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Saving the sound of the Middle East

By Aroub Abdelhaq, Rima Maktabi and Jon Jensen, CNN
June 11, 2012 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The guitar-like oud is used widely in Middle Eastern music
  • Only a handful of traditional oud makers still work in Cairo
  • Performer and composer Naseer Shamma runs oud music schools in three countries

Editor's note: Each month, Inside the Middle East takes you behind the headlines to see a different side of this diverse region.

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Ibrahim Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Azeem is one of the last traditional craftsmen in Egypt making the oud, the guitar-like instrument heard in so much Arabic music.

He is one of only six or seven oud makers still working in the historic Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo. It takes him a week to make one oud for sale, molding it from thin layers of wood that are joined together without using nails.

"We bring big chunks of wood and then we cut it into thin layers," said Abdel-Azeem. "First we put those layers on the hot iron. Later we bend it. When it comes out we glue it together because the Oud doesn't not have any nails."

Without oud there's no music. It's the base to any other instrument.
Ibrahim Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Azeem

Abdel-Azeem, 62, inherited his art from his father and started out in his workshop while he was still at school.

"The profession is originally Egyptian and moved to Syria and Turkey, but my father brought it back to Egypt," said Abdel-Azeem.

Abdel-Azeem was only 14 when his father died and he took over his workshop. It is not just a job to him, but a way of life. "Oud is the Sultan of music and songs," said Abdel-Azeem. "Without oud there's no music. It's the base to any other instrument.

"Making an oud requires artistic talent. It's not only a trade because when the oud is not made properly or the sound coming out of it is not right we become emotionally depressed."

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But he worries that the trade will die out. "The only people left making ouds are only six or seven people in the country. No one is interested in learning it anymore.

"If it continues this way this profession will die. Other instruments took over. We used to take oud classes in school. They don't teach oud anymore except in colleges of music."

Another man working hard to keep the tradition of the oud alive is Naseer Shamma, one of the most famous musicians in the Middle East.

The only people left making ouds are only six or seven people in the country.
Ibrahim Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Azeem

Shamma, 47, is a composer, performer, poet and now a teacher. He left his native Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule and moved to Cairo where he now runs a "House of Oud" music school with branches in Egypt, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

"I think if anybody needs to change the life around him he needs to do something really in education," said Shamma. "For example, not just composition or just concerts; we need another line to continue with the new generation for that this is my project for all my life."

Also on Inside the Middle East: Gaza music students find smart ways around travel ban

Among his students is Ahmed Al-Sheikh, an 11-year-old Syrian boy who has just passed his final exams at Shamma's House of Oud school in Abu Dhabi.

"My dream is to be a big artist," said Ahmed. "When I close my eyes, I dream of being on stage and hearing people applaud for my music."

It is teaching children like Ahmed that keeps Shamma believing in his work.

"I need to change the life in Arab world, but if we need to change we need to start with the boys, with the small girls, with the culture in the beginning," he said.

Together, they are ensuring this centuries-old tradition will be passed on to generations to come.

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer @SchamsCNN and writer Catriona Davies @catrionadavies

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