Instrument collections and their stories

By Rachel Beckles Willson

In The Arabian Nights, the tale of the 288th night takes place in a lofty palace, beyond a door of teak inlaid with gold, through a hall and past a fountain to brocaded cushions, carpets and hanging curtains with furnishing to dazzle the mind and baffle description. The allure of beautiful crafts is ancient, just are collections of objects and the stories about them.

… a door opened and through it came a eunuch carrying an ivory chair inlaid with gleaming gold. He was followed by a girl of outstanding beauty, grace, splendour, perfection. The eunuch set the chair down and she took her seat on it like the bright sun in a cloudless sky. In her hand she was holding a lute made by Indian craftsmen and she placed this in her lap, bending over it like a mother with her child…

Whose stories lie behind the musical instruments that are so coveted today? In many cases we will never know, because instrument makers did not identify themselves. But towards the end of the 19th century habits began to change. Individual makers were increasingly keen to label their work, so today we can look through an instrument’s rosette and find a name, date and place, sometimes even a picture of the maker. Oudmigrations has studied a private collection including one oud made in 1908 by Kirkor Kahya, a member of the Armenian community of Istanbul and one of the most distinguished luthiers in the city.


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Similarly we know that one of the tanburs in the collection was made by the Armenian Garabet Danielian in 1901.


Armenians were not the only important musical craftsmen in the city. In this turn-of-the century period another significant maker of plucked stringed instruments was Manolis Venios from the Greek community. And from the late 19th century onwards Istanbul benefitted from an influx of Arab musicians, among whom were three brothers from the Qudmany family, who brought with them a tradition of Damascene craftsmanship and set themselves up as musicians, luthiers and music publishers.

Islamic thought had long been disapproving of music making and of instruments in particular, and these Armenians, Greeks and Arabs were Christian. However, whereas in the Arab world Muslims tended to refrain from instrument building, there were many Muslim luthiers in Istanbul, and there were a few Jewish ones as well. One Muslim example is provided by Ziya Usta, a prolific oud and tanbur maker who supplied tanburs for Tanburi Cemil Bey, one of the most significant composers and multi-instrumentalists of the era. It is likely that Ziya Usta made one of the tanburs in this collection.

ziya-usta-tanbur So collecting Ottoman instruments today involves collecting memories of peoples, each with their own traditions and languages.

But people collect instruments for very wide-ranging reasons. Some amass them purely for the collecting itself: owning a large number of artefacts may bring private pleasure, excitement, prestige, or money. For certain collectors the point of the instruments is their physical beauty, so shape or ornamentation may be the most captivating features. Europeans have long been fascinated by Islamic traditions of decoration, whether floral Arabesque types, calligraphy, or abstractions from calligraphy. We can trace this Orientalism in architecture and interior design as well as in collections of carpets and antiques. We can also see it at play in Orientalist painting such as the featured image of this article, ‘The Light of the Harem’ by the Irish Charles Wynee Nicholls (1831-1903).

Desire for visual beauty is not exclusive to Europeans. In September 2016 the collection discussed here was exhibited at the Miho Museum in Kyoto in connection with the Al Thani exhibition ‘Jewels’. By then it had been purchased by H. H. Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani of Qatar, and all instruments had been restored by Karim Othman-Hassan. There in Kyoto the appeal to the eye – musical instruments as ‘jewels’ – was complemented by their allure for the ear, when some were used in a concert of Ottoman classical music led by Kudsi Erguner, and involving Stratis Psaradellis, Serkan Mesut Halili, Murat Aydemir, Enver Mete Aslan, Bruno Caillat and Bekir Buyukbas.

Instrument makers are more likely to collect for study purposes, to enhance their understanding of historical, regional or individual methods of construction. In their own work they can cater to all types, crafting according to customers’ instruction or market demand. Some historical instruments are so heavily decorated that they lose their capacity to resonate well: such pieces have usually been made for the eye rather than any musician’s ear. Players who collect instruments tend to seek the perfect sound or feel. Some need to equip themselves for a variety of different occasions and a range of tunings.

Many instruments are hybrids, with parts surviving from an earlier era but have layers of additions from more recent times. Sometimes such additions serve musicians well, as they replace the most fragile and damaged parts in order that the instruments can sound again. It is extremely rare to find an instrument such as the late 18th-century tanbur in this collection that retains its original convex soundboard.

18th-century tanbur.jpg

But it is not always the case that luthiers speak openly about their work, because admitting that parts of instruments are new may reduce their value. Where there is a fascination with history and authenticity there is a market for forgery. Since the 1980s there has been an expansion of interest in old instruments, and the intense competition among players, collectors and dealers has opened up this market significantly.

The true and untrue stories that we tell about instruments might be compared with those of The Arabian Nights, an early edition of which was published in Bulaq, a suburb of Cairo where the second oud in the collection was made.


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Now inlaid with decorations made by an Istanbul craftsman, some of the layers of its history are legible but many remain obscure, not unlike the endless storytelling and retelling of the Arabian Nights. Where do the stories originate and where will they go next?

Texts from The Arabian Nights are taken from Volume I of the Penguin Classics translation by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons (2010).

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