The Bahdad Lute

The Bahdad Lute

Naseer Shamma

Naseer Shamma brings an almost human dimension to his lute. From his fingerings spring forth melodies that evoke the four elements, one by one — their wildness and fury, the anguish and worry they provoke, the serenity when they die down, the stillness and their beauty that bring consolation and joy… Each tune here is not only part of the invitation to set off on a journey from Baghdad to Grenada, it appeals to our imagination and allows us to escape into the world of poetry and dreams…
Shamma, imbued with the centuries-old tradition of al-Farâbî, an illustrious philosopher who drew up a theory of musical harmony, sometimes treats his lute like a guitar. But his playing is always strong, generously warm-hearted, flery and romantic, a true reflection of his virtuosic talent.


1Min adh-Dhâkira – 8’56
2Qissat hubb sharkiyya – 7’50
3Nasamat ‘adhba – 5’22
4Sukûn al-Layl fî Baghdad – 8’43
5Min Ashûr ila Ishbîliyâ – 5’24
6Salât bâbiliyya – 5’50
7Ughniya ‘irâqiyya – 7’48
8Hiwâr bayn al-Mutanabbi was-Sayyâb – 7’41
9 – al-’Amiriyya – 15’17

Interpreters and instruments

Naseer Shamma (oud)



Archeological discoveries attribute the origins of the lute to the end of the third millenium. It probably made its first appearance in Mesopotamia, in the Akadian kingdom (2350-2170 B.C.). This was a long-necked lute, later to become the favourite instrument of the Babylonians, who introduced it into their prayer rituals and used it as an instrument of communication between man and the divinities. In Egypt we have records of its appearance during the New Empire (1580-1090 B.C., from the XVth to the XVIIth dynasty).

The development of the ‘ud

‘Ud, which means wood or a stick in Arabic, is the name given to the short-necked lute. It is a fretless instrument, with plucked strings and a pear-shaped sound-box. In Arab music it is considered to be the “king of all instruments” – it is the instrument of predilection in classical music and has served as the basis for all musical theory as well as the Arabic modal system. Al-Kindî (11th c.), Al-Farâbî (10th c.) and Al-Urmawî (13th c.) all described the Arabic modal system with the help of this instrument, and many others have done so too.

The ‘ud in its present form began to emerge in the 6th c. A.D., during the Sassanid kingdom. But we need to move further forward in time to the Arab golden age and the caliphs of the Abasid kingdom (8th c. onwards) before certain musicians such as Ishâq al-Mawsilî or theorists such as Al-Kindî work on its form and bring it to its final shape. Up until the 9th c. the ‘ud had four strings, which, according to the Arab theorists, corresponded to the four “humours”. It was Ziryâb, a pupil of Ishâq al-Mawsilî and a fine lutenist as well as a major musician, who endowed the ‘ud with a fifth string and replaced the traditional wooden plectrum with an eagle’s feather, still in use nowadays. Ziryâb left Baghdad to go to North Africa and el-Andalus, (Moorish Spain) then settled in Cordoba where he founded the first school for the ‘ud and Arab singing. 

Lastly, during the present century, a sixth string has been added to the instrument.

The Baghdad school

Towards the end of the nineteenth century different schools of thought, style and technique began to be defined, all later confirmed during the following century. So we have the Turkish school, the Iraqi school, the Near-Eastern school (Egypt, Syria, the Lebanon) and the North African school. 

The Iraqi school was founded by the sharif Muhy al-Din Haydar (1882-1965) at the Baghdad Institute of Music. This school gave rise to a whole new musical trend combining natural talent and virtuosity on the part of the player, but attaching equal importance to written composition and improvisation; the overall idea was to enlarge the repertory of the ‘ud. Whilst the Baghdad school has instituted certain organic changes to the ‘ud, it has a major distinguishing feature as far as technique is concerned – the plectrum moves both up and down the strings, whereas in the Near-Eastern school, for instance, the plectrum moves mainly downwards. The resulting sound from the Baghdad technique is richer and offers the possibility of a greater variety of instrumental dynamics. Again, the ‘ud’s tuning has been raised by a fourth in comparison to the Syrian or Egyptian schools, thus enabling the player to obtain even higher, purer notes from his instrument. In the 20th century this school of technique has revolutionized the language and style of the instrument. Muhy al-Din Haydar trained several disciples, amongst whom we should name the Bashir brothers, Jamil and Munir, Salman Shukur, Ghanem Haddad and Georges Michel, who have all in turn passed on their skill to a new generation, of which Naseer Shamma is the key figure. 

The ‘ûd in the West

The ‘ud was introduced into Europe both via Andalusia and Moorish Spain and by the Crusaders coming back from the East. It appeared in Spain during the 13th and 14th centuries: the Spanish laud or the Old French laut – both names stemming from the Arabic term al-‘ûd – were instruments used by strolling musicans such as the troubadours or trouvères to accompany their songs.

It was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the lute reached the height of its fame in Italy, France, England, Flanders and Germany. In order to comply with the demands of its role as accompanist for singing, it underwent some major changes, hence the emergence of the theorbo or bass lute with its fourteen or sixteen strings (six or eight strings were played off the fingerboard). The traditional Western lute then fell into oblivion.

At the moment there is a renewal of interest in the West in the Arab ‘ud and in the lute in both its medieval and classical form. This has helped to bridge the gap between the various types of lute, with their different forms, techniques and styles of playing; each now seeks to bring something of its own art to the others. This blending or near-fusion of techniques and styles is typical of Naseer Shamma.

Shattering the stereotypes

When he was a child Naseer Shamma dreamed of being a great musician, the equivalent of those who used to play at the court of the Babylonian kings or the Abasid caliphs. He maintains that the ‘ud should not be limited to any single technique, style or tradition; on the contrary, tradition in music should never become encased in stereotypes for these will inevitably bring about the death of art. So he suggests shattering these stereotypes, with their austere, lifeless forms, and taking the ‘ud right out of its traditional context, placing it instead in new settings, hitherto completely unknown in Arab music. 

Naseer Shamma advocates the opening up of the ‘ud towards all the instruments belonging to the lute family, so as to bring a new richness of tone and new means of melodic, technical and aesthetic expression. This implies of course on his part, a very thorough knowledge of the instrument itself, its history and its construction, as well as the utmost rigour in the teaching and teaching methods that he will use with his pupils and transmit to them. His style calls on the techniques of the ‘ud, the Arab buzuq, the Kurdish sâz, the Greek bouzouki, the classical lute and the flamenco and classical guitar. As he plays each successive note according to the modal system of the Arab maqam-s, he adds another fingering based on natural harmony as conceived by the Arab theorists of the Middle Ages.

Tradition as the basis of modernism

Naseer Shamma’s style is not only a dialogue between tradition and modernism, it is also dialectical with constant interaction between them. Although his intention is to bring a new dimension to the ‘ûd, his innovatory approach needs tradition to make this legitimate – in this context we should understand tradition as a solid basis for future experimentation and new skills, and not a prison or something fixed in time, space and form. As the poet Adonis put it so concisely:

What has gone before takes priority over what is to come; it has (…) something extra. The future expresses the need of what has gone before, of a past that was more complete, more perfect. Change can only be admitted if it does not  prejudice or harm the original in any way; it should take its inspiration from the original; it must be an imitation of the previous model“. 1

With each new work Naseer Shamma feels the need to recall the past. Many contributory factors provide powerful historical or scientific arguments for his case – the fact that the ‘ud originated in Mesopotamia, that the greatest theorists or ‘ud players such as Ishaq al-Mawsilî, Ziryab, Al-Kindî, Al-Farâbî, either came from Baghdad or lived there during the golden age of the Abasid kingdom. And this ensures his progress along the path he has chosen, that of renewing the ‘ud both musically and organically, in terms of its form. This also explains why, with the help of the Palestinian lute-maker Abd al-Razzâq al-Tûbâsî (who incidentally lives in Iraq), he has made an eight-stringed lute, using details from a 10th century manuscript treatise purported to be by al-Farâbî as his model. This lute gives him a range of four octaves corresponding to the four tessitura of the human voice: bass, baritone, alto and soprano, whereas the usual contemporary six-stringed ‘ud has a range of only two octaves.

Naseer Shamma’s music is not only a sincere and spontaneous reaction to the events of life, but also a specific course of action, undertaken after mature reflection. With his ever-changing style he resembles painters, novelists or film-makers – he can be expressive at times, figurative, nostalgic, lively, meditative, or expressing revolt at others. His talent lies in allying passion and imagination with virtuosity, and poetry and an element of surprise with accurate detail and a transparent musical discourse. 

Habib Yammine, ethnomusicologist
translated by Delia Morris

The recordings

1- Min adh-Dhâkira / Memories, maqâm ‘ajam, 1986, 8’56”

An inner journey recalling past experiences of his life through images in sound, and a brilliant demonstration of Naseer Shamma’s great mastery of his instrument. Each memory-image corresponds to a different technical, melodic or harmonic procedure evoking an instrument from the family of lutes, sometimes by slow, unscanned phrases that hover over each memory, sometimes with a lively, even hurried rhythm.

2- Qissat hubb sharqiyya / An oriental love story, maqâm awj, 1994, 7’50”

This piece highlights an original procedure that consists of separating the fingerings of each hand. Symbolically this represents a dialogue between two lovers, one of whom is represented by the right hand and the other by the left. The latter opens the dialogue with a tuneful rhythm played on the neck of the instrument and repeated several times. The right hand replies by plucking the strings, sometimes with the plectrum, sometimes directly with the fingers. The awj mode, derived from the sega , the binary rhythm of the left hand and the finger picking are all typical of the music of the Iraqi Bedouins.

3- Nasamât ‘adhba / Soft breezes, maqâm dacht, 1987, 5’22”

A tribute to Kurdish music from northern Iraq, via a typical maqâm of this region. The development of the melody and the binary rhythm set the tune for the group dance known as dabké, executed at traditional feasts and festivities. Another special feature of this piece is the sound the artist produces on his ‘ud and his double string playing (melody-drone), reminiscent of the Kurdish bouzouq, a long-necked lute. 

4- Sukûn al-layl fî Baghdad / A quiet night in Baghdad, maqâm nahawand, 1991, 8’43

A different way of producing a gentle sound on the ‘ud, so as to savour the instrument in depth, or perhaps so as not to disturb the calm of the night…a calm that has become a rare event ever since the terrible bombings that bring murder, destruction and the horrifying sound of death into the nights of Baghdad. 

5- Min Ashûr ilâ Ishbîliyâ / From Assur to Seville, maqâm ajam, 1989, 5’24”

The technique of plucking the cords directly with the fingers and not using a plectrum goes far back in ancient history, as the sculptures of musicians and inscriptions of the Akadian era show. It is a technique used nowadays for the flamenco guitar. This composition is a brief summary of the ‘ud’s passage from East to West, serving as a reminder that oriental music together with the instruments it employs spread into the West from Moorish Spain. 

6- Salât bâbiliyya / Babylonian prayer, 1991, 5’50

Here Naseer Shamma uses a pentatonic scale, with the aim of evoking an atmosphere of prayer and creating what might have been Babylonian music in ancient times. His inspiration here was a Babylonian bas-relief representing the king praying, with his face turned to the wall so as not to be distracted, at the same time as he listens to some music performed by an ensemble consisting of a lute, flute, and the daff (percussion). 

7- Ughniya ‘irâqiyya / Iraqi song, maqâm bastanikâr, 7’48”

An improvisation in maqâm bastanikâr mode, purely oriental in nature and typical of traditional music from Iraq. The maqâm bastanikâr is made up of a fusion of two other maqâm-s, the sega and the sabâ.. By blending his knowledge, imagination and expressive powers in this improvisation, the musician again demonstrates his total mastery, deployed brilliantly here to highlight the modal features of the maqâm. He alternates between the plectrum and the fingers of his right hand for plucking the strings, whilst the left hand plays independently along the neck of the lute.

8- Hiwâr bayn al-Mutanabbî was-Sayyâb / Dialogue between two poets, maqâm nahawand, 1988, 7’41”

Ten centuries separate al-Mutanabbî (915-965), an Abasid poet of the golden age in Arab history, and as-Sayyâb (1926-1964), a modern Iraqi poet. They both come from Iraq and have each in their own way made a special contribution to Arab poetry. These are the two poets Naseer Shamma wanted to bring together for the length of a piece of music. He makes them take up a dialogue with each other by alternating music in a low key, to represent al-Mutanabbî, with music in a high key, to represent as-Sayyâb. This dialogue between  old and new, between tradition and modernism is a central theme for Naseer Shamma. In this hommage to two great poets he is in fact paying tribute to his own culture and his homeland. 

9- Al-‘Amiriyya / The shelter at al-‘Amiriyya, maqâm ‘ajam, 1991, 15’17”

A testimony to the tragedy of al-‘Amiriyya, a shelter where a group of children had taken refuge during a bombing; they died there, buried under the ruins of the building. This music expresses several things at once – it is a cry of revolt against savagery and barbarity, a hymn to innocence, a lamentation expressing distress and deep sadness, and a set of prayers that there might still be hope in life. This piece was performed in the ruins of the shelter at the ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the tragedy. 

  • Reference : 321.009
  • Ean : 794 881 486 120
  • Main artist : Naseer Shamma (نصير شمة)
  • Year of recording : 1994
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style : Maqâm
  • Country : Irak
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language :
  • Composers : Naseer Shamma
  • Lyricists :
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe