The oud of Tunisia

Beyond the most well-known styles of oud making and playing is an oud world that is less familiar, and is often referred to as ‘Andalusian’. Nevertheless there are oud traditions distinct to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and in this post we present a conversation with one of Tunisia’s most enterprising players, Abir Ayadi. It began in Naples with a meeting between Abir and Rachel Beckles Willson at the ICTM study Group on Mediterranean Music Studies  and it continued online between London and Sfax, expanding to include Syrian oud player Rihab Azar.

Abir Ayadi Rachel Beckles Willson Salvatore Morra
Abir Ayadi Rachel Beckles Willson and Salvatore Morra, Naples 2016

Ayadi Abir was born in Sfax in 1984, and she obtained her Masters in Musicology in 2008, with a specialism in musical interpretation, playing both the oriental oud (oud sharqi) and the Tunisian oud, (oud ‘arbi). She was a teacher at the Higher Institute of Music of Sfax 2007-2009, then a Professor of Music at the High School at SFAX 2009-2011. Since 2012 she has been an Assistant at the Higher Institute of Music of Sfax, where she is also researching for her PhD focusing on the history, sociology and music of the Tunisian oud. She has performed very widely in Tunisia but also beyond, including Algiers, Marrakesh, Nantes, Paris, Rome and Naples.

We invited Abir to tell us about how she came to focus on the oud ‘arbi, and her familiarity with other oud traditions.

Abir: I started to play the Tunisian oud ‘arbi in 2007. I wanted to focus on developing my own style and to be able to move interchangeably between the oud sharqi and oud ‘arbi. Ziad Gharsa had been impressed by my playing of oud sharqi and asked me to join the ensemble which he was conducting at the Al-Rashidiya school. My experience in playing the oud sharqi must have helped me, for I stood out as a player of the oud ‘arbi without too much difficulty.

I’ve loved music since childhood. My father and mother encouraged me, so I attended the regional institute of music and there were instruments at home – a keyboard and also the oud, first the well-known Egyptian-style oud sharqi, then the Iraqi oud.

2008 Jeunes virtuoses Iraq Tunisia

My attachment to oud increased little by little as I got to know a range of oud styles and traditions, especially through the Iraqi school. I was taught by the Iraqi Mohamad Hassan Najm, who had been a student of Ali Al-Imam and Munir Bashir; he supported me, and included me in many solo as well as ensemble oud performances.

But it became important for me to play a traditional Tunisian instrument, particularly because there are few players, and then because I devoted my research to this instrument.

Rihab: What types of repertoire are played on the Tunisian oud?

Abir: The Tunisian oud is considered one of the main instruments for which the malouf, the traditional classical repertoire of Tunisia, was developed. At the Cairo Conference in 1932 the Tunisian delegation consisted of an ensemble of Tunisian oud, rebeb, tar and naqarat.

Tunisian delegation Cairo 1932
In the malouf the role of the oud is to accompany singers, and to respond spontaneously to the changing character of the poetry. It also has a fundamental rhythmic function. Additionally it has an essential function in istikhbar, the improvisation genre of the Maghreb. (Analogously to taksim, istikhbar involves the presentation of the taba’ (mode) through its rhythmic and melodic characteristics.)

Rihab: What about the tuning of the strings? Is that related to the malouf?

Abir: The Maghreb region is characterised by different types of oud that have played a major role in traditional music. They form the foundations of the musical system in the Maghreb. Their distinction lies in their size and proportions, as well as in their stringing. The Tunisian oud has four double courses of strings, with the tuning as follows:

Tunisian oud tuning
The names of the strings are derived from Tunisian modes or maqams (known as tubou’): dhil, hassin, maya and ramal. The development of this arrangement of strings is obviously different from that developed through the oriental oud, but its history is not known.

Rihab: What is known about the instrument’s history?

Abir: The oud ‘arbi seems to have appeared during the period of Andalusia’s maturity and prosperity (8th to 14th century), but we cannot say for sure when it emerged in Tunisia or how a school of playing developed. No pictures of it have been traced in manuscripts before the 17th century. In 17th century images we find ouds with four strings, but only from the 19th century do we find manuscript sources with references to Tunisian characteristics, the mode names for instance.

Rihab: What are the characteristics that distinguish it from the oud sharqi?

