The oud in Iran

The oud in Iran

A floor mosaic at Qasr al-Hayr al-Garbi (c.727), in today’s Syria, reveals the pear-shaped oud that arrived in Arabia from Persia in the early days of Islam. Known in Persia as barbat, it became very popular, although earlier Arab forms (known variously as kiraan, mizhaar and muustajib) may have been played for some time as well. The spread of the barbat was part of a strong Persian influence on Arabia at the time. The oud fell out of use in Iran, but in the 20th century it came back. One reason for this change was a movement of ouds in the opposite direction, i.e. from Iraq to Iran, already touched on in articles about the oud of Iraqi Jamil Bashir and Salman Shukur.

In August this year, Rachel Beckles Willson met Iranian musician and oud player Negar Bouban at Labyrinth Musical Seminars in August 2018. They developed a conversation for Oudmigrations, which will be published in three articles, starting here with the re-emergence of the oud in Iran during the 20th century, then moving on to the work of Negar Bouban herself, and finally addressing the broader incorporation of the oud in traditional Iranian repertoire.

At the start, I asked Negar Bouban what she could tell us about the re-emergence of the oud in Iran, starting from the instrument she had in her hands.

My oud is made by Mohammad-Taghi Arafati. Arafati learned oud making from his wife’s father, who was one of the Iranians in Iraq, Mohammad-Taghi Khan Baba, a son of the very well-known Ali Awwad. Like many, he was sent from Iraq to Iran before the revolution in Iran, he lived in Tehran for decades.

I don’t know what year Arafati started oud making, but first he made ouds modelled on those of Ali Awad. Then he started making changes. This instrument here was not his first with changes, the one before had a longer body. His first attempt was to make the bowl of the instrument a bit thinner, and make up for the lost volume by extending the length. He gave me that first instrument to try about 17 years ago, it didn’t sound bad but there was something you could sense was not working, for example this bass string had a bit of a hollow sound. He kept trying different shapes and I think about 2 years after that he came up with this model.

Technical specifications kindly provided by luthier Sebastian Stenzel:

Vibrating string length: 585mm
Soundboard (bowl) length: 513mm
Soundboard (bowl) width: 317mm
Bowl depth: 163mm
Neck width at bowl joint/nut: 54.5/36.7mm
String distance at bridge: 86mm

Bowl: walnut (juglans ssp., most probably j. regia) with spacers likely made of maple

Soundboard: cedar (thuja plicata)

He tried various bracing patterns, too. I have two of the same model, with parallel braces. There are some newer models in which he is trying some non-parallel bracings, which affects the sound, especially the balance of bass and treble strings.

I have 3 of his ouds. This one is 12 years old. Another one I have was made a little over 15 years ago. Because of the cedar sound board some people think it’s old or has been stained. But it’s the natural colour. All in all I personally prefer ouds with this size and shape. They are much easier to hold and much easier for me to play for longer hours; I think it’s a good compromise, you don’t lose that much quality. It could get better in the bass, I mean you can dream of an instrument that sounds a bit more resonant in lower register. Some say my oud is ok but that it’s a bit too dry in sound… all-in-all I enjoy playing it.

Rachel: there have been some other oud makers in Iran, how did it all start up again?

The very first oud maker in Iran after its disappearance was called Nariman Abnoosi. He was the best oud maker around for many years, but he passed away around four decades ago. He was originally a tanbur maker, and a musician called Iskandar Ibrahimi approached him asking him to make an oud. Ibrahimi was in love with the oud and found one in the hands of an Iranian tar player who had travelled from Iraq bringing the oud to play with an ensemble on the radio in Tehran.

Iskandar Ibrahimi asked him to lend him the oud to take the measurements, and gave them to Nariman Abnoosi. His ouds turned out to be quite good. For many years, even when I started playing the oud (26 years ago), Nariman’s ouds were considered to be the very best that you could find. For today’s tastes they are a bit too dry in sound. They have the old Arab sound, the traditional Egyptian one.

Iskandar Ibrahimi later took up the name ‘Nariman’ to use as a performer (having a name as an artist was common at the time and he asked permission from his friend, this luthier Nariman Abnoosi). He became the celebrated oud player Mansour Nariman, titled the father of oud in Iran nowadays. People didn’t always know they were two different people and expected the luthier to play for them when they went to his shop!

Rachel: so was the first ‘home-grown’ Iranian player in the 20th century Mansour Nariman? Was he responsible for both the instrument and the new generation of players?

Another early oud player in Iran was Abdolvahab Shahidi, who is more known for his singing but also played as a soloist. He had an oud made by Ali Awwad, I don’t know the history behind that instrument, but when he sang on the radio and in concerts, he played that instrument to accompany himself. This drew a lot of attention to the instrument. So these two figures, Nariman and Shahidi, are the ones who brought the instrument back onto the music scene. Shahidi is still alive, he’s over 90.

