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Iraqi Musician Makes Statements with His Lute - 2002-09-01

A Cairo-based Iraqi musician has gained a reputation for making political statements through his compositions, even though the songs have no words.

The music of Naseer Shamma has been known to bring audiences to tears.

With his lute, or oud as it is called in this part of the world, Mr. Shamma can convey the flirtation of lovers, a gentle breeze or even the fading of the moon. He can also create the screeching sounds of bombs falling on screaming victims.

During a break between lessons at his institute in the Cairo Opera House, Mr. Shamma talked about his vision for the oud.

"I try to change or start the new tradition about the chamber music about the solo concerts. This is a very old tradition. I work about the music picture. I need to make more people just listen to the music. In the Arab culture you can see many songs but you don't just listen to the music," Mr. Shamma said.

Some have called much of Mr. Shamma's work political in nature. He has written pieces about Israeli attacks on Palestinians and the calm nights following Allied attacks on Iraq during the Gulf War. His most famous work, El Amarryya, is about an attack during the war that left hundreds of Iraqi women and children dead. Mr. Shamma was an Iraqi soldier at the time.

"I think no music is political. But for example what now happen in Palestine and when I see that this is not political when I write the music about that because this is my brother in Palestine or in Lebanon or in any Arab country. When I see something and this pictures touch me I can't stay without play or write something very special for these people. This is not political," Mr. Shamma said.

But many people think it is, and that is part of Mr. Shamma's appeal.

Students travel thousands of miles to study with him. He is considered a treasure. So much so that when the Cairo Opera House heard he was discussing the possibility of opening an oud institute in London two years ago, they made an offer to bring him to Cairo.

Mr. Shamma uses one of the world's oldest instruments to express his feelings on modern-day events. The lute dates back more than 4,000 years. In western culture, it developed into the guitar. But in the Middle East it retained its original form and continues to attract a small but dedicated audience. And thanks to Mr. Shamma, a new generation of lute students is flocking to Cairo.

Alaa El din El Dajani has been studying with Mr. Shamma for nearly a year and a half. He is a former student of the guitar and discovered the oud by accident. He later saw Mr. Shamma in concert and was taken by his style.

"When I saw him playing I wanted to play the oud because it changed my conception of oud. Usually for the new generation the oud is something that is very old. What I liked about the oud and Naseer Shamma exactly is it combines the old music, the old Arabic music in new styles. It is like modernized tourath. Tourath it means the heritage of music," he said.

At 38 Mr. Shamma isn't exactly older generation. Perhaps that is what allows him to merge one of the world's oldest musical styles with modern messages.

His young students reflect their teacher's desire to use the oud's lilting music as if it were their own voice.

"It's an instrument that can express almost everything. There's very few instruments that I know that can be used as solo instrument during a concert of one hour and a half. There is the piano, the guitar, the oud and that's it. If you listen to Naseer he can draw so many different sounds from his instrument. He makes it talk," one student says. Another says, "It is a very, very, very beautiful feeling from the oud. You can speak, you can cry, you can make fun, you can laugh, you can sometimes be ignorant."

And oud master Naseer Shamma is very selective about who he spends time teaching.

"If I see in his eyes for this student something very clever or special I start with him. If is see he just likes to play something this is not my way. Here I am very serious. It is two years every day; the minimum work six hours," Mr. Shamma said.

When he is not traveling or teaching, Mr. Shamma is composing. He has made many recordings and has just completed a book about soloists of the oud.

He even sees the instrument as potential therapy. He has developed a new technique for playing one-handed, for his countrymen back home in Iraq who lost hands in the Gulf War.

For Mr. Shamma, it is all about painting an accurate picture of life in the Arab world. He says the pictures the West has about the Arab culture and Arab people are wrong. And through his art, he is trying to change that.