What is music made of? This question has accompanied me since my early childhood. Who makes music? Who tames it, captures it in instruments before setting it free in the form of tunes that, at times, bring tranquility or memories within us leading to tears while, at other times, make us euphorically sway and dance?
Music accompanies us the way our surroundings do. It is in the rhythm of a knife falling on the cutting board while we chop vegetables in the kitchen, it is in the singing of birds and the squeak of wind as it sneaks through windows after a rainy night. What always astonishes me, though, are those who weave notes on a piano or sculpt the melodies of a violin or a cello or summon the sound of oud anytime they want. When I met Ala’a for the first time at a poetry event, it was the first time I ever met someone who creates music. It was the first time I met someone who knows music and it knows him just as much, someone who brings the obscure desires that music envelopes within to come to life between his hands.
Ala’a is a 30-year-old who studied and worked in business administration , living in the coastal city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramout governorate in south east Yemen. A few years ago, a traumatic incident changed his life and put him on a completely different track.
Ala’a grew up in an artistic family, where his great grandfather Moe’enedeen owned a music institute in Hyderabad, India. Moe’enedeen’s son, Gholam, who graduated from the institute in 1884 became a professional harmonicist and Indian tabla percussionist. In 1905, Gholam moved to Mukalla when the Qu’aiti Sultan requested him to work at the sultanate’s palace ordinances. At the time, Gholam became famous among Hadhramis for introducing Indian percussion to Hadhrami music. Then Gholam became known as Ustad, an Arabic word for teacher, for he also owned the first photography studio in Hadhramout, where he taught photography. Over time people began using Ustad as a first name instead of a title when they spoke about Gholam, and would call his children Anwar Ustad Gholam, Shafiqa Ustad Gholam, and so on.
The family were respected and supported by the Hadhrami society that had a special place for audio and visual arts. Ustad Gholam’s son Anwar, Ala’a’s father, grew up to become a fine artist and an oud player; he still plays the instrument to this day. Ala’a’s oldest brother Moe’en [Gholam also had his share of music talent in both playing oud and singing. Moe’en received several awards, including the President’s Award for singing in 2008. Ala’a was highly influenced by his brother Moe’en, who taught him the basics of the oud and musical notation. Moe’en meant to accompany his brother so that Ala’a could become a professional musician one day.
Fate took Moe’en away suddenly: the young musician died in 2014, leaving this life too soon and leaving a deep wound in his younger brother’s heart. Overwhelmed by grief, Ala’a isolated himself from the memories the oud triggered and occupied himself in his day-to-day errands with the hope that this would help him get over the tragedy.
Years passed and Ala’a graduated college, then went back reluctantly to meditate with the family’s oldest and most loyal friend, the oud. He gradually began to wipe the dust off the oud, feel its details, tune its chords, and recall what his brother had taught him. Ala’a decided to revisit the oud, but this time from a different perspective. He became determined to have his name engraved among the most prominent names, this time as the oud maker.
Currently, the most prominent oud makers come from Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain or Syria. Noticing this, Ala’a recalled the history of oud making in Yemen, which dates back to the ancient Yemeni oud, known as qanbus. Driven by the historical facts and the present situation, Ala’a decided to master the art of oud making with a precision that would allow him to compete with the most prominent oud makers in the region.
Ala’a took a difficult route in his journey, in terms of the details such a craft involves. Nobody in the family, including him, had ever worked in carpentry or with wood before. Even though the family has a long line of musicians, none of them had ever practiced craftsmanship. Working with wood was a burdensome obstacle for Ala’a that he struggled with during his first attempts. Yet his determination and dedication gave him the strength to study as many oud instruments as he came across as possible. He dedicated himself to study different sizes and details in a completely personal effort that could help him visualize the instrument of his dreams. When he finally managed to make his first oud, Ala’a realized that making one instrument is not enough to become a prominent oud maker; but this was the first step in the thousand mile journey that followed. After he made 62 ouds, which he sold within and outside Yemen, spending an average of 30 to 40 days on each oud, Ala’a agreed to give us the recipe.
For Ala’a, before anything, we need to learn the oud parts. First, there is the ‘face’ which is the front of the oud, also known as the ‘flower’. The back is known as the ‘heel’. The face and the back, as well as the sound hole, require different types of wood, including walnut, North Indian rosewood, palisander rosewood, and wenge wood. Not all types are always available in Yemen in good quality, so he orders the quantities he needs from abroad, and once the wood arrives, Ala’a begins the oud making.
First, he makes the ‘flower’ and the ‘heel’, where he fixes them on a sound hole prototype for precise measurements. Second, he makes the sound hole, which is a process that begins by softening the first sound hole feather with fire then stabilizing it and doing the same with the other 20 feathers. Ala’a describes the process of making the sound hole and placing it in the center of the face and the back as the most detailed phase as it defines the sound of the oud. Third, he makes the pegbox and neck with precise measurements, before he connects them to the face and back of the instrument. The final step is polishing and placing the pegs and strings. These steps used to be jargon to him, Ala’a says, but with time he began to find pleasure in all these details.
Today, Ala’a imports world-class wood. He has also become a master of his trade in the view of many musicians from Yemen and the Gulf, who race to buy the instruments he makes out of admiration for the quality, precision and special identity Ala’a puts into each oud he makes. Above all, it is his courage in taking on a craft that was unfamiliar, which makes him an intriguing oud maker. The list of musicians who purchased their instruments from
Ala’a is long. On top of the list is the prominent Yemeni singer and musician Aboud Khawaja, who requested Ala’a make him a specific oud with a special design, which he purchased from the young oud maker. As demand grows, Ala’a, who works manually, finds it hard to keep up with the requests of his customers, especially as he works in a small workshop. He now aims to expand to meet the demand for the ouds he makes.
In a country exhausted by war and destruction, Ala’a continues to smile because of the hope that embraces him when he turns the silent wood into instruments that have the ability to release melodies. With his talent and dedication, Ala’a hopes that the tunes of peace his instruments send will, one day, get to travel the world.
Aisha Aljaedy is a writer, cultural activist and youth activist in the field of peace and development.
A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)