Royal Variety Performance of the oud world
The music of Oman is almost unknown outside the country’s borders: there is a very small commercial music scene and no Omani has yet found recognition abroad. However, it has a thriving, if rather particular, cultural scene that is almost entirely sponsored by Sultan Qaboos. He maintains a symphony orchestra, a music academy and several ensembles devoted to traditional music. Last December, the country hosted an international oud festival that brought together some of the finest lute players in the Arab world. This extraordinarily glossy box set of four CDs and a thick book commemorates the event.
The festival’s line-up was an interesting mix of styles and performers that is partly representative of contemporary oud playing, even if there is an over-representation of Egyptian talent and none of the more avant-garde performers that find favour with Western audiences. Local boy Salim bin Ali al-Maqrashi opened the festival and there’s a slight hesitation to his first few phrases. However, this soon settles down and he more than holds his own with a set of dazzling Egyptian show-piece classics. The first disc continues with solo offerings from the Moroccan Saïd Chraibi and Egypt’s Mamdoh el Gebaly, both of whom turn in highly credible performances that would be all the more memorable if it wasn’t for the sheer wonder of what follows. Disc two is devoted to two of the unrivalled masters of khaleeji (Gulf style) oud playing: Abadi al-Johar and Ahmed Fathi. These players are rarely heard outside the Arab world and to have both of them playing solo on one CD is an unalloyed treat. The Saudi Arabian al-Johar has a flawless technique and a honeyed tone that you’d brave angry desert bees to hear; he’s also an extraordinarily dextrous and inventive improviser, as his taqasim on this recording show admirably. Yemeni national hero Ahmed Fathi has released some pretty insipid pop records in recent years and so it is a particular pleasure to hear him performing solo in a traditional context.
Discs three and four are largely devoted to some self-consciously serious pieces for oud and orchestra, including Atiyya Sharara’s first concerto and two new commissions for the festival by fellow Egyptian Ammar el-Sherei. The influence of late 19th-century Russian composers like Rimsky-Korsakov figures strongly in these works and the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra rise to the challenge with real spirit; but they can only do so much with some fairly unremarkable orchestration, and this particular jury is out on whether the combination actually works that well. However, what makes the Muscat Oud Festival so significant is the unabashed care, enthusiasm and – let’s be honest – cash that is clearly lavished upon it. There are considerably worse ways to spend your national budget, and this sumptuous box-set is a worthy memento of the occasion
Bill Badley / Songlines # 40