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173 – The ‘Ūd 1


The Arab Music Archiving and Research foundation (AMAR), in collaboration with the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), presents “Durūb al-Nagham”.

Dear listeners,

Welcome to a new episode of  “Durūb al-Nagham”.

Here is the first of a series of episodes about the ūd discussed in a pleasant interview with Mr Mustafa Said.

Good morning Mr Mustafa.

Good morning to you.

Mr Mustafa, the subject of the ūd is a broad subject. Let us start it off smoothly with some questions.

I am listening.

What is the ūd to Mr Mustafa Said?

There are different readings: to some, all short-necked instruments without frets and with a sound box, that are played with a pick, are ūd-s; on the other hand, in organology, after Hornbostel-sachs, all string instruments that are plucked and all bow instruments belong to the ūd family. … There is no right or wrong definition of the ūd as it depends on one’s opinion and on what they want.

Today, is the ūd necessarily a percussion instrument?

Albert Mansour

Albert Mansour

Organology defines two separate categories:

  • the ūd is a short-necked instrument played with a pick, added to other instruments besides those we know as ūd-s;
  • all instruments that have a neck and that are plucked, whether they are played with a pick or with a bow, belong to the ūd

This is the general understanding in organology –the science of musical instruments– that categorises the various instruments into families.

… To me, the ūd is the ūd I play.

In India, as you surely know, the slightest difference between instruments implies a different name for each of these instruments, whereas in the Arab World, several instruments are called ūd even though they are different in size and in the sound they produce.

This is okay if we consider the term ūd as a proper noun. Yet on the other hand, when ūd implies a playing style and not the instrument’s name – which I think is more likely, as the ūd can be played like a guitar or like a mandolin for example–, would the musician still be playing a ūd, or would he have gone beyond that? I.e. when one transforms completely the playing style –I do not mean the inherited playing style, since I am totally against a rigid application of the heritage and completely for evolution– of a certain instrument, and applies a totally different playing style to it, would they still be playing this same instrument, or would they have gone beyond it and be playing a different one? …  Irrespective of the size or shape of the instrument …etc.

But let us go back to the Abbassid era… Their books mention the ūd, the barbaṭ, the ūd shabbū…etc., that were all called ūd-s: Thus we deduce that, in the past, all the instruments that were played by plucking, even those with frets, were called ūd-s

I do not have a problem with this… But what about the playing style then?: How does one play this instrument? …



Now, let us tell an anecdote about the ūd excerpted from volume 13 of Abū Faraj al-Afahānī’s “Kitāb al-Aghānī”, at the end of the sanad (reference/document) about al-Nawfalī whose name is mentioned several times throughout the book as he had many stories.

This long story was told by Nāhiḍ bin Thawma al-Kilābī (a famous poet) to the author’s grandfather:

“He said that while they were once travelling towards Damascus, they passed through the village of Bakr bin ‘Āṣim al-Hilālī where they saw lots of people arriving and leaving, wearing flowered-coloured clothes, which made him think at the time that they were either celebrating ‘īd al-aḍḥa (Festival of the Sacrifice) or ‘īd al-fiṭr (Festival of Breaking of the Fast), until he remembered that both celebrations had already been fêted before he left his people in Basra.

While he was looking at them in astonishment, a man took his hand and led him inside a house where a young man with long hair sat, surrounded by people, and whom he thought was the Prince he had heard of. So he introduced himself to him, but was then told that he had mistaken a bride for the Prince.

Soon after, men brought bread –that the narrator first thought was close-knit fabric–, different kinds of food –that he ate a lot of–, followed by a red beverage he first refused to drink because he was afraid it would kill him, but he was advised to drink it because water would harm his belly after all the food he had eaten… This reminded him that he had been advised by his father and by the eldest members of his people to keep his belly hard/strong in order to stay alive. So he started drinking the beverage and could not stop drinking, going through emotions he could neither explain nor had ever experienced before.

…So he turned towards the man who had advised him to drink this beverage to insult him.

But at this point, four demons arrived:

  • One was carrying a Persian quiver with two open sides and a thin centre, covered with fur (mi‘zaf);
  • The second one took out of his sleeve a black object that produced a sound he had never heard before (mizmār or zurnāy);
  • The third one was clicking two mirrors one against the other (castanets);
  • The fourth one threw himself on the floor and people started throwing dirhams at him.

There was a young man in the house (we are getting closer to the ūd description) whom everybody praised and wished well. He brought in a piece of wood with eyes in its chest and four strings, and out of which he brought a stick that he put behind his ear, then he started rubbing its ears and playing it with a piece of wood he held in his hand, so “It talked, by God!” –it was the best songstress the narrator had ever heard– and sang along with it. The narrator leaped up and sat at the feet of the young man whom he asked what was the instrument he was playing, to which the young man answered “A barba. He asked him then the name of the lower string… “The zīr” the young man answered… “And the next one?”, “The mathna”… “The third one?”, “The mathlath”… “What about the highest string”, “It is the bam”. So the narrator declared: “I first believe in God, secondly in you, thirdly in the barba, and fourth in the bam.”

He added that his father laughed until he fell, and made Nāhilaugh at his laughing!”

This was a funny description of the ūd by a nomad who had never seen one before.

We also noted that Abū al-Faraj called it ūd at times, and sometimes barbaṭ. Appellations were not a major concern to them …


Dear listeners, we have reached the end of today’s episode of “Durūb al-Nagham” about the ūd presented with Mr Mustafa Said.

We will resume this discussion in our coming episodes.

Today’s episode was presented by Fadil al-Turki.

“Durūb al-Nagham”.

  2016  /  Podcast  /  Last Updated July 28, 2016 by  /  Tags:
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