Tag Archives: oud

August 13th, 2014

Two weeks in and I’m still adjusting to this weekday shift. Today is Wednesday, so to us Westerners it’s really a Friday. You could tell by the way the students were celebrating: screaming Do-Re-Mi, jumping out of their chairs, clapping rhythms to a beat much faster than the ones we laid out. Then I made the mistake of handing out recorders to each and every one of them. We felt their Friday energy release in the form of twenty shrieking whistles, so piercing that the English teachers nearby came over to yell at our kids. Finally, we calmed them down enough to teach a few notes, and felt grateful for even that much progress by the end. 

Askar camp was worse. I keep reminding myself that these kids live in a cramped refugee camp, and tend to have a lot more energy than the others. Usually this is a good thing; they’re some of our most enthusiastic students and retain information better than most. On the flip side, if they get bored, this energy becomes fuel for literally bouncing off the walls of our echoing basement classroom and screaming until our ears hurt (maybe we should teach them to scream in harmony; at least then there would be something musical about it). Today, they sat still just long enough for us to do some rhythm review, and then broke out into the scene described above. To make matters worse, our translator ditched us again, so we struggled in vain to maintain control in Arabic.

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(But we still love our Askar Camp kids) 

Needless to say, I was relieved by the time we hit our weekend. The other Music Harvest volunteers and I hung around the Project Hope office, practicing jazz tunes and free jamming, before going home for quiet and relaxation. In the evening we had oud.

We met Nedal at City Center and took a taxi to Habib’s house. The second Nedal touched his knuckle to the door, it swung open with a slam and an “AHLAN WA SAHLAN!”, knocking Nedal back a good five steps. Habib stood in the doorway and erupted into laughter, before properly welcoming us inside. 

Tessa, Giulia, and I thought we needed to exchange our regular-sized ouds for bigger ones. As it turns out, we don’t need bigger ouds, just better technique. We spent an hour listening to Habib and Nedal improvise Taqasim, following each other through different maqams and quoting songs in both English and Arabic. They were really communicating; the two voices were woven into one, so that I couldn’t tell which one was playing the melody and which the harmony. Afterward, we were given an hour’s lesson, going over the nahawand maqam and “Tik, Tik, Tik” by Fairuz. 

 The evening wore on and we grew more relaxed. Habib’s friend Akeel brought chicken and potatoes to make makloubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish (in Arabic, I say “makloubeh” when I want to mean “upside-down,” and people understand because the way you make it is by flipping chicken upside-down onto a pilaf). Akeel also brought a homemade pear brew, so we put the ouds away, poured a glass, and sipped it while peeling potatoes. Meanwhile, we talked about work and nature and gardening; Akeel keeps a pepper garden, and regularly eats these green and black chiles. They taste like an inferno. Then he showed us a party trick where he smokes a cigarette, then flips it back into his mouth, appearing to have swallowed it whole. I swear, he doesn’t have a tongue. 

 I’m not surprised that of all the people we’ve met in Nablus, these three musicians are the ones we feel most comfortable around. As Habib said, “It’s only been two days, but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time!” He went on to talk about how musicians share the same “shape of mind,” and that the act of music-making is intrinsically communicative and unifying. Obviously, we all agreed: that’s why we’re here in the first place. 

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August 11th, 2014

Saturday is Monday, and Monday is the busiest day of the week. CCC in the morning, Askar camp in the afternoon, Arabic lessons in the evening, and oud with Nedal in the night. It starts out like hell but gets easier as the day goes on. Our translator didn’t show up today, so the first couple classes were even more difficult than usual. But Giulia and I are picking up Arabic quickly, so we nailed at least a few of our objectives.

Oud was the best part of an otherwise long, humid day of work. We learnt the first maqam, called Nahawand. It’s similar to our Aeolian scale, but the third and fifth are a little flatter than we’re used to. I’ve grown attached to my oud; it has this beautifully expressive face, with an inlaid wood and mother of pearl design resembling an eye with a teardrop. Habib says the face of an oud determines the sound. I think he was referring to the material and shape, but my oud’s voice is just as sad and warm as its face looks. It fits well with the Arabic music, which as a rule emphasizes feeling and emotion as the guide to good sound.

After the lesson, we followed Nedal upstairs to drink tea and watch the urban sunset from his uncle’s balcony:
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His uncle was carrying a baby, and as we played with him the mother came, carrying the baby’s identical twin. Twins are extremely common here; I have three sets of twins among my classes, a set living on my street, and a set that walks by everyday on their way to work. And more often than not, they make an effort to dress the same way, just as these babies were.

August 9th, 2014

Saturday shouldn’t feel Monday. It’s just not right.
Even though I slept over thirty hours this weekend, a.k.a. Thursday and Friday, I definitely didn’t get enough to be awake for morning music class with twenty eight year-olds. Our students had the Monday/Saturday blues, too; their voices sagged during the vocal warm-ups, and sluggishly clapped through the rhythms I wrote out for them. Still, though, they’re learning quickly. Everyday we add a new rhythm, exercise, pitch, etc.

