Keeping The Beloved Oud Alive And Well

Behind the counter of his Jordanian shop, its walls lined with musical instruments, Jerar Hallaby plays his favorite oud, calling to would-be customers as they stroll by.

Everyone in Amman loves music, he says, but these days few can afford to buy an instrument. Back when his father opened this shop in the teeming central business district, customers would fill the shop as if it were a fruit market.

“I could not sit here and have a conversation with you, as I am doing now. Believe me, it was packed,” says Hallaby, massaging his chin covered in salt and pepper stubble. His father imported instruments from as far away as Lebanon, Egypt and Germany, and in a workshop in the back, he used to make stringed instruments. It was here that Hallaby found his first love, the pear-shaped lute known throughout the Middle East as the oud. His mind still in reverie, he picks up an oud and plays an exotic tune in a minor key, a song of hope and resilience. “You play this instrument for yourself, like you are having a conversation,” Hallaby says. “You can tell it things that you cannot tell to others.” He repeats this last phrase to himself, relishing it like a poem.

The love of the oud is centuries old. Pictures of oud-like instruments have been found on stone carvings and wall paintings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest ouds were thought to be carved from a solid piece of wood that resembled Chinese and Japanese instruments which are descendants of the ancient Persian barbat.

During the Moorish period in Spain, the oud gained its characteristic appearance. The staved wood and vaulted back design was carved from a single piece of flexible wood. This is where the oud gained its name, from the Arabic word meaning wood or flexible stick. Cradled comfortably in the player’s arms, it is light as a feather and smooth to the touch, generating a gentle tone similar to that of the harpsichord or mandolin. The skillful technique of putting the wood together is what gives the oud its delicate and beautiful tone.

“Jordan has been good to me,” he says, still plucking his prized instrument. To many in the outside world, Jordan is a distant country, a peaceful oasis tucked in between Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where Indiana Jones rode through the stone city of Petra. But a stroll through Hallaby’s shop is a journey through a land of music where the Tablah, also called the darbukkah or dumbak, and the qanun carry the workload of any group rather than a set of drums and an electric guitar. Kids today let music come to them,” he says. “In my day we brought ourselves to the music. We could play three instruments and speak the same languages. Still, they love music. But they can’t play a note of it, not now.” The glass cases of Hallaby’s shop look full, with gleaming trumpets, tubas and trombones. In one case full of ouds, there are woodwinds but not an electric instrument to be found. “But instead of playing this,” he says, tapping his oud, “they play that.” He points at a radio.

He shrugs. “It’s a different sound.” As he plays the oud, using his thumb instead of a pick, deep tones reach out into the room. A young couple peers in through the trumpets and guitars hanging in the front glass window and enters the shop—she in a black head scarf, he in a Western sports coat and slacks—and listen patiently, appreciatively. They are the very picture of the new diversity and prosperity, spreading across the region.

Why isn’t Hallaby’s shop full now, as Jordan is enjoying one of its better tourism years? The answer may be found in the half dozen CD shops in this neighborhood, where every dance hit from Egypt, Lebanon, Western Europe and America can be found. “Playing your iPod takes no effort and requires no lessons,” he explains. Once again he strikes a chord on his oud, telling it things he cannot tell others.