The Oud, and Shopping for Musical Instruments in Cairo

The Oud, and Shopping for Musical Instruments in Cairo

by Seif Kamel

Muhammad Ali Street

Tourists who visit Egypt invariably end up at the Khan el-Khalili, Cairo's famous and ancient market, at some point in their tours. One can buy almost anything there that one might find elsewhere in Egypt, but for some products, it is not perhaps the best place to shop. Certainly, if one simply wants some sort of tourist trinket, such as statues, jewelry, papyrus or for that matter, T-shirts, it is a fine place to shop, but for other items, such as real musical instruments, it is not. One can find musical instruments in the Khan el-Khalili, but much of the time they are inexpensive products that are sold for much more than they should be. The real market for professional musicians is elsewhere.

A store window on Muhammad Ali Street with various instruments, both oriental and western

The better market for true musical instruments is on Muhammad Ali Street, named for the founder of modern Egypt. The street threads its way between Attaba Square through to Abdel Aziz Street in downtown Cairo. Fifty years ago, this was the center for Oriental art in Cairo. At that time, if one needed a professional belly dancer for a wedding or an Oriental band to play at a private party, this was the place to go. These days, it is still the best place to buy a professional musical instrument, or have one repaired. Keep in mind that the productions of many professional Egyptian musical instruments is a cottage industry. They are made by or for the very stores that sell them.

The Al Ahram music shop

I began my visit by taking a taxi from my house near Ramsis Hotel, which cost me five Egyptian pounds. It was a hot day, but thankfully, there were vendors selling various types of juices along the street such as 'erk Soos and Qasab, and there were regular stores with lots of soft drinks and water.

Actually, one can find three products, primarily along this street. There are simple electronic items and gadgets at the beginning of the street, various wood products and furniture, and the reason I had come, finely crafted musical instruments.

Professional drums and flutes covered in mother of pearl

The first store I stopped by was named "Sawt el Mousiqa", which can be translated into English as the "Sound of Music". It was full of ouds, some simple while others were finely decorated. The oud is an old instrument, with its origins dating back some 3,500 years ago to Persia, where it was called a barbat. It is carved from a solid piece of wood, much like the Chinese Pipa and Japanese Biwa, both of which are also descendants of the ancient Persian Barbat. Indeed, the word oud means "thin wood". This is really not an instrument that was originally common to the Arabs, who had no string instruments early on. Their use of it was adopted from the Romans and Persians.

An oud being played in concert by an Egyptian

The oud consists of a sound box in the shape of a pear, with a short and slopy elbow. The shape and dimensions of the instrument vary from place to place, mostly in the depth of the sound box and decorations. In ancient times, it had two strings, but today may have as many as seven. The oud is held similar to a guitar, but care must be taken to have the face vertical so that it is not visible to the player, and to support the weight with the thigh and right arm so that the left hand is free to move around the fingerboard. Not the idiosyncratic manner of holding the mizrab (Turkish) or Risha (feather, Arabic) or pick. Athough it seems awkward it is in reality easier than a conventional flatpick, and gives the "right" tonal shading to the plucked note.

The second shop I stopped by was named "Beit Al Oud" or the "House of Oud". It is one of the most famous Oriental musical instrument stores in Cairo. The owner, Mr. Sami, was there and he answered some of my questions. He told me that the most important factor in choosing an oud is the wood that is used for its manufacture. There are several types of wood used to manufacture ouds, and Mr. Sami explained that the most important are the gouz woods imported from Turkey. Apparently that is the wood used most often. There is also the pure flowers wood, as they refer to it, and these are the most expensive types of wood. There is brasandar wood, the abanos wood, and the sag wood.

An oud made in the 1950s with fine mother of pearl decorations

He explained that tourists should also pay attention to how the oud is decorated and he showed me several examples. One of them was a plain oud made with sag wood with no decorations whatsoever. The other one was made of Turkish gouz wood and it had many, very fine mother of pearl decorations. The two were very different. He told me the decorated oud can cost between 1500 to 2000 Egyptian pounds while the plain oud was much less expensive at about 400 Egyptian Pounds. Another one he showed me was made of flowers wood or wared wood as we call it in Arabic. This piece didn't have a lot of decorations, but he explained that it was indeed very valuable because of the material used.

Mr. Khalil, the owner of Hamido, Playing an Oud

There are a number, as many as fifteen or twenty, music shops along this street, including such well known ones as Al Ahram and Henkesh, but the next one I chose to visit was the Hamido Music Store. This company makes some of the best ouds in Cairo, as well as some of the most expensive, costing as much as 3000 Egyptian pounds, and frequently more than 2000 pounds. Keep in mind that, as I write this, the exchange rate is about six pounds per US Dollar, so the price of these instruments is not nearly as high as it might at first appear. Indeed, considering the fine wood, mother of pear and the care in hand crafting these instruments, the price is very reasonable, even for the best of them. Here, I found elaborately decorated instruments that any musician would love, and that would make a nice addition to any house with Oriental decorations.

A view of the back of a well made oud with mother of pearl decorations

Be aware that, particularly in the Khan el-Khalili, if the price of a good professional instrument seems too low, there is probably a reason. An obvious example are the many tablas made for tourists using fake mother of pearl, pieces made to look like mother of pearl but really plastic. This is another good reason for visiting a true professional store on Muhammad Ali street, if one is really interested in a fine product, as these shops do not usually cater to tourists but rather professional musicians.

Of course, these stores carry a number of different musical instruments, some native to Oriental music and some not. Other popular oriental musical instruments, for example, include the Egyptian rababa, or Arab fiddle, which is the earliest known bowed instrument and the parent of the medieval European rebec. This instrument was first mentioned in the 10th century, and became prominent in medieval and later Arabic music.

A fine wooden oud with mother of pearl decorations

The rababa has a membrane belly, usually made of animal skin or wood, and one, two or three strings. There is normally no fingerboard. The body varies in shape, sometimes in the form of a pear, or a boat. Those with rectangular bodies are mainly played by Bedouin musicians. Flat round and trapezoidal bodies can also be found. One may also find a variety of professional drums, known as tablas, which are usually beautifully decorated in mother of pearl, as well as tambourines, known in Egypt as a riqq, which has a double set of cymbals. It is often the lead instrument in belly dancing music.

My visit to Muhammad Ali Street was an interesting one. Music played a very important role in ancient Egypt, and it continues to do so even today. Music can be found everywhere in Egypt, in all sorts of venues, but much of that, in one way or another, begins on this very street. However, now days, these instruments find their way into the musical field throughout the world.

A view of a classic Oud

A view of a classic Oud

last updated: June 8th, 2011