Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Oud at the Fez Festival - More Than Just Music

In the first of a series of pre-festival articles we look at the Oud - one of the most important instruments in Arabic and Andalusian music.  Although most visitors to this year's Fes Festival of World Sacred Music will have seen and heard one played, most will not know that the instrument and the sounds it creates can have a positive effect on the mind and body. The View from Fez's resident musicologist, Chris Witulski, set out to discover more about music and healing and along the way to meet one of Morocco's great exponents of the Oud, musician and instrument maker, Ahmed Shiki

My Andalusi Soul Sounds Pentatonic 

Last month, a friend and I went to the house of Ahmed Shiki, an oud player here in Fez. I had been taking lessons with him for a little while, but this visit was for something a bit different. Ahmed Shiki has played with the most renowned Andalusian groups in Fez, including those of al-Haj Abd al-Karim Rais and the Brioual ensemble. He has been a professor of this type of music in conservatories in Fez and Taza, and has spent a great deal of time in similar professional activities in Rabat. Similarly, he's performed abroad in Germany, the USA, France, Spain, and elsewhere across Europe and the Middle East.

I wanted to speak with him about another aspect of his professional life. There are cursory writings and rare comments regarding the healing qualities of Andalusian music in Fez. Shiki, unlike most other performers, has spent a great deal of time collecting information and researching the practices of past generations, those who used their understanding of the musical modes (in Moroccan arabic, "natures") to promote healing and mental wellness in patients. In a previous lesson, he mentioned to me that musicians used to move from room to room in the small mental hospital adjacent to the Henna Souk in the old medina. Their music would calm busy minds or assist those who were struggling to sort out their realities. Those with wild gestures would be able to control their bodies for a few moments.

Much can obviously be said (and has been said) about music and the brain, music and wellness, or music's emotive qualities, but Shiki and few others still practice a more specific link between these spheres. He helps people to identify their nature, their musical mode. In doing so, they can better understand themselves, their personalities, and they have a wealth of musical repertoire that will speak directly to their bodies and spirits. I wanted to learn mine…

Ahmed Shiki with his Oud al-Ramal

We walked in and the quiet professor took out his Oud al-Ramal. This instrument is quite unlike the normal oud: it has four paired strings, like a mandolin, instead of the normal six. The string spacing is incredibly wide, making leaps between strings feel very large. And each pair of strings is colored, to match its nature. Over time, another pair and a single bass string were added to the oud, and the oud al-Ramal is rarely, if ever, used in practice. The tuning is not in order, the strings are do (C), la (A), re (D), sol (G), all within the same octave. Playing a scale requires an inordinate amount of movement across the instrument, not dissimilar to the ukulele. The colors, black, yellow, white, and red respectively, reflect the natures.

These natures correspond to the four creations: earth (do, black), water (la, yellow), air (re, white), fire (sol, red). Without each of these four, he explains, we cannot live. Later, he explained to me that his nature is earth, literally dirt, which holds everything else. He therefore is slow to start and slow to stop. I notice this in our conversations: as we progress, I have fewer and fewer opportunities to direct his attention back toward my questions. These natures, he went on to say, were but one of many types of healing used by the learned men of Arab scientific history. Some doctors would give herbal medicine, and if that was not successful, people always had the opportunity to try a religious scholar, or a musician, in an effort to alleviate symptoms. These men were specialists, and understood what they could and could not help. They would, he said, be quick to say "No, I cannot do anything for you. You need to go visit a musician…" Just as the Prophet Mohammed was a doctor of Quranic healing, and we have books on Quranic these practices, musicians had something to contribute to the mental and physical wellness of the community.

He brought his attention back to the instrument in his hand. These four natures - earth, water, air, and fire - connects to a body part. (This may sound familiar…) These strings, and the musical modes held within them, speak to the liver, the spleen, the heart, and the lungs. Times of day, seasons, and personality types are similarly linked. He even connected the standard Andalusian performance dress, the white jalaba, red tarboush (hat) with a black tassel, and yellow balgha (slippers) to these strings, natures, and elements.

Ahmed Shiki, centre, performing with the Briouel Ensemble

I don't have my blood type, which is a shame, a necessary part of the process. And my second problem, I don't know what a capricorn is. With a sudden chronological disrupt, I use my iPhone to figure out that it's a goat. We can continue… The musical modes that sit at the end of December, around my birthday, are Rasd and Husayn. The beginning of January is Maya and Ramal Maya. He starts playing, warming the instrument up and paying around with Rasd, a generally pentatonic mode that sounds very much different from most of the others. He played four pieces for me, from Qaddam Rasd, Qaddam al-Maya, Butayhi al-Istihlal, and Basit Rasd adh-Dhil. Rasd and Rasd adh-Dhil seem to hit. He explains some of the branches that come from these two modal families, and how they musically fit together. Each articulation during these two modes gives me this abrupt twitch in my cheeks, as if veins are pushing just a little bit extra.

I learn that my nature sits between these two sets, between Rasd and Rasd adh-Dhil. My modes are white and black, my nature is playful and melancholic. Both seem fitting. Rasd, the pentatonic mode, shares its pitch content with the music of the Gnawa, which I research, and much of the funk, R&B, and old time banjo music that I play back home. I'm not sure if my experiences made this one sound more familiar, or if something shared, something musical, makes all of this music speak to me, but it feels appropriate. After he records a few more pieces from those modes, for me to go home and learn, we depart. Once I learn the tunes, I find myself drifting back to the oud at night (my time of day, according to his natures), picking it up, and improvising on some of the melodies. I can't help but to admit that it's soothing.

Father and son - family with a great musical tradition

Ahmed Shiki teaches oud lessons and founded a small workshop, building instruments. His son, Abd as-Salam Shiki worked in Casablanca with one of the premier makers in the country, learning the trade, before going to France to take an apprenticeship with a violin maker there. Their instruments are the best that I have come across in Fez. The Shikis specialize in Andalusian style ouds, which have a rounder body shape than the Eastern instruments that are more common. The action is higher, making the instrument a bit tougher to play, but allowing the player to get much, much more acoustic volume, a playing style that fits the genre.

Anyone interested in lessons, or learning your nature as described above, can contact Ahmed Shiki at 06 65 23 22 04. Lessons start at 200dh and go up if you video or get into music theory details or the healing practice (audio recording is expected). Abd as-Salam Shiki, who makes and sells instruments, can be reached at 06 79 28 52 53. His instruments take up to a month to build, unless something is already partially completed, and generally cost between 4,000 dh and 12,000 dh, set prices.

Christopher Witulski is a Fulbright Grantee to Morocco, 2012-13 and Adjunct Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Florida.

For more information about the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2013 CLICK HERE

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