"The sound of the unvocal opposition."
Iraqi master oud player Naseer Shamma is the man who brought out the Arabic tradition of protest poetry (held up by such contemporary poets as Mahmoud Darwish and Ahmad Fu'ad Nigm) and turned it into instrumental music. While many Arab vocalists such as Fayruz and Ziad Rahbani have a long history of performing politically motivated songs, instrumental Middle Eastern music in comparison tends to have a detached, almost mathematical quality that doesn't seem to give reference to any particular context, thus effectively sidelining the whole medium as a vehicle of opinion.
Not so with Naseer Shamma:
"What I try to do is make images appear in the minds of people. I try to make music pictures, to create visual images from nothing."
I saw Naseer Shamma live for the first time in Cairo, in a room under a traffic-congested flyover bridge, accompanied by a zither, cello, three violins, a nay and the incessant rattling of the air-con. The repertoire that evening was markedly unpolitical, but in the end someone requested that he play 'al-Amiriyya', his composition commemorating the Gulf War bombing of the al-Amiriyya bomb shelter, where 400 Iraqi civilians died. The lights went out, and there we were, in the shelter with crying children, listening to the crashing of bombs and the hiss of the shelter doors, and finally the horrible silence after all those lives had been wiped out. The whole soundscape created by a single stringed instrument (and the air-con, of course).
The variety of sounds Shamma brings out of a common oud is astonishing. Air raid sirens, atonal weeping of a child or a wounded animal, rare shower of rain over Baghdad's rooftops. Two poets argue, nightingales sing in an autumnal garden, a tender romance takes place on the sidewalk while cars are rushing by. Listening to a Shamma concert has been compared to participating in a political rally without words, but this might be changing - during the past few years, Shamma's work has been markedly non-political, abstract even, as evidenced by the 2003 recording Maqamat Ziryab, a collection of 1000-year-old themes from medieval Andalusia.
"I fell in love with the oud just like any man who's ever fallen in love at first sight, without knowing exactly why."
Born 1963 in the Iraqi village of Kut (between Kufa and Basra), near the point where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet. He started playing the oud at the age of twelwe and went on to study at the prestigious Conservatory of Arab Music in Baghdad, which through the years has produced several lute players who apparently are all household names in the Arab countries but wouldn't say anything to a westerner, with the exception of Mounir and Jalil Bashir, the latter of whom was one of Shamma's teachers during the conservatory years.
Having launched a vastly successful solo career in 1985, Shamma went on to win all the awards he bothered to compete for. In 1993, he was forced to leave Iraq due to the difficulty of performing under the UN embargo. Since then, he has given performances all over the world and recorded four international albums in France, Italy and Spain. In 1998 he founded Bayt al-Oud al-Arabi (House of the Arab Lute), a school focusing on training and promoting future oud soloists in Cairo.
Apart from composing and giving performances, Shamma has also gained a reputation as an unparalleled innovator in playing techniques. Among other things he has created an oud technique that allows the lutenist to play with one hand only, motivated by the mutilated victims of the recent wars in Iraq. There are also persistent rumours that Shamma is currently developing an entirely new stringed instrument which would allow him to overcome the oud's limitations.
1994 The Lute of Baghdad
1999 The Moon Fades (live)
2003 Maqamat Ziryab
Four tapes recorded in the Middle East
1988 Silently I announce my love (Baghdad)
1991 From the heart (Jordan)
1994 For the children of Iraq (Tunisia)
2000 Baghdad's night (Tunisia/Egypt)
A very brief list of awards
1986 Price for the Best Melody - Iraq
1988 Award for Best Arabic Music - Gerash festival, Jordan
1988 - 1990 Iraqi Artists' Syndicate Award
1991 Award for the best theatre composition - Carthage, Tunisia
1992 Agadir city medal - Morocco
1992 Palestinian warfare armature prize - Tunisia (I don't know what this is either...)
1996 Medal of the universities of Portugal