Oud master Naseer Shamma builds global harmony through music

"I appreciate things that time has passed by," says oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma. "The oud is an instrument that has lived since the Assyrian civilization and is the mother of the guitar and the lute."

Samer Abbas

In a rare melding of modern and medieval, Orchestra Hall will brim with multicultural harmony when acclaimed oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma appears Jan. 27 with revered trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

The oud, an ancient stringed instrument with a hollow wooden body and a rounded back, predates the European lute and has long played a central role in Arab music. Over the last few decades, Shamma has emerged as one of its chief ambassadors.

Shortly before his Chicago visit, the 59-year-old Iraqi virtuoso offered thoughtful answers via email to questions about his work, life and goals. His comments have been translated from the original Arabic.

You have a doctorate in musical philosophy. What does that encompass, and how does what you learned influence your work?

I have always been interested in the aesthetics of music and its deep philosophy. Music is not just an entertaining journey that makes you harmonize and perhaps dance. My research focused on musical stylistics. As far as I know, there are no studies of that in Arab libraries, so the scarcity prompted me to study it.

Of course, science and knowledge do not stop at the borders of school or university. Life teaches us every day, and everything we encounter we learn from. I have been influenced by everything I learned, regardless of the source of knowledge, including images. For a long time, I was interested in drawing through music so that the listener receives an accompanying image. Perhaps the art exhibitions that I visit frequently are what drives my enthusiasm to create a parallel musical world. My research deals with Chopin’s influences on music and writing for the piano, and also includes stylistic theory and how it applies to music and to Arab and European composers.

You’ve done a lot of orchestral performances, along with your solo and small ensemble work. What’s different about how you play your instrument for an orchestral audience of thousands as opposed to a smaller club crowd?

Over a long stretch of my life, I have played in various halls, some of which are considered among the most important performance halls in the world. Some were houses of worship and some were open spaces. I’ve faced large audiences and small audiences with which I’ve always had a feeling of warmth and harmony. The audience gives the musician their creative energy, which the musician can then turn into a creative work. There are concerts that reserve a great place in my memory, but this status has nothing to do with the size of the audience. Rather, it’s the energy that provokes me to give everything I have.

I love to solo, because it gives me the ample freedom to alter the piece even as I’m performing, as I may improvise or sometimes compose a piece within a piece. Also, the sound factors in a church are distinctive from closed and open theaters. Every place has its own energy, and therefore the style of playing may differ.

What drew you to the oud initially, and what has kept you interested in expanding your skills and repertoire all these years?

I appreciate things that time has passed by. To be more specific, I love heritage with the flavor of modernity. The oud is an instrument that has lived since the Assyrian civilization and is the mother of the guitar and the lute. Ziryab [an ancient Muslim musician] was the first to introduce it to Andalusia. He was at that time creating a civilization and was the first to lay the foundations of etiquette in food and clothing. I was impressed by this, and it affected me greatly. As a result, I am very much concerned with the environment that [emerges] around the musician while they are playing. I believe it’s not just a decorative accessory, but something that complements the performance. The oud is an integrated world, and I find myself interested in every wood type, string and note. I feel it aging inside me, and I don’t treat it as wood, but as its own soul.

How much do you care about winning awards? Is there one among the many in your collection that means the most?

An award is a responsibility and not just an appreciation. Because when you receive an award, a certificate of appreciation or a title, you will ask yourself, “What next?” What comes before any award is not the same as what follows, and I believe that the award is given in recognition ultimately to encourage one to keep moving, not to be lazy and not to get tired of paying attention to what hinders your way.

I truly cannot point to a single award that has impacted me most. Each has its own meaning. France honored me with the title “Little Ziryab,” which I love, and Germany honored me with the title of Messenger of Arab Culture to the West, which grew my responsibilities to my mother culture. The United Nations chose me as an Artist for Peace, which has been renewed three consecutive times, and the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent granted me the status of ambassador. All of them are dear to me, and each one has a meaning and its own responsibilities. Despite all of them, I sometimes read a compliment on social media from someone I don’t know and consider it a lofty award in its own way.

The Arab Oud House is almost 25 years old. Why did you establish it, and what are you most proud of in terms of how it has grown and evolved?

I had and still have big dreams that require dozens like me who are each pursuing dreams in their own way. The Arab Oud House was born from this idea: You distribute your dreams and the tasks needed to accomplish them to people of different ages whose own lives and dreams innovate and deepen your own, even if their paths are different from yours.

The Arab Oud House has fulfilled many dreams for me, which are not personal but mainly related to an instrument I love. Female Arab musicians are now highlighted in different parts of the world, charting their paths and striving toward their own goals. During Ziryab’s time, he was transferring our rich civilization from the East to the West. He was a messenger who wandered and left his disciples everywhere. I am also, in a way, one of his students, and my work on the oud is also globalizing. And the graduates of Oud House have acquired their own styles and become messengers of our culture in various parts of the world. When I follow their experiences, I feel that the Oud House has fulfilled a beautiful and ambitious dream and has become, to some extent, a true partner for global culture.

A big part of your career involves humanitarian outreach. Why is that so important to you, and how does music help you achieve your goals?

As I see it, humanitarian work is an integral part of an artist’s personality. Seven years ago, I received the Golden Pea Award from Germany. It was previously awarded to the likes of princes who employed their fame and energy to benefit humanity. It affected me and held me to a greater responsibility, especially since today we live in a turbulent world where pain prevails. I came from Iraq, a country whose civilization and legacy are part of today’s greatest humanitarian achievements. But it was groaning under the weight of great death. If you want a future, you must learn from history and create it through children. Rather than standing in the corner and weeping over bad circumstances, I want to promote change.

Like other forms of art, music can help create a more promising future and a bridge through which evil departs. For the Cairo branch of the Oud House, I chose a neighborhood that was originally called Al Batiniya and was a hotbed of drugs and theft — a terrifying place that was always raided by the police. After a few years of establishing the Oud House, the place became a true representation of a civilized heritage. In addition to Oud House, a café soon opened next door and became quite popular. Then a house for poetry was launched, then a jewelry shop with items that represented the country’s heritage in a modern style. A community of its own was born.

What goal would you like to achieve that you haven’t already?

A dream I have not yet accomplished is to have a musician in every home. A good musician can serve as a safety system, just like a fire alarm. Music can save you from many evils, such as extremism, fanaticism and racism. The truth is that the whole world needs to promote the presence of music. Music in your home is a safety valve for your life.

Which Jimi Hendrix song sounds best on the oud?

Good question. “Pali Gap.”