The first time I heard an oud live, I was enraptured. The deep growl of the bass, the compelling and percussive rhythms of the plectrum, called a risha, plucking the strings, the nuanced microtones achievable on the oud’s fretless neck—it all drew me in, and the more I learned, the more my fascination grew.
Known as the sultan of instruments, the oud (عود in Arabic) enjoys a rich history dating back thousands of years. Although differing theories abound, the oud is commonly thought to have developed into its traditional form during the Islamic Golden Age, likely evolving out of a similarly short-necked Persian instrument, the barbat.
For me, the oud is emblematic of the human experience: it tells a story of travel, trade, innovation, and most of all cultural exchange, demonstrating the ways in which people, like the objects we create, can be both unified and unique.
From the Islamic world, the oud spread across the globe, likely inspiring the Chinese pipa and, subsequently, the Japanese biwa. The oud was introduced to the Western world most notably through the Moorish invasion of Spain in 711, and by returning Crusaders during the 11th through 13th centuries. By the 14th century, Europeans had developed the oud into the early lute, adding frets to the fingerboard while keeping other core elements unchanged, such as the short neck and iconic bowl-shaped back.
The lute rapidly grew in popularity, reaching its peak during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, from the 15th through 18th centuries. But the lute has never entirely disappeared; you can still hear it today in early music ensembles. In fact, the theorbo, a charismatic cousin of the lute, will grace the halls of the MFA, performed by musician Catherine Liddell, on February 8 for Art in Tune.
Moreover, the lute has the impressive legacy of being an ancestor of the modern guitar (by way of the Spanish vihuela, but that’s a story for another time). In other words, you can thank the oud for musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Joni Mitchell.
But far from simply being a distant ancestor of today’s popular instruments, the oud has weathered the vicissitudes of history time and time again, and it’s still widely studied and played throughout the Arabic world, as well as in Turkey, Greece, Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, to name a few.
This exemplary oud is a cherished member of the MFA’s musical instrument collection. It was painstakingly crafted by Tawfik Nahat in Damascus, Syria, in 1928. Tawfik was a member of the Nahat family, a dynasty of oud makers whose works are some of the most highly prized examples of the instrument you can find today.
The instrument features remarkable inlays of mother-of-pearl and wood, as well as three rosettes—the delicate designs covering the instrument’s sound holes. Meticulously carved from bone, these rosettes are known as shams in Arabic, meaning “sun.”
In 1972, Albert Jernazian, a master clock repairman and World War II veteran residing in Portland, Maine, purchased the Nahat oud. From there it made its way to Alan Gardner, a talented composer and performer also living in Maine, who performed with the instrument in local ensembles for many years. In 2006, Peter Kyvelos, a renowned oud maker himself and a larger-than-life character, inherited the instrument. Recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow, Kyvelos owned and operated Unique Strings in Belmont, MA for 45 years, where he built, repaired, and cared for all kinds of stringed instruments. The Nahat oud occupied a special place in Kyvelos’s heart and in his personal collection. It wasn’t until 2019, several years after Kyvelos passed away, that the oud came to its new home at the MFA, 91 years after its construction and 102 years after the MFA’s musical instrument collection was founded.
This sort of odyssey is not uncommon for musical instruments. Well-made and good-sounding instruments are prized by performers and collectors alike, and they can live very long lives if treated accordingly. Should my apartment catch on fire, I know that my cello is the very first thing I would try to save.
Musical instruments inspire reverence and veneration that enables them to travel the world, passing through different time periods and cultures. It’s this sort of cultural exchange, this exploration of identity and unity, that the MFA celebrates with Art in Tune. The Nahat oud will come alive on February 8 in the talented hands of musician Mal Barsamian. I hope you’ll join us for the experience.
Hear Tawfik Nahat’s oud and other instruments from the MFA’s collection at Art in Tune, Thursday, February 8, 2023, from 6 to 8 pm.