Abir: The oud is distinguished in terms of form and method of manufacture. It has a special composition. It is characterised by its small box. It has a pear shape. The face of the lute is strong enough to withstand the tension of the strings. It is supported by a leather belt that surrounds half the edges. The rosette decorations are carved into the face.

oud tounsiThe length of the neck is 24 cm, which is 5/3 of the string length. This is proportionately longer than that of the oud sharqi, forming a major sixth at the joint where the neck meets the face, and allowing for a wide range of playing in the high-register. As mentioned above, instead of the 6 courses of the oud sharqi there are four double courses of strings. Their dimensions and tuning are important for the Tunisian tubou’ (maqams).

Rihab: Who made your instrument?

Abir: It was made in 2007 by luthier Ridha Jendoubi, a very skilled craftsman of both the oud sharqi and the oud ‘arbi.

There is another manufacturer, Hedi Bellasfar, skilled in the manufacture of the Tunisian oud in Tunis. He learned the craft of instrument making from his father Muḥammad Ben Hassan Bellasfar.

Rihab: Does it require a particular risha?

Abir: Yes playing with its particular risha (which is made from an eagle’s feather) gives it a distinctive ring, and the method of holding the risha is different from the techniques of the oriental oud. We pinch the risha between the fingers of the right hand (index finger and thumb), and lift the finger of the index finger, centering it with the other fingers so that the feather strikes the strings vertically. The method allows for a particular rhythmic characteristic, bouncing on and off the string. It also facilitates clarity, and intensifies the sonority.

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Rihab: So are the playing techniques different as well?

Abir: Particular techniques, such as frequent use of open strings played very strongly, enhance its strong resonance and give the traditional Tunisian takht a distinctive character. Another technique involves intensive alternations between high and low registers. This emerges from the morphology of the stringing and is very demanding: the player has to replace bass notes with transpositions in the high registers, for instance. Then, with the standard tuning (C G d3 D2 / do sol re3 re2), even to play a descending phrase of G, F, E, D requires sufficient agility to skip over the string d3. Finally, players often keep an open string vibrating that is the principle tone of the taba’ (maqam) of the melody being played.

Rihab: Why do you think there are so few players these days?

Abir: Despite the elevated status of the Tunisian oud in the ensemble of the malouf, it has not achieved recognition or development comparable to many other instruments in other Eastern or Western musical groups. There are not many specialists, even recordings are scarce, and there are very few books or even references to it. Playing styles developed quite informally from Khamis al-Tarnan to Ziad Gharsa via Saleh al-Mahdi, Tahir Gharsa and others. There was no curriculum or school as such, and no specialist research studies.

It may be that the instrument’s association with malouf and with the Rashidiya ensemble has hindered its spread. Perhaps its use in this heritage framework is one of the most significant obstacles to its development. There has not been a major renewal or performance of new artistic possibilities, opening it up towards other musics.

Abir Ayadi 2013

Rihab: Can you tell us about your own development as a player, and about your research?

Abir: I loved playing and practised for many hours a day! I also listened to many players of the traditional oriental school and the Iraqi school. I listened to a lot of istikhbar and oud ‘arbi recordings to discover and apply the appropriate techniques. At the start I listened especially to the recordings of Ziad Gharsa, and other outstanding players such as Al-Taher Gharsa and Khamis Al-Tarnan.

The neglect of the instrument has led me to specialize in it and to research its potential. Oral sources were the most important in my research: I met with musicians and specialists including luthiers, in order to learn about the various stages in the manufacture. I also developed a form for collecting quantitative data, monitoring as many opinions as possible from different age groups to evaluate the presence of the instrument in the Tunisian performing scene. I tried to make the research as broad as possible in terms of its educational, social and musical significance.

Based on my experience of playing and teaching I have tried to create a method for Tunisian oud for students and young learners, to facilitate their progress and also to encourage other young people to choose this instrument. The method is based on compositions and studies that I composed especially, along with other compositions from the core Tunisian repertoire.

I would like to see the Tunisian oud rehabilitated more broadly, but for that it needs to be incorporated into an academic framework of study. It is necessary to devise a structured approach to teaching that is integrated and regulated in the curriculum, to encourage students to take it up and develop it on all levels of music education.

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This interview was edited and translated from French and Arabic by Rachel Beckles Willson. Many thanks to Salvatore Morra for his help with technical details.

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