The oud in England

By Rachel Beckles Willson

The story of Ziryab is still enticing for many. As often told, a man came to 9th-century Cordoba from Baghdad bringing stylish clothing, hairstyles, deodorant and a musical instrument, and triggered a wave of innovations including the European lute and eventually the guitar. But the Ziryab story is a gross manipulation, a product of politicking by historians who wished to promote a family lineage and to promulgate nostalgia for a (mythologised) Al Andalus (Reynolds 2008 and Davila 2009). Intercontinental trade networks of the period were rich and complex, they supported a range of musicians both male and female, and multiple innovations and transformations over a number of centuries. So we should take a step back from Ziryab’s mythologized heroism.

The oud’s more recent journeys to Europe and North Americas present new challenges for historians. How shall we narrate the westward journies of this instrument in the 20th-century? An oud in London that was made in Baghdad by Muhammad Ali and played by the Iraqi Salman Shukur – featured in our last article and pictured below – can offer some starting points.


This oud arrived in England with Salman Shukur in the mid-1970s (Shukur stayed until 1990, while oud remained in London). He seems to have travelled initially to Durham University, released on a year’s sabbatical from his position as Professor of oud at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He had contact with the Director of Durham’s Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Mr. John A. Haywood, and they had a plan to collaborate. Their work together was intended to yield – among other things – a study of the famous theoretical treatise of Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (1230-1294 AD), Kitab al-Adwār (Bowen-Jones et al 1975).


It is not clear what emerged from their scholarly discussions, but there was certainly at least one musical result, namely a Concerto for oud and orchestra. This work has been attributed to Salman Shukur, but it was advertised as a composition by John Haywood when it was slated for a London performance in 1983. As one listing stated:

The City of London Sinfonia gives the world premiere of John Haywood’s Oud Concerto, in which the soloist is Salman Shukur, who also plays items for unaccompanied oud (Times, 12 November 1983, p.7).

A brief listing for the Musical Times has the same implication:

From ‘London Diary for November’, The Musical Times 124/1688 (Oct., 1983)

The City of London Sinfonia, which is still an active a chamber orchestra today, had been founded by its conductor Richard Hickox  in 1971. On 15 November 1983 night its programme was eclectic, including Haydn, Mozart and a new composition by English composer Paul Patterson. The most detailed review, in the contemporary music journal Tempo, suggests that the oud concerto was in fact a collaboration between Haywood and Shukur intended to ‘bridge the gap between classical Arabic and European music, with the hope of encouraging further attempts in the same direction’ (Head 1984). However, the reviewer found little to praise when he listened to it. Haywood’s style was dated and provincial, while the oud and its player sounded out of place:

Unfortunately the results made the oud sound like an exotic caged bird, an impression reinforced by Shukur’s evident unease at playing with an orchestra. (He was not helped by the amplification of the oud, which deprived the instrument of all subtlety and accentuated the sound of skidding fingers and plucked ‘explosions’. It is considered inauthentic to amplify clavichords and harpsichords: why must we put up with amplified ouds and sitars?) The work’s anachronism was most apparent in the second movement, where the unashamedly English orchestral sounds, derivative of Vaughan-Williams, were combined with distinctly Arabic cadenza on the oud. The total effect was a kind of ‘orientalism’ far different from what one would imagine the composers had in mind.

Thanks to the prestige of the City of London Sinfonia and the high-profile venue at London’s South Bank Centre, there were reviews in all the major national papers. But none of them had a good word for the Oud Concerto. For one it was ‘Arab-European musical entente at its most stillborn: a classical Western shell, crudely formed and textured, housing – no more – a bastardized succession of clichéd arabesque’ (Finch 1983). Another noted that Shukur was ‘lumbered with a banal, predictable Concerto written for the occasion by John Haywood. With the gentle instrument unfortunately over-amplified we might have been listening to the film music of some seedy drama about the Middle East’ (Blyth 1983). One other reviewer refrained from writing anything except that he doubted he’d be ‘seeking out a second hearing’ (Aprahamian 1983).

Head was not optimistic about the future of collaborations like this one, and noted that when Shukur played as a soloist he sensed more of a bridge between East and West. Finch noted similarly that ‘Shukur’s imaginative virtuosity in the pacing of melodic melisma and rhythmic cycles made his brief solo performance the high point of an ill-assorted evening’ (Finch 1983). For Blyth there was a redeeming moment in the Concerto when Shukur provided a cadenza in the slow movement that ‘gave some idea of this player’s delicacy of touch and the plangency he draws from his instrument’.

Notwithstanding the failure of this particular piece, it is clear that the efforts of John Haywood were of help to Shukur. As Director of Durham’s Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Haywood was probably one of the principle organisers of the first Durham Oriental Music Festival that took place in 1976, when Shukur had at least one performance. The University had a strong tradition of what was then called ‘Oriental Studies’, and collaborated on the event with the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology as well as the Music Department, keen to cultivate musical awareness beyond the existing, European-focused expertise (Taylor 1976). The Festival gained funding from UNESCO, the Arts Council, Northern Arts and others, so that a number of distinguished scholars of music were invited from as far afield as Iran, North America and Japan.

