Meet the Oud, the “King of All Instruments” Whose Origins Stretch Back 3500 Years Ago to Ancient Persia

The word oud might make some peo­ple think of fra­grances. Tom Ford’s Oud Wood cur­rent­ly sets fash­ion­istas back between $263 and $360 a bot­tle: oud can refer to “agar­wood,” a very rare ingre­di­ent in per­fumes. But reg­u­lar Open Cul­ture read­ers may be more famil­iar with the bowl-shaped instru­ment that made its way to Europe from North Africa dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, giv­ing rise to the lute (al-oud… The word oud, or ud, in Ara­bic sim­ply means “wood.”) The oud is, after all, a direct, if dis­tant, ances­tor of the mod­ern gui­tar, a sub­ject we like to cov­er here quite a bit.

Some of the videos we’ve fea­tured on the his­to­ry of the gui­tar have starred clas­si­cal gui­tarist and stringed instru­ment spe­cial­ist Bran­don Ack­er. Just above, he intro­duces view­ers to the tun­ing, tim­bre, and play­ing tech­niques of the oud, “one of the most pop­u­lar instru­ments in Ara­bic music,” writes the site Maqam World. It is also one of the old­est. Ack­er leaves his “com­fort zone of West­ern Clas­si­cal music” in this video because of his fas­ci­na­tion with the oud as an ances­tor of the lute, “one of the most impor­tant instru­ments of the musi­cal peri­od we call the Renais­sance.”

The oud, whose own ances­tor dates back some 3500 years to ancient Per­sia, first arrived with the Moors dur­ing their 711 AD inva­sion of Spain. Although new to Europe, it was known in the Ara­bic world as “the king or sul­tan of all instru­ments” and had evolved from a four string instru­ment to one with (typ­i­cal­ly) eleven strings: “that’s five dou­bled strings tuned in unisons and then one low string, which is sin­gle.” Ack­er goes on to demon­strate the tun­ing of the sin­gle string and dou­bled “cours­es,” as they’re called. The strings are plucked and strummed with a long pick called a “risha” (or “feath­er”), also called a “mizrap” when play­ing a Turk­ish oud, or a “zakhme” in Per­sian.…

Wher­ev­er it comes from, each oud fea­tures the famil­iar bowed back, made of strips of wood (hence, “oud”), the flat­top sound­board with one to three sound­holes,  and the fret­less neck. “The oud has a warm tim­bre and a wide tonal range (about 3 octaves),” notes Maqam World. The instru­ment is tuned to play music writ­ten in the Ara­bic maqam, “a sys­tem of scales, habit­u­al melod­ic phras­es, mod­u­la­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties, etc.,” but it has tak­en root in many musi­cal cul­tures in North Africa, the Mid­dle East, and Europe. Ack­er may come to the oud as a fan of the Euro­pean lute, but the old­er instru­ment is much more than an evo­lu­tion­ary ances­tor of the Euro­pean Renais­sance; it is the “sul­tan” of a rich musi­cal tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues to thrive around the Mediter­ranean world and beyond.

Famous mod­ern oud play­ers come from Egypt, Syr­ia, Pales­tine, and Iraq, where Rahim AlHaj was born. The musi­cian “learned to play the oud at age 9,” NPR writes, “and lat­er grad­u­at­ed with hon­ors and a degree in music com­po­si­tion from the Insti­tute of Bagh­dad,” while also earn­ing a degree in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. AlHaj used his tal­ents in the under­ground move­ment against Sad­dam Hus­sain’s rule, and after impris­on­ments and beat­ings, was exiled in 1991. Now based in New Mex­i­co, “he per­forms around the world, and has even col­lab­o­rat­ed with Kro­nos Quar­tet and R.E.M.” See him per­form for Tiny Desk Con­cert above and hear more oud in con­tem­po­rary con­cert set­tings here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The His­to­ry of the Gui­tar: See the Evo­lu­tion of the Gui­tar in 7 Instru­ments

What Gui­tars Were Like 400 Years Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the 9 String Baroque Gui­tar

Hear Clas­sic Rock Songs Played on a Baroque Lute: “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps,” “White Room” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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