Rachel: Do you think this sound was a direct Arab influence? Is this the 1950s?

Yes, 1950-something. At that time you could tune into radio stations, and I know from Mansour Nariman that they used to listen to Egyptian radio with performances by Umm Kulthum, Muhammed Abdel Wahab, Farid al-Attrach. Also this was like the Golden time of Egyptian movies, everyone would go to the cinema and watch those movies and hear that sound. Maybe Nariman Abnoosi preferred that sound, I don’t know… I think Mansour Nariman was 15 or 16 when he first heard the oud or saw it in the cinema, I don’t know which, and fell in love with it. He played tar and setar from an early age and learned Persian music on them, but then, with his passion for oud, he went to Tehran from Mashad where he lived, trying to find an oud.

Mansur Nariman loved the sound of the Nariman Abnoosi’s Oud. He kept playing it until he died. Abnoosi was the very first good Iranian oud maker, everybody played on his instruments. As for the construction, my guess is that the luthier Abnoosi didn’t know what the bracing was like in the instrument he borrowed to measure, because he only had external measurements, not having opened the instrument. Somehow he came up with an idea of how to fit the braces, maybe just by chance but maybe his taste led him.

Rachel: What about other oud makers in Iran?

There are a number of oudmakers in Iran now. Among the most established ones are the Mohammadi brothers in Isfahan. They have very good craftsmanship but my personal opinion is that they don’t have much of a sound. The ones I have tried are closer to mandolins in sound. They tend to get strong in the treble and the timbre is a bit sharp. The Mohammadi brothers used to make tars and setars, as far as I’ve heard.

There is also a master luthier in Iran who has been ill for some time now and is no longer working, I’ve been told, namely Ebrahim Ghanbari-Mehr. He made a variety of different instruments and the Mohammadi brothers were working under his supervision for some time, working with his moulds, including the so-called Barbat. There is the story of the barbat he made, we can talk about it later.

Rachel What about this story of the barbat reconstruction? Hossein Behroozinia has developed his career abroad in reference to the barbat.

The whole story starts with Ghanbari-Mehr who is taken as the biggest ustad of instrument-making in Iran. He said that he once saw Mansur Nariman playing his oud with a raised shoulder and thought there should be a way of avoiding this physical hazard. He then came across a picture of a silver bowl from the Sassanid era showing a version of an instrument that no doubt belongs to the family of ouds/barbats, having a seemingly small pear-shaped body, a short neck, and a bent pegbox.

Silver dish (6th century), held at the Archaeological Museum, Tehran. Image published in Henry George Farmer’s Islam. (Musikgeschichte in Bildern, Bd. III. Musik des Mittelalters und des Renaissance) . Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag fur Musik (1966)

Ghanbari-Mehr somehow came to see this and decided to make an instrument based on this, which could be smaller and could also be labelled with a kind of national Iranian identity, being different from the later versions of the instrument that was shared among Arabs and Turks, that is. The first one, as far as I know, went to Behroozinia. Then the narrative was mostly constructed by Behroozinia, who tried to make it a brand, and claim that is was the first Persian one, that others were Arab or Turkish, and that it was the one that would suit Persian music best. I seriously doubt the historical claim, because all the treatises state that the neck of the oud should end with the 5th note of the string, with one third of the length of the string. This so-called barbat has a longer neck, making a 6that the join: it doesn’t make sense as the Persian version. The first attempt was a nice experiment by a luthier who was caring and curious at the same time – he wanted to make something comfortable to play and with a root in the past. But then it turned into a kind of cult.

Rachel: Is it played in Iran?

Yes, some do play them and even try to put oud players in two categories: oud players vs. barbat players. We make a joke about it. There are two prominent football clubs in Iran, Persepolis and Esteghlal – red shirts and blue shirts – and when football fans see each other they say ‘Are you red? Or blue? ah you belong to this or that club’.It’s like that – ‘you belong to the barbat club?’ – nowadays I think it’s more of a joke. There are some people that think it’s something to cling to. But a lot of people have understood that it’s not that important, that there are lots of varieties of the same instrument around the world. I think it’s not that serious any more.

 Rachel: The original instrument is now in the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London.

Barbat by Ghanbari-Mehr, photo courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Yes, I know. Neither Ghanbari-Mehr  nor Behroozinia had bad intentions, but I think there wasn’t enough research behind what was done. To me it’s more of a political statement than anything serious about the background and history of the instrument. Arafati also made his own version based on the same picture, and he was more humble, I would say. He made an instrument with a bowl in the shape of a pear –with a concave outline where the neck joins the bowl- and called it barbat. He regrets that now, and wishes he had called it a pear-shaped oud. He was inspired by the same image.

Barbat by Ghanbari-Mehr, photo courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Many thanks to Majid Yahya-nejad, founder of (a website currently undergoing revision), for providing many of the photos in this article.

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