Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Traditional oud-maker salvages ancient Palestinian tradition

By PM collaborators - October 22, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [artist]

The Israeli occupation has caused a lot of harm to a lot of people. But at least it got Samer Totah interested in the oud, an Arab stringed instrument similar to the lute.
This influence was not direct, of course. But during sticky evenings under curfew, at the height of the First Intifada, Totah and his cousins would sit in their garden and listen to the old classics of the oud tradition.
As Totah explains, these experiences spurred him to abandon training as a carpenter and join the recently-opened Edward Said Conservatory: “I was the first student at this conservatoire,” he explains. Totah is now an oud teacher at the same institution.
It quickly became clear, though, that Totah’s real passion is not to play instruments, but to make them. “I like the oud, and I did some training as a carpenter – so I started myself, with no training.” Totah pauses: “At first I didn’t succeed.” This first, abortive attempt is still hanging on the wall of Totah’s workshop. “It was very bad,” he smiles.
Things are different now. After buying a cheap oud and putting it back together, Totah quickly figured out the basics. Further training in Turkey also helped.
Not that Totah snaps ouds out nowadays. The whole process takes “about one month,” he explains in his small workshop, under the house he grew up in. Several ouds are in various stages of completion on a dusty worktop. The set-up is definitely a family affair: at one point, Totah’s elderly father shuffles in and asks his son for a coffee.
But if the atmosphere feels off-beat, Totah’s devotion to quality is not. “The wood,” Totah explains “needs to be completely dry.” To find the perfect grade, Totah imports timber from as far as India and the United States. A large painting of the Virgin Mary gazes peaceably down from the wall. Totah comes from one of the oldest Christian families in Ramallah.
After, Totah picks up a beautiful oud, a graceful lattice carved behind the strings. He plucks: the sound is sonorous and elegant, as ouds should be.
The beauty of Totah’s instruments is all the more moving because there are so few famous oud players left in Palestine. This was not always the case. The oud used to be central to Palestinian musical culture, just as the piano is in Europe. Many of the best oud players were Palestinians. For example, Wasif Jawhariyyeh, an Orthodox Christian born in 1897, is considered one of the best ever.
But, as Totah explains, the 1948 war changed this, along with so much else. “There used to be many great Palestinian oud players in Haifa, in Nazareth. They all fled.” For Totah, the best oud player in the world is Simon Shaheen. Shaheen heralded from a small village near the Lebanese border. But after the Nakba, he left for America. He is there even now.
Given all this, it is remarkable that this musical heritage is being resurrected in the occupied West Bank – and by an essentially self-taught craftsman at that.
And with the help of musical schools like the Kamandjati and the Edward Said Conservatory (now in its twenty-third year), Totah is helping promote a renewed interest in traditional Arab instruments, like the oud.  
This is especially important because it reconnects Palestinians with their musical cousins abroad. “Lebanon and Palestine have the same geography, the same people. We play the oud together,” says Totah.

But Totah also has musical concerns closer to home. His two small children, Lara and Sara, are budding musicians themselves. Lara “sings when I play the oud.” She is also learning the piano. Will the girls become oud players themselves, like their father? “If they want,” Totah chuckles. “I hope.”



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