Oud: classical stringed instrument of the Middle East. ancestor to the guitar, ten or eleven strings, no frets
I don't recall seeing an oud until Safed, in 1977. I was studying in Jerusalem.
It was my first trip to Israel. There were many things I was introduced
to during that year. I had never been to Israel before, and who I was becoming
was being formed in unexpected ways.
In the middle of the year, my classmates and I were led around Safed on a walking tour of the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed. Safed was the center of a form of Jewish mysticism called Lurianic Kabbalah, based on the teachings of the great sixteenth century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. It is now known also as an artists' colony.
We passed through narrow streets, walkways paved with stone and in the middle of the stone an indentation for water to run off, metal shutters on both sides of the walkway opening on homes, studios, shops that face each other from each side of the walkway. It is a labyrinth of the Middle Eastern market form adapted by the Spanish exiles who settled there in the sixteenth century and built their homes on the other side of the metal shutters around courtyards, in the Spanish style, from their root memory of the land from which they were exiled in 1492.
I stayed close to my group thinking I couldn't possibly navigate those passageways by myself, it seemed like a great mystery to me, the labyrinth of passageways in the Old City of Safed. On one of those streets, we passed a storefront, its metal shutters drawn back and I glanced in and noticed some sort of woodwork on the tables. I realized I was looking at musical instruments, a sensual Oriental shape, unfinished wood, shapes like the swirl of Arabic calligraphy given form in wood. It was an oud, I surmised, something I had heard of as a guitar player in the ancestral sense. That was all I knew about the oud, it was an oriental antecedent to the guitar. I wondered what sort of sound came from such an instrument, how the physics and the senses coalesced to produce sound in such a body.
I walked into the shop, there was no one else present. I stared into the sublime Levantine femininity of the unfinished ouds languishing on the work tables of this workshop. There was no proprietor -- perhaps he was off on an errand, perhaps having a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe, perhaps sleeping off a morning of excessive exposure to the sublimity of his wooden creations under a eucalyptus tree -- there was no one there. I had walked into an enchanted orchard of oud shapes, not yet music, but the sound that entered my heart that day has never departed, the pure form of an imagined sound.
I wandered out the door and read the hand-drawn sign hung above: Elias, 17 generations of oud makers, Safed, an address. Nice sign, I thought, small, elegant, unobtrusive, inconspicuous, untelling, drilled into the stone just above the metal shutters that were drawn across the storefront at closing.
I never did find Mr. Elias on that trip, but the shape and image of the oud had settled into my imagination and when I returned to the States, I found tapes of oud music, I listened and I wanted to try my hand at playing what I heard, but I had no idea where to play or purchase such an instrument.
* * *
Back in the States, I found a repair person to take care of my classical guitars in the town I had settled in. In his shop one day, I spoke to him of my interest in the oud. Do you know where I might find an oud in this country? I asked him. He turned around and fished a flier out of the waste basket. “I have something right here,” he said. “I got it in the mail.”
“Do you work on ouds?” I asked.
“Funny you should ask,” he said. “I actually learned on the oud. I was trained in Turkey. The first instruments I worked with were ouds. No, I don’t have any, but I do receive these fliers. I just threw this out. . .here it is.” He gave me a photocopied flier, primitive, hand drawn lettering, a picture of an oud, a half a page, Someone’s Oud and Olive Shop, and an address, Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
I went to Brooklyn, found the shop, found a half a dozen other shops on the streets, all of which had ouds for sale. They were all highly decorated, inlaid with mother of pearl everywhere, and unplayable. Every one of them. In frustration, I went to a record store and asked for a tape of oud music. I was picking out a few tasty pieces when, as an afterthought, I asked, “you don’t have any ouds for sale, do you?”
“I have one. I bought it in Cairo, but it’s not very pretty and I don’t know if it’s playable.
“I don’t care if it’s pretty,” I said, “can I see it?” He showed me the plainest oud I had seen that day, plain but playable, flat neck, good action, no gaping cracks in the body. I acquired my first oud, but I could not play it. I took it into my arms, and began to find the notes in a style reminiscent of the classical guitar, which I was also studying. I played with my fingers, no pick, like I played the guitar.
I played this way, listening to tapes, mimicking the sounds with my fingers on the eleven strings of the oud, preferring the feel of flesh and nail on string than the flinty formality of plastic or plectrum on string as my earliest training in guitar had taught me.
* * *
Life had intervened and I could not return to Israel for seventeen years. I had forgotten my entry to the world of the East, the sound of the Oud, and on my second trip to the Middle East, seventeen years later, I found myself again in Safed.
By this time my oud interest had inflated into an obsession. I found myself for the second time in my life in Safed, on a different mission entirely than the first visit, this time leading a group of tourists around Israel and reacquainting myself with what had become in my imagination my spiritual home. I had come on a mission quite different from my first visit, my responsibilities on the second trip included only teaching the fellow travelers in our group the lore and history of Safed. I had even forgotten about the meeting in the oud workshop seventeen years earlier, although I had not forgotten the oud, I had misplaced in my mind my first encounter with it.
By the second time I visited Safed, in 1994, there lived in that small
city a man who was known to be a reader of hands. This is a technique that
was practiced by the great mystic, the holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi
himself, known by his acronym the Ari. Ari also means lion and he is one
of the great heroes of Jewish mysticism. In the literature it says that
the practice of reading hands had not been passed on. I happened to run
into this man and all the visitors in my group wanted to spend a time with
him. So we did.
I arranged a session with him late Saturday night. Eleven people from our tour chose to come with me. None of us discussed casually what happened that night, each experience was quite different it seemed, and I can only describe my own encounter.
I was next to last. At about 2:30 in the morning. He told me certain things about my life that only someone who was reading my mail would know. That was only to get my attention, because then, at about 3:30 in the morning, he told me the purpose of my life, not the hocus pocus that passes for mysticism these days, but what I am supposed to do when I get up in the morning and put on my pants. This was much more wonderful, much more ordinary, much more mysterious, much more daily, much more exotic, much more common, than fortune telling. What I am supposed to do. Today. Every day. The purpose of my life.
I was the last to leave his residence that night. The lights in the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed had gone out entirely. The storefronts are so close to one another that they obstruct the sky, so at night, without lights, it was as dark as anywhere outside I have ever been. I couldn't see a single thing, I couldn't see my own hand in front of my face. So I placed my shoe in the indentation that runs down the middle of the stone pathway. Like a trolley car I made my way gingerly through the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed. I walked this way for what seemed to be fifty yards or so, I was wondering how much farther I had to walk until I would emerge from the density of the Old Jewish Quarter into the moonlight. I was moving slowly.
Then the street lights came on. I stood there under the lights of the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed adjusting my eyes as if I had crawled out of a cave into the sun. I stood there, for a moment, acclimating myself to my surroundings, wondering how far I was from the long stairs that run down the middle of Safed and once separated the Jewish from the Arab Quarters of town. I hadn't yet moved from the spot where I stood, paralyzed since the lights had come on, stuck by my feet to the stone, and then I looked up.
I was standing in front of a store front, like so many others with metal shutters drawn across the front, my eyes drifted upwards, to a sign, hand lettered, drilled into the stone, which read, Elias, 18 generations of oud makers, Safed, an address.
It was the oud shop, the very same address where I first entered the world of the East, the deep world in the ground where I was now rooted and where seventeen years earlier I started to plant myself, tentatively inching into its soil and throwing a few tendrils and shoots. Except that this must have been his son, the eighteenth generation, one generation later than I had first encountered.
At once I was drawn back to that day in 1977 when I first entered that shop, where I met myself in this unexpected place, among the unfinished carcasses of the enchanted oud forest, behind these very shutters, before the oud had trained my hands and expressed the world. The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.
james stone goodman
united states of america
It was time for me to go to Israel. It was the place for me to deepen myself in the sound that had now overwhelmed me.
I turned it over and over in my mind for months. What was the safest way to carry my oud to Israel? I knew that if I packed it into the hard shell case, the airlines would have the option of checking it through (which they prefer to do). On the other hand, if I carried it by hand I would have to pack it into the soft case, and the soft case has no protection -- but when you are carrying the instrument and laying it in the luggage bin above your head -- what sort of protection do you need? This is how I figured and that is what I decided to do: carry my beloved oud in my arms, in the soft case, so that there was no chance of the airlines spiriting it away and abandoning it to the handling of the baggage druids, about whom I have heard a hundred cautionary tales from other musicians.
At Kennedy airport, we checked all our luggage and I had my hands free to clutch my instrument to my heart as I stood in the line waiting to board the TWA flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They called for boarding, allowed us to pass into the “people who need assistance boarding and small children” line, and as we were waiting to enter the plane, someone pushed me and my oud was pinned for a split second between myself and the wall of the terminal. It happened so quickly and innocently that I had to recreate the scene later to understand what had come about, but by the time I entered the airplane, I was holding my beautiful oud in my hands like a duck about to be prepared for a Chinese feast, dead in my arms, limp neck, the headstock snapped at the neck, its carved rosette popped out of the sound hole and crashing about the bowels of the instrument. As I laid my oud to rest in its compartment over my seat, I felt the folly of all my planning, to have arrived before the trip began with the very eventuality I tried most to avoid. We hadn’t even left the United States and my instrument was broken.
