Munir Bashir and the Iraqi oud

By Rachel Beckles Willson

This rarely-seen instrument from 1953 dates back to Munir Bashir’s preparations for his first trip out of Iraq. Shortly before travelling, he asked luthier Mahir Muhammad Fadil Hussain to make him a new oud and the result was this, the first oud with ovular sound holes and the ‘moon’ cut-out from the fingerboard on the face of the oud.

The first stop of Bashir’s journey was Istanbul, which had strong musical connections with Baghdad. The Istanbul-trained Şerif Muhiddin Haydar had directed the music department of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad 1937-1948, and the Turkish Mesut Cemil Bey, son of Tanburi Cemil Bey, had taught ‘cello and joza there. Munir Bashir’s autobiography records that when he went to Istanbul he contacted Mesut Cemil, who held a key position at the radio. Mesut Cemil invited Bashir to play for 15-minutes on the radio, and so he offered one of his compositions – ‘from the East to al Andalus’.

He travelled on to Beirut from Istanbul, but the new oud suffered on the journey, or in the change of climate, and the bridge snapped off, taking part of the face with it. Bashir had hoped to record for the radio both some songs with Fairouz, and some of his own compositions. It seems that these projects were both postponed. When his returned to Baghdad, Muhammad Fadil repaired the oud, but he also made another instrument, one that had a stronger structure that transformed the sound of the instrument fundamentally.

To understand Fadil’s innovation in its historical context is to engage with 1950s Baghdad, a time and place of extreme contrasts. On the one hand there were a range of progressive, modernising currents that generated utopian visions for the country; and there was also immense increase in oil revenues with associated prosperity. Yet at the same time, political violence and corruption were very strong, so that much of the population was disenfranchised from the boom. At the heart of the contradictions were the nationalist vision and practices of the state. These were sectarian even while rhetorically upholding secularism; and they excluded the voices of large parts of the population while also disempowering them economically.

Today, in part because of the catastrophic developments of more recent decades, for Iraqis of varied political persuasions, the 1948-58 period represents an iconic time of development and optimism, even a ‘Golden Age’ of modernity and an Iraqi cosmopolitanism. The period is often filtered through an intensely-felt nostalgia, which emerges particularly strongly in celebration of artistic developments of the 1950s. A strong desire had emerged among visual artists and writers to create a new and identifiably Iraqi culture. The Baghdad Modern Arts Group (founded in 1951) drew on ancient artefacts from the region – Assyrian, Babylonian, Abbasidian – to define an ‘Iraqi’ heritage in painting, but using reference points from modern European art (Faiq Hassan had studied in Paris, Jawad Salim had studied in Paris and Rome ).

Central to literary developments was al-shi’-r al-hurr (the free verse movement), which can be discovered in the work of poets such as Nazik al-Malaika, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati. Crucial to their thinking was an immersion in literature from Europe and the Americas, and a strong desire to dismantle traditional forms of the Arabic canon.

The sphere of music had its own wave of modernising changes. Most often cited are those led by Şerif Muhiddin, who had made pedagogical and technical innovations to oud playing by drawing on his experience with the ‘cello and his time in North America in the 1920s. Not only did he develop a virtuosic style in his compositions and performances, but he also tuned his oud strings to a pitch that seems to have been exceptionally high at the time. This trend in high tension tuning shaped the sound of the instrument in a new solistic role and it facilitated high-speed, flashy styles of playing.

Another substantial change in the music scenes of Iraq was triggered by the exodus of the Jewish communities, whose instrumentalists and patrons had been important in sustaining the Iraqi Maqam (a vocal repertoire traditionally accompanied by an instrumental ensemble known as chalghi baghdadi). Already from the 1930s onwards, in response to antagonism towards Zionism in Palestine and exacerbated by Nazi propaganda, Jews had suffered violent harassment. Following the war in Palestine, and the establishment of Israel, the government of Iraq initiated a process of ethnic cleansing, and the majority of Jews renounced their citizenship and left the country. Whereas in 1947 the Jewish community was an estimated 117,000 people, by 1952 it had almost completely disappeared. Iraq had lost some of its richest and most highly-educated population and the musical life in particular was greatly reduced.

The Iraqi Maqam tradition was sustained in new ways, nevertheless, one of which involved the incorporation of the oud into the traditional instrumental ensemble. Both Munir Bashir and his older brother Jamil accompanied renowned singers in the Maqam tradition (Jamil frequently playing violin), as did subsequent oud players such as Nasir Shamma, Ali al Imam and Ruhi al-Khammash. Both Jamil and Munir drew on Iraqi Maqam substantially in their work as solo performers.

