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Omar Bashir: A Great Promise on the Arab Music Horizon
By Basil Samara
At 31, Omar Bashir, son of the late, renowned Iraqi composer and oud master Munir Bashir, is one of the most prolific Arab musicians today. With seven albums in a variety of styles to his credit, and an extensive resume of live performances in Europe and the Middle East, Omar is a rising star in the world of Arabic music in general and the oud in particular.
Born in Baghdad in 1970 into a musical family (his father, grandfather, and uncle were musicians and oud players), Omar started his musical journey at an early age. At the age of seven he entered the School of Music and Ballet in Baghdad; at nine he played his first oud solo, a 15-minute composition by his father. In 1986, after graduating from the School of Music and Ballet, he joined the School of Music Studies. During this period, he performed in evening concerts as well as shows at the end of the school year. He also led and managed Al Bayariq Group, widely considered one of the best classical Arabic ensembles at that time. After graduating in 1991, he left Baghdad to continue his studies at the Music Academy in Budapest, Hungary, where he also learned classical guitar and Western music. Since graduating from the university in Budapest in 1997, Omar has performed internationally, both solo and with other international musicians, and has helped produce his own albums.
His seven albums are: "From Euphrates to Danube" (1998), "Ud Duet" (1998, with Munir Bashir), "Zikrayati" (1999), "Ashwaq" (1999), "Flamenco Night" (2000), "Maqam" (2000), and "Al-Andalous" (2001). He has two more albums in production and will release them this year.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Omar Bashir for Al Jadid.
Samara: What influence or role did your family have on your musical interest and career?
Bashir: It goes without saying that this influence was great. My father saw me as an extension of the Bashir school for the oud. When I was nine, I played my first oud solo, a 15-minute composition by my father. Since then, I have felt a sense of responsibility towards the oud and often played difficult pieces while I was at school because I used to practice on a regular basis with my father at home. In 1992, I performed with my father at the International Cultural Center in Paris. This was one the most important events of my life.
Samara: Some critics of the Western trends in Arabic music claim that studying music in Western schools denies them the opportunity to appreciate the spirit and uniqueness of Arabic music, especially in writing classical compositions. Do you agree with this statement, since you studied Western music yourself?
Bashir: If someone grows up in an Arabic musical environment, this person will not be adversely affected by Western influences, even if he/she studies in Western schools. On the contrary, it will be possible for him/her to draw on these experiences to expand the expression of Arabic music. This has to be done in an organic way; one needs to use only those elements from Western music that can seamlessly fit into the structure of Arabic music. Many think that adding Western melodies or styles to Arabic music enhances the music, but I think that it mostly does damage instead.
Samara: I don't think the problem is as simple as that. Whether at home or elsewhere, most of the music that the young generation hears today is pop. Also, in the context of teaching music, Arabic music does not seem to be an essential part of the curriculum in Arab schools. At home, it seems easier for parents to find an instructor to teach the children piano or violin than to find one to teach them oud , qanoun or nay. Moreover, Arabic music instruction or method books are few, and difficult to find. How can we surmount these obstacles?
Bashir: Indeed, the problem lies in the lack of music education, appreciation, text books, and programs. I might add that our Arabic music heritage and musical instruments are being neglected. Having a piano in the house has become so common it is often taken for granted as part of the furniture. Of course, the media is to blame for dedicating so much broadcast time to pop music, and this policy stems from the ignorance of those in charge of programming. My father spent many years establishing music schools and musical ensembles in Iraq. We need to pay more attention to our Arabic instruments and incorporate them into the music curriculum. We need to learn the musical traditions of other parts of the Arab world, like themuwashah (a singing form which originated in the Middle East and the Maghreb , or Arab North Africa, and became popular in al-Andalus in the 10th century), the ma'louf (means "familiar" and refers to the musical tradition which originated in al-Andalus and was adopted in the Maghreb), and the maqam (a melodic mode, akin to a musical scale in Western music, but with inherent complex rhythmic structure).
Samara: There is a new trend of mixing Eastern and Western instruments, and in fact you participated in one of these programs with a Spanish group. What do you think of these experiments? Do they compromise Arabic music?
Bashir: This is not a new phenomenon. It started in the '60s and '70s, when my father and my uncle performed with non-Arab musicians, and especially with my father's appearances in several international festivals. Such cooperation is very useful in widening the musician's horizons.
Samara: It is possible that Spanish or flamenco music is closer to Arabic music than other types of Western music, such as jazz. What are your thoughts on the attempts of musicians like Ziad Rahbani and others in mixing Arabic music with jazz?
Bashir: My own projects included performances with a Spanish group for several reasons, two of which were my study of Spanish guitar and flamenco and the fact that Spanish music was influenced by Arabic music. These projects were successful because I was able to play the oud in the traditional Arabic sense and also for classical Spanish pieces. Thus, our performances were not artificial mixes of an oud on one side and a bunch of guitars on the other. This experience did not diminish the character of the Arabic music performed, but added dimension to it. I perform internationally, both alone and with other international musicians. I believe in cooperating with non-Arab musicians to produce world music that can maintain the character of the various cultures. The attempts by Ziad Rahbani and Rabih Abou Khalil to mix Arabic music with jazz were successful and provided the young generations with a new kind of music. However, I personally prefer solo improvisations ( taqsim ) on the oud of classical Arabic maqams.
Samara: It is said that Arabic music is non-instrumental -- that is mostly music written for singing -- except for taqsims , samai and bashraf pieces (Turkish musical forms). What are the merits of these claims?
Bashir: These claims are not warranted. Those making such assertions appear not to appreciate the Arab character of music or the importance of Arabic musical instruments. Classical Arabic music is based on thetakht (a small traditional Arabic music ensemble usually consisting of oud, qanoun, nay, violin, and percussion) without singing. Munir Bashir was one of the first Arab musicians to perform on the oud worldwide without vocal accompaniment, and I continue where my father left off. As for taqsim, there is no repetition because they are improvisations occurring spontaneously at the time of performance, creating a unique moment.
Samara: What steps need to be taken to raise the standard of Arabic music?
Bashir: This can be addressed by going back to our traditions and studying in depth the musical heritage of the maqams , our musical instruments, and by training and encouraging our children to listen to classical music such as the Andalusi muwashah. The media should also encourage classical Arab musicians and differentiate them from the pseudo-artists.
Samara: This may not be an easy task. For one, we cannot depend on the Arab governments or the media to be responsible for this, because such issues are not their top priorities. The same seems to be true of parents and even schools, where not enough effort is exerted to make traditional music more accessible and enjoyable. In this environment, the full responsibility rests on the shoulders of musicians such as yourself, and those who are genuinely interested in preserving and promoting the Arab musical heritage. Isn't it possible for such devoted individuals to dedicate some time to producing tours and shows for children, or to set up Arabic music workshops, or donate part of the proceeds from their concerts to establishing music clubs and producing teaching material, etc.?
Bashir: We face these difficulties in our foundation, the Munir Bashir Oud and Traditional Music Foundation. But there are many other groups who continue to promote the Arabic music heritage as well.
Samara: What are your future plans? You are still at the beginning of your musical career, and already have produced many albums and participated in many concerts worldwide. What are your longterm aspirations and plans?
Bashir: I now have seven albums, and two more are in production. Each is different from the other and the music ranges from classical Arabic music to Sufi music and other styles. Currently I am playing the oud with a Hungarian gypsy band. As you know, gypsy music has also been influenced by Arabic music.
Samara: Now I would like to ask you some questions for those interested in the oud as an instrument. How many strings does the oud have and how are they tuned? What type of reesha (plectrum) do you use?
Bashir: There are five double strings and a base string that was introduced by my father. They are tuned (from top to bottom) as: C, D, G, C, F, F. The eagle feather has been used since the time of Ziryab (an Andalusian musician), and one must train to use it from childhood. Nowadays people use plastic instead.
Samara: There is a lot of interest in the origin of the oud. to what do you ascribe that interest? How has the instrument changed over the years and in what way?
Bashir: The origin of the oud goes back to 3000 BC in ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) during the Akkadian period. The instrument has changed a lot. Initially it looked like a armout (an old form of the oud) with 3 strings. Then another pair of strings was added. I think it took its current half-egg shape in the 20th century, with five double strings which allow it to have a wider range.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 36 (Summer 2001)