By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, I had decided to pack up the pieces and ship it home, to myself, and when I returned I would take it to my instrument repair man who I was quite sure could fix it. I had no confidence in the ability of Israeli technicians to fix my instrument, so I didn’t bother to inquire. They hadn’t as yet created instruments as fine as mine in the Middle East, how could they repair them? One day, as I went to visit a friend, I passed a violin repair person whose shop was just a short block away from my friend’s office. I stopped in out of curiosity and told the man about my instrument. What kind of instrument is it? he asked. I told him it was a big lute. What kind of lute? An oud, I said. Do you play it? he asked. He had heard of my teacher, and he assured me that he could fix my instrument. I brought it to him.
Two weeks later, I picked up my oud from the violin repair man. It made me sad to see it, because it looked like it had been broken – I could see the separation at the fault line, the discoloration of the woods, and the differences in finishes around the site of the break.
When the instrument was broken, I felt all the notes fly out of it like the letters that flew off the tablets when Moses broke them on the way down the mountain. I told this to the violin repair man, who was formal in conversation. He called me Mar Goodman (Mr. Goodman) and I call him Adon, which is a little more formal. He bowed slightly from the waist when I came into his studio. When I told him the story of the notes flying out of the oud, he smiled and said (in Hebrew), there is always that danger. Then he asked me to play for him, so I sat down in the middle of dozens of broken violins, I tuned it (he admonished me to always put pressure on both sides of the headstock equally, a technical as well as a metaphysical critique), and I began to play, slowly and tentatively.
Maybe it was the place, a single large room that opened up to the street through an opaque metal curtain that was drawn across the entire front of the studio. Perhaps it was Jerusalem, and this the first time I heard my instrument played there. Maybe it was the repair, there is a notion in the Kabbalah that a weakness when repaired is stronger than if there had never been a weakness at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to the source of sound, there is a teaching that when the rope that connects us all to the Source is cut and knotted up again, the distance is diminished.
I started to play, he closed his eyes and listened, then he asked me to play louder, turn it up please he said in Hebrew, and I played a little louder. I heard a sound I had never heard before emerge from my instrument. Do you hear? he said. Yes, it's beautiful, I said, in Hebrew. Thank you, he said, in English. He was smiling an impish smile, as if the secret of the broken oud and its music was something familiar to him, something that we had now shared. He had gathered the notes back into the instrument and they were fluttering around his studio. His name, by the way, was a Russian name that means heart of the strings. Heart of the strings had returned the notes to my oud. Ahhhhh, he said.
I left heart of the strings, and I walked out into the darkening Jerusalem evening clutching my oud to my chest. It was almost night, the sun making its way home in the west. I walked slowly up Palmach Street, past the Islamic Museum, past the President’s House, that’s where I saw a certain man, just on the other side of the President’s house, before I came to Wingate Square.
He was walking in front of me, it was now dark dark, he took advantage of the deep breath that the city exhales at nightfall and appeared without anyone noticing. But I am sure that I saw him. He walked like an old man but he may have been young, bound with muscles. He was carrying a notebook with the stories and songs of Jerusalem in it under his arm, a hat on his head, he walked slowly and methodically ahead of me. In his notebook were not only the stories, but the interpretations, the obvious and the non-obvious, the known stories and the unknown, everything -- and the notes that had returned to my instrument in a way I had never imagined them.
james stone goodman
Lately I have been writing stories about my interests, a kind of creative non-fiction, memoir, about what seems to me extraordinary things. Here are a few stories about music, about a particular deep dive for music that feels to me like deep soul memories, and about creativity as it relates to inherited lore. In these stories, I describe my relation to a music that got inside my head – and rearranged – everything.
How To Build An Oud
Take strips of fine wood
Go west and find guitar woods
It will be an adventure of the highest order
Before you begin.
You will be looking
For curly maples
If you look too hard
You will not find them.
An old teacher next to the desert
Is warehousing wood away
He will sell it to you
If you convince him you have the eastern
To translate his western guitar wood
With you hands.
Do not tell him.
Take the wood he has given you
Heat up the wood and stretch the pieces over a
A large gourd shape.
Place inside the sound hole --
The sound of hooves from a distance
The sand flying in your face
The crack of a tree as it falls into water
The buzz of insects at night.
Let the wood breathe
Before you cover the sound holes
With filigreed mosaics.
Wait -- put nothing over the holes at all
And with you ear
Listen to the belly of your instrument
For its beating
james stone goodman
united states of america