He Plays Arab Music, Makes and Fixes Ouds
By NINA ROBERTS —Wall Street Journal
'We Arabs export two major things, oil and ouds," says a laughing Najib Shaheen, this city's most respected oud maker, restorer and dealer. The oud is a stringed Arab instrument that, after it was brought to Andalusian Spain in the eighth century, spawned the European lute, guitar and mandolin.
Today's ouds are usually walnut or rosewood, and have a pear-shaped shell, a short neck with no frets -- allowing the musician a broader tonal range -- and typically one single bass and five double strings. When expertly plucked, the oud emits an earthy sound with a hint of melancholy, eliciting an emotional response similar to that of the cello. Played in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey for centuries, it continues to be integral to Arabic orchestras and ensembles. It's also used as a composing tool.
"I am most interested in the acoustic aspects of oud making," says Mr. Shaheen, a 62-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache. In his booming, authoritative voice, cascading with rolling R's and articulated consonants, he explains that the oud's soundboard comprises seven "braces," pieces of unvarnished spruce wood. The thickness, placement and age of the wood all contribute to each oud's particular sound. They are attached underneath the instrument's face. "There are rules where they should be placed, but it's really up to you, the feel of it. What you don't want is a hollow sound with echo."
Oud work is meticulous and requires patience. It's a surprising vocation for a man of his temperament -- he quickly shifts from gregarious provocateur, to nihilist, to erudite, old-world charmer.
Mr. Shaheen was born into a musical Arab Christian family in pre-Israel Palestine. Inside the Shaheen house, daily singing and oud playing was as instinctive as breathing. When he moved to New York in 1967, he continued playing the oud and worked a variety of jobs. He drove a cab for 10 years and later worked for violin restorer David Segal, whom Mr. Shaheen considers his mentor.
Since his arrival in the U.S., Mr. Shaheen has found an audience for traditional Arabic music. But he notes that there is a recent increased interest, attributing it to 9/11 and the Iraq War. "It's the 'getting to know your enemy' mentality," says Mr. Shaheen, likening it to curiosity about the Soviets during the Cold War. He adds dryly, "I hope they keep on hating us, because I need the money." Today Mr. Shaheen's work life revolves around the oud: refurbishing, teaching and performing with his brother, the phenomenal Simon Shaheen. The brothers have several spring shows scheduled and are gearing up for their summer Arabic Music Retreat.
The Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthum and the Syrian-born composer, singer and oud player Farid al-Atrash are among Najib Shaheen's favorite traditional Arab virtuosos. Classical Arabic music is infused with sophisticated and complicated percussive rhythms that can have several meter changes within the same piece. Microtones -- tones that are notated in smaller increments than in Western classical music -- allow for an exquisite tonal range that is exotic to the trained Western ear. Traditionally, Arabic orchestra musicians demonstrate their expertise by embellishing the music during a performance. "But it has to subtle, tasteful," says Mr. Shaheen. "Otherwise, you're out."
He has a steady clientele at his small, no-frills West Village lair, where he lives alone surrounded by ouds. He's often wearing sweatpants or plaid pajama bottoms, a T-shirt and flip-flops with socks. Guests are required to take off their shoes or wipe their soles with one of the Clorox wipes shooting out of the economy-size container by the door. A row of Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi ouds of various sizes and inlaid patterns hang on the wall, each adorned with a baseball cap. Others lay flat on one of his two twin beds and floor.
Future oud buyers find Mr. Shaheen through the relatively small network of musicians playing Arabic music in New York. "I get about 10 calls a week," he says, "and I can feel if someone is jiving or really interested." The average refurbished oud sells for $1,500 to $2,000, and his ouds made from scratch cost over $4,000. On a recent afternoon, Wael Eldin, a 27-year-old Egyptian musician, dropped by with his beat-up Moroccan oud in need of minor restorations. Mr. Shaheen soberly listened for sound quality as he thumped the oud's front as a doctor would an abdomen. He pried off the rosette, the decorative piece covering the oud's hole and felt around the interior. After a chaotic discussion in English and Arabic about Mr. Eldin's oud having surprisingly decent sound for such a cheap instrument, followed by an argument about Nasser vs. Sadat that provoked a slew of expletives from Mr. Shaheen about Sadat, he announced that the restoration would cost Mr. Eldin about $100. "But that's only because I like you," said Mr. Shaheen.
Students rotate in and out of Mr. Shaheen's life, depending on tour schedules and life circumstances. They must be prepared for loving derision, irreverent humor and being intellectually and musically challenged. "That sounded like finding a fish, in a plastic bag, under a rock, in Death Valley when it's 130 degrees out," he recently told beginner Kiki Kennedy-Day after she played a bad note. They later launched into a discussion about the Persian scholar Ibn Sina.
"This isn't counterintuitive; this is more like nonintuitive," said Andrew Sterman during a recent lesson as he plucked his oud, trying to repeat by ear what Mr. Shaheen improvised on his instrument. Mr. Sterman, a seasoned, professional sax player and composer, has been playing the oud for six months.
Carlo Valte, a professional classical guitarist, started to play the oud seven years ago when he began to explore Mediterranean medieval music. He good-naturedly endures Mr. Shaheen's spirited tirades about the guitar being a "defective instrument" due to its limited tones.