Our second class was cancelled, so Giulia and I celebrated by eating literally the best falafel I’ve ever had (this is slowly turning into a food blog…). Then we met up with Tessa, and all three of us returned to Project Hope to meet our new oud teacher.

He showed up on the steps, right on time. The second I saw him I knew he was a musician. Picture a young man with hair gelled and spiked, dressed in a loose open shirt over a tank and shorts, and you have Nedal (Nedo for short). Garbed like that, he looked like he was from California rather than Nablus.

The first thing Nedo told us, after his name, was, “We need to get you guys ouds.” This wasn’t exactly planned in the budget, but we’re also not exactly the sort of people to reject the chance to own a new, exotic instrument. Plus, oud lessons were part of the deal; as a volunteer for Music Harvest, you teach music in exchange for learning oud, Arabic, and certain cultural facets of Palestine. Project Hope calls it the Tabadel Program, and the whole philosophy behind it is that when you come to teach, you also come to learn.

We definitely learned a lot as we followed Nedo through the winding souk and into a music shop. We learned that he’s an internationally recognized musician, who recently toured Euope with a group called Onadekom Band. We learned that the music shop in the souk sucks, and that we needed to meet with a man named Habib, professor of music at the An-Najah University of Nablus (that’s “Professor Love,” in Arabic). And we learned a lot more about the oud, this instrument we’re about to spend a lot of time learning.

Oud’s are basically guitars without frets. This allows their players to reach the elusive quarter tone, a musical feature rarely (if ever) found in Western music. In the Western world, there are 12 scales and their various modes. In Arabic music, there are around 35. They’re called maqams, meaning “place” in Arabic. When you play oud, the point is to get from “place to place”, often by Taqasim improvisation, feeling out the flow of the music while at the same time abiding by a complex but unspoken rule system. Professor Habib demonstrated would be the first one to demonstrate Taqasim for us.

Even in the lobby of his building, we could hear high-pitched plucking drifting down from three stories above. Following the sound, we climbed the stairs and pushed open the door to his apartment. He certainly had a musician’s house; bookshelves on every wall were cluttered with sheet music and ethnomusicology books, while ten gorgeously carved ouds hung on the sides and leaned against a sofa. On one table sat a bucket of violin bows, and above his TV were several shelves reserved for ornaments in the shapes of various instruments. Habib himself sat in front of the TV, playing a qanun. He didn’t stop immediately when he saw us, but continued for several minutes, strumming the qanun like a harp with one hand and picking out a longing melody with the other. We didn’t mind; in fact, we were totally entranced. After a while he stopped, turned to us, and laughed. “It’s new to me! I’ve been playing for two months!”

Wow. Two months. I had heard that Habib plays, like, a million instruments, but he truly sounded masterful on this thing. And it looks difficult to play: two thumb picks are all you have to make a huge range of sound on this precise and technical instrument. But the qanun was just the opening act; now Habib reached for his oud, his first instrument, an ornate full-bodied one with birds etched across its face (click here for a video of Habib’s playing). He started playing, a slow, sad maqam, but gradually he accelerated and transposed to a new key, a fiercer one. Soon his hand became a blur as he picked out rapid patterns in the strings, with such practiced technique that even to Western ears, the quarter tones sounded settled and right. Then he started morphing into another maqam, a calmer one, until finally ending the piece with a moderate flourish. But before we could applaud him, Habib stood up and put the oud down. “Now that you’ve heard how an oud should sound, it’s time to pick one out for yourself.”

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It’s like he said we were choosing our first Pokemon. Giulia, Tessa, and I started talking about how it would sound, whether or not we’d fall in love straight away, and so on. So when Habib led us around the corner into another room, we were totally floored. It was filled, from floor to ceiling, with ouds. Just stacks of ouds, everywhere. There must have been a couple hundred of them.

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(Seriously. This was just one wall)

After a tuning and jam session between Habib and Nedo, we had our ouds ready to go. We were beaming as we left the apartment, our new instruments slung over our shoulders. To celebrate, Nedo wanted to take us to Semaa Nablus, a sort of park at the top of one of the mountains overlooking the city. It was late, but we were to happy to care.

Fast forward three hours and its 1:30 am. We’re just thinking about going home, after drinking coffee and smoking shisha with Nedo’s friends. The night is clear and the temperature is perfect, and you can see Tel Aviv from here. Nedo’s group ranged from their early twenties to their fifties or even sixties. The eldest is an ex-war general, and the next had spent sixteen years in prison after the First Intifada. The younger two were his brothers, and the rest were cafe employees who were bored and wanted to hang out. Before coming to Palestine, we were told by our coordinator that friendship between opposite genders didn’t really happen in Nablus, due to their rather conservative, Islamic society. But by the end of the night, we were telling dirty jokes, making fun of each other, and sharing stories from our respective home countries. True, as a group of three girls and one guy we initially attracted a lot of attention, but that was mostly due to Nedo: he’s basically a rockstar here. Now, sitting at a table with these guys, talking about Islamic marriage culture and the Occupation and friends and family and sex, we feel like total equals. Definitely not a conversation/situation combo I ever imagined having in Palestine.

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