From a review it seems that Shukur presented the product of another European collaboration on the occasion, namely an oud quintet (Morris 1976). This may have been The Mountain Fairy, which began as a piece for oud, but in 1966 had gained parts for string quartet by ethnomusicologist Vacslav Kubica (1926-1992). Kubica lived in Baghdad 1960-62 and 1964-68 because his wife Bozena Kubicova worked there as a clarinettist; both were from Czechoslovakia, then a Soviet republic (Jurkova 2015). According to Haywood this quintet version of The Mountain Fairy did not offer ‘a perfect solution’ to the ‘problem of combining Western harmony and counterpoint with Arab monody’, and the shorter solo version had a more sustained life (Haywood 1980). But this did not hold Shukur and Kubica back from further attempts, for they collaborated on further works for oud quintet such as Scherzo caprice, Quasi Concertina and Rondo and Variations, which were performed at the Goethe Institute in Baghdad.

The hand-writing on this concert programme is a request from some of the guests at the performance who arrived late. Could Shukur kindly play the first piece again?!

In these collaborations we recognise Shukur’s openness to European traditions and his keenness to develop the oud towards the West. Commentators often mention these interests in order  to place Shukur in line with his teacher Serif Muhiddin Haydar, particularly in the area of oud playing techniques. It is undeniable that the Durham Romance is exemplary of his experiments with texture and physical challenges, affirming that interest.

Extract from Shukur's Durham Concerto

Extract of Shukur's Durham Romance
Extracts from Shukur’s Durham Romance

In terms of the broader historical question, however – namely the oud’s journey to Europe – comparison with the parallel case of Munir Bashir is more useful. As we have seen, Shukur drew substantially on the help of the Arabist John Haywood, while Bashir’s European career developed thanks to the support of scholar Simon Jargy, Professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Both Shukur and Bashir found allies within the European establishment, and each had the possibility of collaboration, negotiation, self-promotion.

While that local collaboration was important, both Bashir, Shukur also benefited from a strong cultural mission by the Iraqi government. We can trace it through the London-based Iraqi Cultural Centre that acted as manager for performances in prestigious venues from 1977 through to 1983.

The Observer, 29 November 1977
New Musical Express, 3 December 1977, p.52.
New Musical Express, 3 December 1977, p.52.
The Guardian, Saturday May 1 1982, p.14
Listings for the Wigmore Hall, The Guardian, Saturday May 1 1982, p.14

Such Iraqi government support was of course highly attractive to the British establishment, but it was not without its complications. Finch’s review of the Oud Concerto made clear her concern about the matter:

A blind commission is always risky, and all the more so when the carrot of substantial financial support from a country like Iraq is dangled in front of a group which badly needs funds for its commendable, if undependable, advocacy of new works.

It is more than distressing today to read a leading music critic using the phrase ‘a country like Iraq’. The UK’s official position on the Iran-Iraq war was neutral, so Finch probably had a sense of detachment from the region. But it is now well-known that Prime Minister  Thatcher oversaw the provision of equipment for Saddam Hussein’s regime from the end of 1980 right through to 1990. In the midst of this, the unsuccessful oud concerto seems to have been the product of what Anna Tsing calls a ‘zone of awkward engagement’ (Tsing 2004). The piece was created because a range of interests were at play – Hickox wanted to secure finance to develop his orchestra, the linguist Haywood wished to compose music for public performance, Shukur sought to play concerts internationally, and the Iraqi government wanted to promote Iraq in Europe. These interests were in some friction with one another, and it would be some years before the oud would find some more suitable English contexts in which it could be presented convincingly.



Acton, Charles 1976. ‘Classical Arab lute music’, The Irish Times, July 6, p.9.

Aprahamiam, Felix 1983. ‘Light from new stars’, The Sunday Times, November 20, p.36.

Bowen-Jones, Howard, Laurence P. Elwell-Sutton, Clement H. Dodd, Walid N. Arafat, B.S.J. Isserlin and Derek Hopwood, 1975. ‘Work in Progress in British Universities’, Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 2/1, pp. 23-39

Blyth, Alan 1983. ‘Salman Shukur, Hickox’, The Daily Telegraph, November 16, p.13.

Davila, Carl 2009. ‘Fixing a Misbegotten Biography: Ziryāb in the Mediterranean World’, Al-Masāq 21:2, pp.121-136.

Finch, Hilary 1983. ‘CLS/Hickox’, The Times, November 16, 1983, p.10

Haywood, John 1980. ‘Salman Shukur’, Ur 3 (May-June) pp.40-43.

Head, Raymond 1984. ‘Patterson, Haywood, Shukur’, Tempo 148 (March), p. 28

Jurkova, Zuzana, 2015. ‘Bohemian Traces in the World of Ethnomusicology’, in This thing called music : essays in honor of Bruno Nettl, edited by Victoria Lindsay Levine and Philip V. Bohlman. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield.

Reynolds, Dwight F. 2008. ‘Al-Maqqarı’s Ziryab: The Making of a Myth’, Middle Eastern Literatures 11/ 2 (August), pp.155-168.

Schiffer, Brigitte 1976. ‘The World of Islam in Word and Sound’, The World of Music 18/3, pp. 53-55

Taylor, Eric 1976. ‘The Durham Oriental Music Festival’, The Musical Times 117 (August), p. 652.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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