted only by the arrival of the revered instrument, which quickly takes centre stage.
‘The oud is the grandfather of the guitar,’ explains Alaa Medhat Yousef, a tassel-haired teacher from Syria, trying to bridge the obvious cultural divide. ‘They are from the same family. But it doesn’t follow that a good guitarist will make a good oud player. The technique is very different.’ As if to demonstrate, he plunges into a mesmeric improvisation that slips up and down the instrument’s short neck, turning in on itself with only a glint in Yousef’s eyes as warning. If you were to join in, it would be very hard to keep up with this kind of virtuosity, but collaboration is what inspires the inhabitants of Beit Al Oud. In recent months, Yousef and his colleagues have swapped licks with cajun supremos The Pine Leaf Boys, as well as providing backing to the eternally buoyant Bobby McFerrin during his May visit. You don’t have to be a big name to impress these guys, either – Time Out manages to pluck out a bog-standard blues scale, and the room erupts. The jam, it seems, is on.
The school was established some 16 months ago by acclaimed Iraqi virtuoso Naseer Shamma, in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture And Heritage. Intended to inspire a better understanding of Arab musicology, the flourishing enterprise now coaches 60 students, originating from the UAE, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, America and Belgium. The founder’s nephew, Ahmed Shamma, is the director. Understandably, he’s delighted with their progress. ‘The original school is in Cairo,’ he explains. ‘They took 10 years to build a student body this size; we’ve not even been open for two.’
Aside from teaching oud technique, history and theory, the four teachers offer lessons on the harp-like qanoon, as well as instruction on how to make your own oud. A workshop is situated behind the small performance area, where Amro Fawazi, luthier extraordinaire, plies his trade. Over the course of an average month he knocks together three ouds, each displaying a delicate beauty, each – as Yousef puts it – ‘at an excellent price’. During our meeting, the craftsman politely steps away to attend to three Emirati youths who fawn over his latest creation in the same way teenagers in the West drool over a classic Gibson. Needless to say, he doesn’t recommend a cheaper model from a local souk. ‘A student must begin with a good oud and then stay with it,’ Fawazi tells me. ‘This is essential to understanding the sound and the rhythm of these instruments.’
Exploring the oud is a round-the-clock business. After a short administrative period between 11am and 2pm, students arrive for lessons between 5pm and 9pm, though Yousef and Ahmed will often sit busking late into the evening. ‘The key to being a good player is putting in the practice and keeping it up,’ explains Yousef. ’The more time between yourself and your oud, the better.’ We ask him if this is the same for the pros; does he practice whenever he’s not teaching? ‘No,’ he smiles. ‘Sometimes I actually sleep.’
Oud tuition is Dhs1,000 per month, consisting of a one-hour lesson, three times a week. The players are keen to meet anyone who’d like to collaborate – cultural interaction is the name of the game. For lessons, or to arrange a jam, call 02 641 5699.