Rhapsody for Lute

Rhapsody for Lute

Yousra Dhahbi

The lute only developed as a solo instrument from the 1930s on, but in the space of a single generation, it was featured and heard everywhere, thanks to artists such as Jamil and Munir Bashir, Ghanim Haddad and Salman Shukr. This is the lineage in which Yousra Dhahbi places herself: “When I was a pupil, my teacher didn’t believe there was any future for women in the instrumental field, and all he did was discourage me. Out of defiance and in spite of my youth, I worked twice as hard just to prove to him that the opposite was true.” Her success owes a great deal to her calm tenacity, her personal arm ever since she adopted the noble instrument. Today she represents the first generation of solo women lutenists in the Arab world.


1Hayra/Anxiety – 16’00
2Raksa/Dance – 5’52
3Hanin/Tenderness – 7’13
4Rouhaniyet/Meditations – 4’42
5Farha/Joy – 12’46
6Hamasset/Murmurs – 4’17
7Tahmila rast – 13’35

Interpreters and instruments

Yousra Dhahbi (oud)


For a long time, Arab instrumental music, victim of the prevailing, more “fashionable” light music, was put aside or considered a fringe activity. It was only during the 30’s, on the instigation of Sharif Muyiddin Haydar, the founder of the Baghdad Music Conservatory (the first official music school in the Arab world) that the art of the ‘ud as a solo instrument in its own right, was able to develop. A generation later, the solo ‘ud player had won his rightful place on the musical scene, thanks to Jamil and Munir Bashir, Ghanim Haddad, Salman Shukr and the like.

This is the lineage to which Yousra Dhahbi from Tunis belongs. This is the lineage to which Yousra Dhahbi from Tunis belongs. Over the past few years her presence has been noticed at numerous festivals, where she’s received standing ovations and many distinguished awards (including first prize at the Jordan International Lute Competition), signs of an art and a temperament that are now helping to enhance her reputation abroad.A temperament that a single anecdote sums up rather well: “When I was a pupil, my teacher didn’t believe there was any future for women in the instrumental field, and all he did was discourage me. Out of defiance and in spite of my youth, I worked twice as hard just to prove to him that the opposite was true.” Her success does indeed owe a great deal to her steadfast but calm tenacity, once she’d realized this pear-shaped instrument was the one she wanted in her own destiny, a conviction she’s held since childhood when she used to watch her brother playing the lute to a certain acclaim at family parties; but even then, she’d been irritated by his lack of precision. Thus, as soon as she started at the girls’ high school in the Rue du Pacha in Tunis, she tried to take some lute lessons via the school music club – but in vain, she had to wait until her second year at real music school before she could actually touch the instrument of her dreams. Yet she still had to curb this passion somewhat, for her father was afraid that if she got too involved with music, it might distract her from her so-called “classical” or more conventional studies. A supreme irony indeed, for he himself was a Sufi singer, the son of a mother who’d been praised for the beauty of her voice, and he’d brought his children up to follow the regular evening singing sessions and rehearsals of his troupe of musicians. Be that as it may, this prior importance attached to music was still there after Yousra Dhahbi’s baccaulauréat, when she seriously considered devoting all her time to it. “My family opposed my choice and advised me to opt for a different branch of studies, because there wasn’t any future in music, or so they said.” This led her to choose a paramedical branch, cytomorphology, and after four years of study ending in a diploma, she went to work in a clinic.

However, the young woman never stopped playing and working at developing her skill on the lute during this period. As well as music school and the hours of training she undertook there, she also took private lessons with the great Tunisian master, Ali Sriti. These lessons were relatively dear for a family with several children, but her father willingly paid – an investment that was duly rewarded, because after six years of study at the conservatory, she gained two diplomas, one in Arab music and another for lute. This achievement naturally made her inclined to continue at the Higher Music Institute (Institut supérieur de musique/ISM), but her inclinations were thwarted by the urgency of reality, symbolized by the Faculty of Medicine. Once again, the link with music remained unbroken, for she managed to carry on her studies at the ISM even while tackling her stressful job involving direct contact with sick patients. Finally, torn between her vocation and a career that did not really correspond to her personality, she decided to hand in her notice at the clinic in order to finish her higher music studies properly. An impetuous gesture perhaps, but this time she had the support of her family. “What was really amazing was my father’s attitude, he encouraged me in my choice. At last I felt I was being true to myself!” To be oneself – this need for identity had already received the approval of another voice, for during and after her musical studies at the ISM, she was accompanied by one of the star lutenists, Naseer Shamma from Irak, who advised her to take up a career as a soloist. The idea really appealed to her, because she wanted to put an oriental instrument (the lute) with an occidental one (the piano), and had already gone as far as setting up the repertoire with a piano teacher friend, Samira Esseghir. They gave their first public performance before a large audience at the Russian Cultural Centre in Tunis. She’d also become involved in a music ensemble consisting of lute, qanun, violin, nay, double bass, tar, and vocals; her involvement was to last four years until the group had to split up, for its members, all previous students from the master’s degree course, eventually went off to different posts in various directions a long way from the capital. Similarly, she joined the troupe known as La Rachidiya, whose aim since 1934 had been to preserve and revive the musical heritage of Tunisia.