It is worth considering that high string tension may have contributed to the breakage of Fadil’s 1953 instrument when Munir travelled with it, because the new instrument made in 1957 accommodated the changing tuning trends into its novel design. By securing the strings to the body of the instrument, the increasing strain on the face was eliminated.

Karim Othman-Hassan has made the following observations about the construction of the later instrument:

As many Baghdad ouds of the time, this one has a bowl made from Indian rosewood, specifically 21 thin strips of the same size. At the lower end, 17 of these finish under the almost semi-circular segment of rosewood laid on top. The bowl is glued to a block under the face, to which a further block is attached, and to which the 11 strings are tied.

The face probably consists of a mature spruce, and is surrounded by a band of light and dark wood strips, probably rosewood and maple. 3 oval-shaped sound holes are carved out of it, each one surrounded by unusually brood rosewood. The form of the holes strongly recalls the mandolins and mandolas of the late 19th century, as does a further detail, namely the kink in the lower part of the face.

The fingerboard extends onto the face to encircle the largest resonance hole, with a cut-out shape on the left side.

The oval-shaped pick-guard is a rosewood veneer glued onto the face, in the manner of many Istanbul ouds. The movable bridge is probably made of rosewood, with 11 small grooves over which the strings are stretched.

The neck, of which the core is probably softwood, has 5 rosewood veneers on its underside, thin strips of bright wood. The pegbox is a simple design. The whole instrument has several layers of lacquer.

Despite the apparently rather hasty crafting of this particular instrument, it went on to play an extraordinary role in the development of oud making and oud playing internationally. It won the ears of Europeans when they heard it from the early 1970s onwards, indeed its remarkable power of sustain paved the way for Munir Bashir’s appealingly spacious, reflective, taqsim style. In recent decades, taken as a model, it has become standard at leading educational centres such as the Conservatoire in Damascus, Syria, and Beit al Oud in Abu Dhabi, frequently along with the tuning favoured by Munir Bashir. Ouds with floating bridges are now made by luthiers throughout the world (Belgium, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the USA, and likely elsewhere).

• Samir Azar, personal communication, October 2016
• Issa J. Boullata, “Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and the free verse movement”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 1/3 (1970), 248-258.
• Junaid Bashir, personal communication, November 2016
• Munir Bashir, Musiqi Al-hikmah: Mudhakkirat, al-Ṭabah al-ʻArabiyah, (Beirut, 1996)
• Omar Bashir, personal communication, September 2015
• Julian Harris, “Composing with the oud: maqam, ta’biriyya and the Iraqi legacy” (PhD thesis, London 2018)
• Y Kojaman, The Maqam Music Tradition of Iraq (London, 2001)
• Moshe Gat, The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948-1951 (Taylor & Francis US, 1997)
• Qassim Saad, ‘Iraqi Art’, Scope, 3, (November 2008), 50-54.
Nada Shabout, “Shakir Hassan Al Said: Time and space in the work of the Iraqui artist: A journey towards the One-dimension”, Nafas Art Magazine (May 2018).
• Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq, (New York, 2007)

This article is a taster for a longer article shortly to be published in the International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity.
Thanks to Omar and Saad Bashir for their time in September 2015 and April 2017, and for their permission to share photos of the ouds made for their father.

Note on tuning.
It is likely that there were varying tuning habits in Istanbul during the life of Şerif Muhiddin. However, recordings made by roughly contemporary oud players there (Nevres Bey (1873–1937) and Udi Hrant (1901-1978) for example), indicate their string highest in pitch was a d’, with the next three descending at intervals of perfect fourths, and with the final two tuned according to the tonality of any given piece. This is standard in Turkey today. Şerif Muhiddin, on the other hand, tuned all strings a fourth higher so that the highest pitch was g’. As did many players of the time, he also placed the bass string next to the highest string in pitch, rather than as part of a descending sequence. It is possible that other oud players of the time also used the high string tuning. A photo of Yorgos Bacanos (1900-1977) confirms this positioning of the bass string, at least, and it is presented as standard by a Turkish writer in 1922, who may well have consulted Şerif Muhiddin (see Rauf Yekta, ‘La musique turque’, in Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du Conservatoire, ed. Albert Lavignac, I/V, (Paris, 1922), 3017). However, we have no evidence of it being used in recordings other than those of Şerif Muhiddin. Jamil Bashir adapted it very slightly, while retaining the high tension, and his version can be traced in the original edition of his oud method of 1961. (Later editions, and later tuning trends, reflect the tuning that Munir Bashir used, in which the string highest in pitch tuned to f’.) Return to main text.

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