A oud crafted by Labib Habib with the head of an bird gracing the tip of the instrument

PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN

The Oud Makers

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | June 2001 

Expressing the rich inflections of Oriental melodies, the traditional Arabic lute, known as the oud, lives on through its few remaining craftsmen.

Up two flights of uneven stairs to a workshop in Agouza, the jovial Labib Habib, better known as Badr, patiently and lovingly handcrafts pear-shaped ouds, with only a radio to keep him company. Tools of all shapes and sizes clutter Badr’s workbench, along with pieces of wood, jugs of glue and sandpaper. Cupboards are stocked with an assortment of indigenous and imported woods: mahogany, rosewood, ebony, sycamore, palisander, maple and walnut. To the side two nearly finished ouds rest alongside others awaiting repair. Well-known among musicians, the 72-year-old’s creations have become legendary, marrying beauty with functionality.

 

“This is our work,” he says, proudly holding up an exquisite instrument, its latticed soundhole inscribed with the name of musician Tarek Fouad. Working six days a week from 7:30am until 3pm, it takes Badr two to three weeks to complete one oud. “A month, I tell the customer,” he says. His son Girgis, who has learned the craft, works as a schoolteacher but joins his father in the late afternoon and stays on to complete the day’s work. Badr’s custom-made ouds bear his signature, an eagle’s head shaping the tip of the instrument. On his left hand shines a silver ring also in the form of an eagle.

 

The entire instrument is constructed of wood. Badr explains how the pear shape is made from several strips of wood three millimeters thick. Shaped and bent by fire, the wood is glued together over a wooden frame. Beginning with the design and choice of wood, the skillful technique of carving, molding and joining the pieces together gives each piece its unique resonance.

 

The youngest of four children and the only son, Badr grew up by the railway tracks on an unpaved street lined with wooden dwellings in Rod El-Farag, where he still resides. He fondly recalls childhood memories of fishermen, bakers and the simple pleasure of chewing on sugarcane. Sent to work at a tender age after his mother died and his father remarried, Badr’s formal education lasted a year. Although a Copt, he was schooled at an Islamic kuttab where he studied the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic and the Quran. He learned his lessons well and so impressed the sheikh that when Badr’s father decided to take the child out of school, the sheikh tried to dissuade him, offering to waive Badr’s 5pt a month tuition fee.

 

“I know people from our village in Assiut who have opened a barbershop,” the father told his son. So at age 7, Badr tied up his galabeya and went to work sweeping floors and polishing mirrors from morning to night for 1pt a week. A year later he started learning how to repair musical instruments at a Shubra piano shop owned by a Syrian émigré. Fourteen years later business slowed to a crawl, a result of the political and social upheaval of a monarchy in decline, and Badr was forced to look for work elsewhere.

 

In 1950 he apprenticed with Gamil Georges, the renowned oud maker from Aleppo and one of Egypt’s master oud craftsmen at the time, on Mohammed Ali Street, the oud district. “After earning LE 12 a month at the piano shop, I worked for 15pt a day,” remembers Badr, the father of seven sons and a daughter, and grandfather of five. Through observation, the apprentice learned to craft ouds, guitars, banjos and other stringed instruments. His supervisor, who always saw him laughing and smiling, named him Badr, which means “full moon” in Arabic.

 

After 13 years with Georges, Badr opened a shop in El-Daher, and later moved to Zamalek's Ahmed Heshmat Street at the time when 26th of July Street was still called Fouad Street, the flourishing marketplace for antiques, phonograph records and musical instruments. Oud makers enjoyed a boom when the Gulf countries opened up to trade following the 1973 War. Earlier, when music was forbidden in Saudi Arabia, ouds were disassembled and smuggled out in the hidden compartments of suitcases, recounts Badr, who traveled to Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Libya where he continued practicing his craft.

 

“The principal element of an exceptional lute is the craftsman,” believes Nasser Moustafa, an oud player and manager of Gawharet El Fan, a family-owned instrument importing and exporting business comprising a chain of three shops on Mohammed Ali Street. “If ten craftsman in ten days each crafted an oud using the same wood, you would have ten ouds with ten different sounds, each possessing the spirit and soul of the craftsman.”

 

Egypt’s oud makers number around 200, yet many of them are “like painters who draw without vision, imagination or depth,” believes Moustafa. Fathi Amin, another celebrated craftsman, agrees. “They make ouds like rabbits,” he says, explaining how the commercialization of the craft is now accompanied by a lack of patience and little attention to quality. Seated outside a small two-floor workshop on a dirt side street in Sayyeda Aisha’s old Souq El-Hammam district where he has made lutes since 1978, Amin smokes his water pipe and peers through thick spectacles. Along a maze of narrow side streets surrounding his shop roam an animal farm of cats, chickens, ducks, sheep and goats. “Once machines are used to make musical instruments,” concludes the 62-year old craftsman as he inhales deeply on his shisha, “they lose their vitality.” Making ouds for roughly half a century, Amin and Badr fashion instruments that are brimming with life—although neither of them plays the oud—earning them both a reputation for being among the world’s greatest living oud makers.

 

With an early passion for the craft, Amin began at age 14 as an apprentice for the well-known master Ahmed Mohammed, a zealous protector of the secrets behind his success. “In my first 20 days in his workshop I crafted a miniature oud,” Amin recalls with a chuckle. “He took me by the ear and said, ‘Don’t do anything like this again.’” Amin’s first soprano oud, which he thought would be perfect for children, sold for 25pt.

 

While other manufacturers shape the neck of the oud to slide snugly into the instrument’s pear-shaped body, Amin constructs a dovetail that firmly secures the neck and body in place. This clever technique, which he has taught his 28-year-old son, Sayed, prevents the neck from being pulled forward by the tension of the strings. It takes Amin anything from a few days to six months to produce one instrument, depending on the artistic embellishment and the intricate mother-of-pearl and wood inlay required. Viewing his craft as a hobby, the Aswan-born craftsman chooses his customers as well as his work. “A customer may ask me to make him an oud, and I may refuse,” says Amin. “He does not know how to play it, so he won’t care for it.” Both an experimenter and innovator, Amin also makes buzuqs, smaller traditional string instruments. He is credited for popularizing the soprano and bass ouds, crafting a four-string rababa, and resurrecting the tambur, a long-necked Ancient Egyptian string instrument.

 

Pursuing acoustic refinement in the instruments they make, Amin and Badr see their talent as a divine blessing. “I have a touch or a fingerprint, which no one knows except God,” says Amin. “I don't even know what it is.” Oud player and composer Moddathir Aboul Wafa can easily spot one of Amin’s instruments. “I know a Fathi Amin oud by its appearance, design and sound,” he says. “He has a unique breath.”

 

Strolling along Mohammed Ali Street one can find all kinds of ouds. “A musician’s lute is no less than LE 4,000 because it takes time to make,” says Moustafa. But a musician on the quest for the perfect-sounding oud to complement his style of playing and artistic temperament is willing to pay any price, he continues. “Sadly,” believes Badr, “many of the musicians today are merely concerned with appearances.”

Ouds by Labib Habib

PHOTOS BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN