The Gambus

The Oud is an ancient instrument that has been refined and perfected by the Arabs into the harmonious masterpiece that it is today.

The Oud is known as Gambus to the Malays Probably of Persian origin, it is likely that the earliest ouds were carved from a solid piece of wood. By the time of the Moorish period in Spain the body was in its characteristic staved wood vaulted back design. In fact, this staved wood may be the namesake for the oud as the word means "wood" or "flexible stick", and the top was made of wood as opposed to the skin of the earlier lutes and the vaulted back that provided the model for the European lute and mandolin was constructed from many steam-bent "flexible sticks" unlike the Persian barbat, which was carved out of a single piece of wood and may have been the original model for the oud.

Pictures of "Oud-like" instruments have been found on stone carvings and wall paintings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest ouds were thought to be carved from a solid piece of wood that resembled Chinese and Japanese instruments which are descendants of the ancient Persian barbat.

Cradled comfortably in the player's arms, it is light as a feather and smooth to the touch. The oud does not have frets-ridges on the fingerboard-like the other stringed instruments. Thus the player can improvise and express his mood without the medium of notes. In the past the player sat cross-legged on a rug, but today most players are more comfortable sitting in a chair with footrest under the right foot to help hold the oud, much like a classical guitarist.

The oud has a gentle tone similar to that of the harpsichord or mandolin. The skillful technique of putting the wood together is what gives the oud its delicate and beautiful tone.

Patience and skill are needed to make an oud. The type of wood used is important. It must be non-porous, hard but yet flexible. Rosewood and mahogany meet these requirements. The wood is cut into 1/32-inch thick strips. These strips are fitted, one at a time, over a wooden model and then carefully glued and allowed to dry. A sounding board of thin spruce wood is affixed and supported by inner cross ridges; an ebony or mahogany neck along with other artistic embellishments can be added to one's taste.

Originally ouds were strung with gut strings but today 10 to 12 high quality nylon strings are used. The oud is played with a plectrum-a pick for plucking the strings- and is called risha in Arabic. Traditionally a sharpened eagle quill was used but today most plectrums are made from plastic. A long flexible pick that places the wrist at a certain angle adds a tonal sound. The thinner plectrum gives a delicate sound with subtle tone variations, while the heavier one emanates a louder, heavier tone.

The ancient and modern lute of the Near East, known from the 7th century. It traveled to Europe in such a roundabout way that in 1555 Bermudo could call the lute a "vihuela de Flandres". In performance it was held either horizontally, or obliquely with the body higher than the pegbox; only in Spain and Egypt was it played with the body resting in the player's lap. The modern oud has a shorter neck than the European lute. Its pegbox is thrown back at a less acute angle, and it usually has 3 soundholes and no frets.

When Persian and Middle Eastern traders came to the South East Asian region, naturally they bring with them their tradition and culture and assimilate into the natives. Among them is the oud. The Malays adopted this prized instrument and naturally adapted its playing styles and techniques into their music. Over time, the oud became known as Gambus. The Malay playing techniques differ from the Middle Eastern. They are more percussive and hard as opposed to softer Middle Eastern playing styles.

The Gambus

Excerpts 1

"The transfer of terms for lyre and lute appears more subtly in the myth of the invention of the ud which has been handed down in two variants from the 9th and 10th centuries, the first being Iraqi (Robson, 1938) and the second Iranian (Mas'udi, 1874). They say that the ud was invented by Lamak [sixth grandson of Adam], a direct descendant of Cain; on the death of Lamak's son, he hung his remains in a tree, and the desiccated skeleton suggested the form of the ud. The myth attributes the invention of the mi'zaf (lyre) to Lamak's daughter."

Stanley Sadie
The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments vol. 3, p. 688

Other sources suggest other interpretations such as; God gave to the sons of Cain the faculty of making musical instruments, Lamak invented the lute, ud, Tubal the drum daff or tabl, Dilal (the daughter of Noah) the harp, mi'zaf, and Lot's people the pandore, tunbur.

Simon Jargy
program notes from Munir Bashir's L'art du ud CD

"The ud first appears in Mesopotamia during the Kassite period (1600-1150 B.C.) with a small oval body."

Harold G. Hagopian
program notes from Udi Hrant Kenkulian CD

"It was the favorite instrument of the Sumerians and the Assyro-Babylonians."

Simon Jargy
Program notes from Munir Bashir's L'art du ud CD

The ud, in Pharaonic Egypt was known as nefer, also appears in the "tomb of Sen-Mut, a tutor of Princess Neferura, who exercised great influence over the arts during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut from 1501 to 1479 B.C."

program notes from H. Aram Gulezyan's The Oud CD

"A larger variety, similar to the instrument's present day dimension, appeared in a relief at Alaca Hoyuk in Anatolia dating from the Hitite New Kingdom (1460-1190 B.C.)."

Harold G. Hagopian
Program notes from Udi Hrant Kenkulian CD

"In the 9th century, Mawardi, the jurist of Baghdad, extolled its use in treating illness, a principle allowed and defended in Arab Spain by the 11th century theologian Ibn Hazm. The symbolism lived on until the 19th century: 'the ud invigorates the body. It places the temperament in equilibrium. It is a remedy ... It calms and revives hearts' (Muhammad Shihab al-Din, Safinat al-mulk, p. 466) ... In any case it was predominantly in the secular usage that the ud made its mark, as the only kind of accompaniment to a form of responsorial song known as sawt, according to written tradition (the Kitab al-Aghani of al-Isfahani) and oral tradition (Tunisia and the Arabian Gulf). The emergence of the ud on the stage of history is an equally complex matter. Two authors of the end of the 14th century (Abu al-Fida, and Abu al-Walid ibn Shihnah) place it in the reign of the Sassanid King Shaput I (241-72). Ibn Shihnah added that the development of the ud was linked to the spread of Manicheism, and its invention to Manes himself, a plausible theory because the disciples of Manes encouraged musical accompaniments to their religious offices."

Stanley Sadie
The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, vol. 3, p. 688

Reaching China, an oud like Chinese instrument, pipa featured in instrumental ensembles of the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 B.C.). Later in Japan, it evolved into an instrument called biwa. It also reached Russia evolving into balalaika, and also to Indonesia where it evolved into gambus.

"But the movement's centre was in southern Iraq, whence the ud was to spread towards the Arab peninsula in the 7th century. However, the texts mentioning the introduction to Mecca of the short-necked lute as the ud were all written in the 9th and 10th centuries."

Stanley Sadie
The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, vol. 3, p. 688

"The founder of the ud school of Baghdad [in the 9th century], Ibrahim al-Mawsilli and, above all, his son Ishaq al-Mawsilli were among the most esteemed and honored people in the [Abbasid Empire] ... The influence of the grand master, Ishaq, of Baghdad was such that one of his most brilliant disciples, Ziryab [jealousy and intrigue on the part of his teacher, Ishaq drove Ziryab to seek refuge in Andalusia], transported the art of the ud to the banks of the Guadalquivir in Moorish Spain, at the far extremity of the Empire."

Simon Jargy
Program notes from Munir Bashir's L'art du ud CD

"When [Ziryab] arrived in [Moorish] Spain, the cities of Cordoba, Seville and Granada were centers of great cultural, artistic, and religious activity. These centers, under the inspiration and influence of the Sufis, were to have a tremendous impact on medieval Europe. Once settled at the court in Cordoba, Ziryab set about introducing the concepts of a new music, drawn from Greek, Persian and Arab elements, that was to influence deeply the foundation of European classical music."

Kavichandran Alexander
program notes from Hamza El Din's Eclipse CD

Then the ud was brought to Venice through coastal trade. Eventually ...

"the ud was introduced into western Europe by the Knights Templar returning from the Holy Land and by the Troubadours from Provence. Having reached the Troubadour from Muslim Spain, this instrument was to play a crucial role in the establishment of the Romantic Courts. The poetry, music, and ideals that ensued from this great endeavor became the infrastructure upon which the Renaissance was built. Brought into the British Isles, the ud was transformed in the Elizabethan period into the western European lute."

Kavichandran Alexander
Program notes from Hamza El Din's Eclipse CD

1Source : http://www.kairarecords.com/oudpage/Oud.htm