Ottoman oud histories


This beautiful postcard invites us to think afresh about the history of the oud. Two elegantly dressed women look out at us, holding their instruments and their plectra. Beside them is a boy in a top hat, who stands on a footstool to reach the right height. In the background and at the edge of the frame, we see traces of other figures less clearly. The impression is of a family scene – perhaps of mother, daughter and grandson – with a domestic servant (another woman) further back on the right, smiling gently. The pose may date from the early years of the Turkish Republic but the instruments are likely to date back to Ottoman times.

Recent histories of the oud have three main stories to tell. The first is to do with the construction, tracing the oud‘s origins in central Asia through carvings, paintings, and texts from the 2nd to 14th centuries, and explaining the oud’s relationship to music theory. The second story has demonstrated its role in courtly life, whether with the Abbasids in Baghdad or the Ottomans in Istanbul. The third is the most extended, more populist and increasingly capitalist. It emphasises heroic and mythologised players ranging from Ziryāb (Abū ‘l-Hasan ‘Alī ibn Nāfi’, d.850), who settled in the court at Cordoba in 822, to a series of modern soloists starting with Şerif Muhiddin Targan (1892-1967) and adding any other oud soloist that can be absorbed into the frame.

Oudmigrations is committed to exploring some of the missing centuries, and to discovering musical activities about which historians have been silent. Outside the courts, what kinds of ouds have been played and where? Who made them? Who were the players?

The postcard featured here is one of many that allow us to develop some new answers. And Oudmigrations has been set up in recognition that oud histories are diverse and diffuse. We are focusing initially on ouds made during the Ottoman era, and will expand our frame in due course. Please get in touch if you have something to share: a story from your own life or from literature, an instrument, a picture.


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