"This is Arabic music and Jews have been using it for prayers and parties for hundreds of years," said Rabbi Roly Matalon during a recent oud lesson with Mr. Shaheen at his temple. Rabbi Matalon, an oud player in the New York Arabic Orchestra, considers himself an Arab Jew, as his family came from Syria by way of Argentina. He has introduced Arabic melodies from his childhood into the prayers at his congregation, B'nai Jeshurun. And despite the majority of the members being of Ashkenazi descent, the rabbi exclaims, "They love it!"
"Ignorance is sin," Mr. Shaheen often repeats. He becomes quite solemn when discussing the importance of exposing Americans to the beauty of Arabic music. "Of course I'd be doing this if I were Mongolian, Turkish or Chinese," he says, "but we have been so trashed." He stresses the unpleasantness of the prejudice he experienced growing up in Israel as an Arab and the return of it during the first Gulf War and post-9/11. "I have found it my duty to do something, and this is a chance for people to see that we Arabs have no tails."
Ms. Roberts is a writer living in New York.
Just Call Him the â€˜Oudâ€™ Man of Musicâ€”
This Palestinian emigre loves to build and play â€˜the most perfect instrumentâ€™
By Ayaz Nanji
Newsday 16 October 2002
The walls of his tiny West Village apartment are decorated with examples of the pudgy, lute-like string instrument. Still other ouds sit on chairs. And, his bedspread is embroidered with its likeness.
A Palestinian emigre, Shaheen builds, repairs and plays the oud in two bands. Interestingly, he learned his craftsman's skills from a one-time Israeli citizen who now builds violins for a living in Manhattan. â€œI think the oud [pronounced â€˜oodâ€™], which is in the acoustic family, is probably the most perfect instrument,â€� said Shaheen, 55, easing back in a pink chair. The instrument is popular in northern Africa, southwest Asia and across the Mideast. â€œIt's earthy, it's the closest to nature.â€�
Shaheen's affection for the oud may lie in his DNA. He is part of a family of Arab Christian musicians who have played the string instrument for generations. Shaheen's father was a professor of music and a master oud player, and his grandfather was a musician and a church cantor. His brother, Simon Shaheen, is known as one of the oud's most accomplished adherents.
The oud has been around for centuries and is the forbearer of the European lute. Its name derives from the Arabic word for wood and refers to the strips used to make its pear-shaped body. The front of the oud is flat and the neck is short, with no frets.
â€œI don't even know when I played the oud for the first time,â€� Shaheen said. â€œI must have been 5. By the time I was 15, I was repairing them too because they were everywhere.â€�
Shaheen attended a high school near Haifa that had both Jewish and Arab students but taught only in Hebrew. In 1967, angered by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, he left the country and moved to the United States to attend college.
â€œI felt like a third-class citizen,â€� Shaheen said. â€œI was not allowed to speak my language there. It was not a good place.â€�
In 1990, he decided to find out how to build the instrument, which he had by then long played and repaired. Rather than turning to one of the thousands of Arab oud makers, he instead asked a longtime friend, David Segal, an Israeli with a violin store on West 68th Street in Manhattan, David Segal Violins Ltd.
Like Shaheen, Segal was from a musical family. His father was an instrument maker who emigrated from Latvia to Israel. Segal had studied violin-, viola- and cello-making in Italy and moved to New York City in 1974 to serve as an assistant to the famous violinmaker Fernando Sacconi.
â€œI just took my knowledge of instruments and taught Najeeb how to use some of the tools,â€� said Segal. â€œPretty soon he had set himself up in my shop and there were ouds everywhere.â€�
Not surprisingly, the two craftsmen find themselves debating the situation in the Middle East, but it does not cause them to turn against each other.
â€œSometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. Most often we disagree,â€� said Segal. â€œBut we are like brothers, bonded by music, and so it has become a joke as well. If I tell him to move from one seat to another, he will turn to me and say, â€˜What? You stole my land and now you want my chair as well?â€™ â€�
Over the past decade, Shaheen has used the skills Segal taught him to alter the structure of the ouds he builds and has experimented with non-traditional woods as well to adjust the sound.
Shaheen now builds the instruments in his workshop on West 36th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, marketing his services word-of-mouth to fellow musicians and selling ouds for about $3,000 apiece. â€œDavid taught me precision and patience,â€� he said. â€œMost oud makers, they never produced the sound you wanted as a musician. Now I can do that.â€�
Besides being different in composition from traditional ouds, Shaheen's ouds also have another unique feature: pictures. For the past decade, Shaheen has cut pictures out of magazines and pasted them inside the belly of each instrument that he builds or repairs, where they often go unnoticed by the owner.
Sometimes Shaheen's choices are politically inspired. He recently sent off an oud with the image of the face of Condelezza Rice inside. He plastered a picture of Ariel Sharon into the oud of an unknowing Palestinian activist.
The majority of his creations, though, have pictures of Hollywood celebrities and pro-wrestling grapplers. His most recent creation included a photograph of Mel Gibson.
The choice of these images reflects Shaheen's changing interests. These days, he said, he tries not to think too much about politics, preferring a focus on perfecting his oud-making acumen.
â€œI never stop learning - and even now I am only 70 percent there,â€� he said. â€œPerhaps, when I die, I will be 90 percent there.â€