The deep, lilting, micro tones of the oud caught guitarist Jagadeesh M.R.'s fancy instantly, when he heard it played in Cairo. He bought himself an instrument and has, for the last decade, been teaching himself to play it. He talks to Priyam Chhetri about his tryst with the ancient instrument that has found a place in varied musical cultures across Asia and the Middle East.
When Jagadeesh plucks at the strings of the oud, he conjures up the deserts and the belly dancers of the Arab world, far removed from the smoke-filled blues bars of our cities where jazz-fusion rules the day. Still, this self-taught oud player, who also co-founded world music band Moon Arra, straddles both worlds with ease.
The oldest pictorial evidence of the oud comes from somewhere between the first and third centuries A.D., and appears to have evolved in Central Asia or India. Remarkably similar in appearance to its more popular counterpart, the lute, the origins of the oud actually date back some 5000 years, to the pre-Islam era. Known then as the barbat, which was an important instrument in Arab Ghassanids in pre-Islamic times. It evolved and was renamed el oud, which means ‘piece of wood’, a name inspired by the instrument’s facade. Pear-shaped, with a short wooden neck, the instrument usually comprises between 11 and 13 strings. In India, it has inspired the legends; Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, for instance, a world-renowned exponent of the sarod, an instrument that was actually inspired by the Oud.
Often called the ‘sound of the desert’, the oud, as Jagadeesh describes it, is played in micro tones. It is based on Maqam, a system of melodic modes used in traditional, Arabian music. Jagadeesh, who also helms the Bangalore School of Music, certainly knows his way around a guitar, too! “The chords I can’t sync with a guitar, though, I can with an oud,” he smiles. “It was really its sound that made me fall in love with it.” He discovered first in Cairo, where he found Oud musicians at every corner. “As a guitarist, I wanted to try different stringed instruments,” he said. He picked one up and taught himself out to play it, which, he found, wasn’t as easy as he thought! “The oud doesn’t have frets,” Jagadeesh explains, pointing to a guitar lying nearby to demonstrate. “One has to feel the notes to make it sound a certain way. There’s so much to do – I’m still learning!”
Modern day ouds are of two types, the Arabic and the Turkish, which could be quite misleading to the unaware because they are not grouped according to the geography of their origins. Rather, Arabian ouds are a bit larger in size than the Turkish ones and emanate a more wholesome, deeper sound. Turkish ouds tend to be shriller and have sharper tones. This difference is created because of the way the ouds are tuned in different parts of the Middle East. Turkish ouds tend to be a step higher than their Arabic counterparts.
The oud was fabled to be made out of gold in the olden days, remarks Jagadeesh. “Long time ago, I think it was perhaps made in gold. They say that the round pear shaped bottom part was made in metal and the top covering it in animal leather. Now of course, they are only made of wood,” he says, sounding almost disappointed.
Like the sarod, although there are plenty of instruments inspired by the oud, its patrons are almost unheard of in this part of the world. “First, there is a lack of teachers and second, it’s a remarkably difficult instrument to procure,” he says. “To have really good musicians, we need really good teachers. Also, being originally foreign, it didn’t really take off where we are from. The fact that ouds are not made in this part of the world also kind of set us back a little.”
Jagadeesh also plays the oud professionally with his world music band MoonArra, that has the likes of Dr. Prakash Sontakke, one of the leading Hindustani composers of our time and Karthik Mani Subramanya. They also frequently perform with Grammy award winner Ricky Kej. The band will be performing next at the World Music Conference at Indiranagar Sangeeth Sabha on June 26.
“If you’ve never heard the Oud, it would be a very different experience. I will be incorporating the oud along with some jazz tunes and some drums,” he says.