In spite of these commitments, Yousra Dhahbi still maintained her lively interest in different lute styles and schools, firstly by listening to recordings by some of the great lutenists such as Sharif Muhyiddin Haydar, Jamil and Munir Bashir, Ghanim Haddad (Iraq), Riadh Sumbati and Mohammad al-Qasabdji (Egypt), Khmais Tarnane (Tunisia) and Al Bidhaoui (Morocco); she was also invited to international meetings where she met some real stars of the instrument, e.g. Munir Bashir, Saïd Chraïbi (Morocco), Ali Sriti and Taher Gharsa and his son Zied (Tunisia), Ylden (Turkey) and many more. Foreign travel enabled her to approach other styles, as in 1999, when she played before the music-lovers of Cairo with the well-known Moroccan singer Karima Skalli. After this performance the pair decided to continue their collaboration, and so the unusual partnership of a singer with a solo instrumentalist was born. All these “feathers in her cap” enriched Yousra’s inherent talent that, together with her intimate knowledge of different lute styles, allied with her great sensitivity; has shaped her singular originality. As she says, “I always try to be sincere in my work. And when you’re sincere, I believe there’s something emanates directly from your personality that is communicated to the audience”. Her sober, graceful style, influenced by the Baghdad school and the Egyptian tarab, and her compositions in tune with her personal make-up support this belief.

This first album is the vivid representation of all this, conceived as it is in somewhat pictorial form, and offering a suite of various contradictory feelings ranging from the expression of torment (Hayra) to that of joy (Farha), via a festive atmosphere (Raksa), tenderness (Hanin) or the evocation of a more mystical state (Rouhaniyet). Her taqasim (improvisations) reveal this blend of gentleness and serene willpower that are her absolute hallmarks.

Yousra Dhahbi is not satisfied with merely representing the first generation of solo women lutenists in the modern Arab world by her elegant style, she’s got ambition and curiosity too. These have prompted her to undertake serious research into the Tunisian musical heritage, with the idea of a doctorate about Tunisian music from the 20’s until the birth of Tunisian national radio in 1957. She’s thinking about recording (voice with lute) some pieces inspired by Sufi thought and practice. And finally, she’s got a new craze – her passion for the al arbi, a local four-stringed ‘ud, smaller than the oriental version, and requiring a completely different technique from those of the other schools of playing.

Frank Tenaille
Translated by Délia Morris

The recordings

1- Hayra/Anxiety – 16’00
Live recording in Mikriz mode 
Music: Yousra Dhahbi

“In the beginning this was a story I wanted to tell my audience through the medium of music, when I was in Brussels for a concert. A feeling of anxiety stemming from an event in my private life prompted me to imagine this piece. At that particular moment I really wanted to exteriorize my feelings. On stage the evening of the concert, I had tears in my eyes, and it was the same for the people in the audience.”

2- Raksa/Dance – 5’52
Ches kar mode
Music: Yousra Dhahbi

“I wrote this piece one day when I was feeling particularly happy. I’d just spent several hours playing the lute and I started composing at three o’clock in the morning.”

3- Hanin/Tenderness – 7’13
Bayati mode
Music: Yousra Dhahbi

4- Rouhaniyet/Meditations – 4’42
Rahit larweh mode
Music: Yousra Dhahbi

“This is a mode I really like, it puts me into a Sufi state of mind.”

5- Farha/Joy – 12’46
Rast dhil mode
Music: Kaddour Srarfi

6- Hamasset/Murmurs – 4’17
Nahawend mode
Music: Jamil Bashir

7- Tahmila Rast – 13’35
Variations in rast mode
Taqasim inspired by a composition by Sami Schawa

  • Reference : 321.057
  • Ean : 794 881 746 521
  • Main artist : Yousra Dhahbi (يسرى ذهبي )
  • Year of recording : 2001
  • Year of publishing : 2004
  • Music style: Classical Instrumental
  • Country : Tunisia
  • City of recording : Bruxelles
  • Main language :
  • Composers : Yousra Dhahbi ; Kaddour Srarfi ; Jamil Bashir ; Sami Schawa
  • Lyricists :
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe