The discovered clay tablets from the city of Susa and the Hafttape district in the Khuzestan province, southwestern Iran, show that an elliptical oud was common in 1500 B.C. in Iran. Another kind of oud with round sound box also has been found in the Lorestan province, western Iran. This instrument was made of bronze and could be seen in the puppet show of the Sassanid Era. Also, a silver dish with the same background was discovered in the Mazandaran province, northern Iran. This silver dish has been preserved in the British Museum since 1953. One of the statues from the ancient era (the second millennium B.C.) which is now preserved in the Ancient Iran Museum shows an oud player. It seems that this oud player was not an ordinary person, rather he was a Sassanid priest.
From the existing images on the discovered dishes from the Sassanid and the poems of the Iranian poets we can infer that the oud was a common instrument in the Sassanid era.
The oud in the Ancient Greek was called barbitus or barbitun. During the Middle Ages, the oud was brought by the Muslims to Europe and was called the lute.
In Europe, the mandolin was made after the oud. The main difference between the two is that the mandolin has frets on its neck, whereas the oud does not have any.
Today, there is a kind of oud played in Syria, Greek, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey which was known in the past as the Ashuri oud. This oud has a good range and looks like the ones existing in the Ancient Egyptian paintings. However, the first document about the oud in the Islamic era is Farabi’s Musiqi al-Kabir. In this book, Farabi introduces the common instrument of his time, and since the oud was the most important instrument of that time, he starts his book with the explanations about this instrument. According to Farabi, the sound of the oud is the closest sound to that of human being. As we can see in the following picture, the oud of Farabi’s time had frets.
Also, the oud players can be seen in the miniatures of the Safavid era.
Figure 1: The oud player from Susa, the second millennium B.C
Figure 2: The oud player depicted on the metal cup, Sassanid era
Figure 3: Another oud player depicted on the metal cup, Sassanid era
Figure 4: The oud player from the Islamic era, Louver Museum
Figure 5: The oud’s neck does not have any frets
Figure 6: The mandolin’s neck has frets
Figure 7: The picture of the oud from Farabi’s Musiqi al-Kabir
Figure 8: The oud player in the miniatures of the Safavid era
The sound box of the oud looks like the chest of a duck. There is a strong similarity between a standing duck and the instrument. Because of this similarity, the oud is called barbat in Persian.
In the past the bowl of the oud was made like that of the tar and setar which are done by emptying the trunk of a tree. In this way, the whole piece of the wood is emptied; and therefore, the whole sound box is one piece. But, today, the back of the oud is made of thin wood staves glued together on edge. The instrument usually has an odd number of staves. This means the back will have a center stave rather than a center seam. Contrasting trim pieces are often used between staves.
The top of the oud is generally made of two matching pieces of thin spruce glued together on edge. Transverse braces, also of spruce, are glued to the underside of the top. The neck is generally made of a single piece of wood and is usually veneered in a striped pattern similar to that of the back. The peg box meets the neck at a severe angle. The peg box is usually made from separate side, end and back pieces glued together.
There are some sound-holes on the top surface of the instrument, which may be either oval or circular, and often are decorated with a bone or wood carved rosette. They are called Gols (flowers).
The oud has ten strings which are paired together in courses of two. In the past, the strings were made of animal guts, but now they are the combination of nylon and metal. The first two pairs of the strings which are higher in pitch are made of nylon. The next three pairs of the strings are made of metal and like the strings of the guitar and cello are springy. Some oud players may use nylon for the two pairs of the strings in the middle part. But, the bass strings are always metal. All of the strings are connected to the peg box from one end and to the bridge from the other end.
The sound range of the oud is two octaves and is bass.
This instrument has its own techniques of playing as well the ability to adopt the other instruments’ techniques. For example, it is possible for the oud to accompany all instruments. Also, using tremolo, arpeggio, various chords, vibrato, slide, and passages are completely possible for the oud player.
Figure 1: The back side of the oud which looks like the chest of a duck
Figure 2: The side perspective of the oud which looks like a duck
Figure 3: Thin wood staves glued together on edge
Figure 4: The bow will be fixed to neck and the peg box
Figure 5: A Gol (flower) on the oud’s surface
Figure 6: The conjunction between the finger board and the bowl
Figure 7: The peg box
Figure 8: The sound range of the oud
Figure 9: The most common tuning
Figure 10: Another common tuning
The oud was revived in the Persian art music around fifty years ago. In fact, this instrument migrated from Iran to the Arab countries centuries ago and then it came back to its birthplace. Therefore, when it came back to Iran, its playing style was influenced by Arabic and sometimes Turkish styles. In the recent era, the oud was introduced in Iran by Mansur Nariman Zanjani. He was initially a setar player and then learned the oud by himself. Nariman says:
I did not have a master for oud, and I learned it by listening to the Arabic radios. Later on, I wrote a letter to Mohammad Abdol Vahab, a great Egyptian vocalist and master of oud. I asked him some questions regarding the playing techniques and the tuning system of this instrument. In response, Abdol Vahab said that what I did was right.
The playing style of Nariman is admired by many Arabs. Monir Bashir, a great Iraqi master of oud came to visit Nariman in Iran, and they talked about this instrument and its playing techniques and styles.
The other oud players of Nariman’s generation were initially tar players. People like Yusef Kamusi, Nasrolah Zarinpanje, and Akbar Mohseni were among them. They usually played the oud for the Radio Orchestra. Another person who played important role in the recent history of the oud in Iran was Abdol Vahab Shahidi. He was a singer and used the oud to accompany his vocal. Therefore, he followed a different style of playing.
Hassan Manuchehri was an oud player from the first generation of the oud players who followed Nariman’s style.
The second generation of the oud players in Iran
The main characteristic of this generation’s style of playing is moving away from the Arabic style and trying to find a more Persian flavor in their playing. Some of these oud players are: Jamal Jahanshad, Mohammad Delnavazi, Mohammad Firuzi, Hussein Behruziniya, Arsalan Kamkar, Shahram Mirjalali, and Mohammad khansariyan.
After its return to Persian music, the oud was used only in the ensembles, and it was rarely used as a solo instrument. Up to 1980, the music students in conservatories could not choose this instrument as their main major instrument. But, the efforts and endless interests of Hussein Behruziniya who was a music student at the Tehran Conservatory resulted in receiving the first diploma in the oud in Iran music education system. Behruziniya also released some solo oud tapes, such as “Barbat” and “Kuhestan” in the following years which were very influential in introducing this instrument to the younger generation. Now, the oud plays a very important role in the Persian art music, and the third generation of the oud players who are mostly music conservatory and university students play this instrument both as a solo or accompanying instrument. Some of these young oud players are: Behnam Moayeriyan, Reza Behruziniya and some others.
Figure 1: Mansur Nariman
Figure 3: Abdol Vahab Shahidi
Figure 5: Hassan Manuchehri, an oud player of the first generation who followed Nariman’s style
Figure 7: Jamal Jahanshad
Figure 9: Mohammad Delnavazi
Figure 11: Mohammad Firuzi
Figure 13: Hussein Behruziniya playing the Persian version of the oud called barbat
Figure 15: Majid Nazempur
Figure 17: Shahram Qolami
In the recent years, the oud has faced many new experiences and innovations in terms of its construction. One of these new innovations was done by Ebrahim Qanbari Mehr who replaced a part of the wooden surface where the bridge is fixed with a skin. Therefore, this new oud sounds more like the tar and rubab.
Another innovation also done by Ebrahim Qanbari was making an Iranian barbat with the wooden surface. This innovative artist could make such a barbat by working on the remaining pictures and paintings of the barbat from the Ancient Persia. He only made one sample of this kind of barbat for museums.
By comparing the old pictures and icons of the Ancient Iranian barbat and the Arabic oud, we can infer that the size of the Iranian barbat was smaller than that of the Arabic oud. In fact, the Arabs made some changes on the structure of the Iranian barbat and even changed its name according to their musical traditions and needs. Since Arabic music needed more bass sound,; therefore, the size of the oud’s bowl became bigger in its Arabic version.
The Iranian barbat is basically an oud with a smaller bowl and larger finger board. Therefore, there is not any difference in the technique of playing the two, and if a person can play the one, he/she also can play the other one. Since the Iranian barbat is smaller in size than the Arabic oud, it looks more beautiful when held by the player.
The smaller bowl size allows for a more comfortable interaction between the player and the instrument. The unique design and lay out of the bridges that lie beneath the soundboard give this instrument a louder sound and far greater sustainability (echo) when compared to Arabic and Turkish ouds. Most importantly, the longer neck and the addition of the on-face fingerboard allow the player to reach notes in the higher octave and eliminate the need for a 6th course. The total of approximately three octaves is covered in the barbat. This new design also decreases the pain which can be caused in the shoulders of the player while playing. The peg box and tailpiece of this new designed oud look more beautiful than the older design.
Creating an electronic oud was another experience which was done by Arab musicians. Basically, this kind of oud was an imitation of the electronic guitar. In the first sample the bowl was taken away but the top surface still played the important role.
In the other version of the electronic oud even the top surface is taken away.
In the electronic oud the vibration of the strings will be transferred to an amplifier by a sensor. The sound of the instrument can be heard only by the speakers.
Figure 1: The oud with a skin surface made by Ebrahim Qanbari Mehr
Figure 2: The Iranian barbat with the long finger board made by Ebrahim Qanbari
Figure 3: The size of the ancient barbat
Figure 4: comparing the bowl size of the barbat and oud
Figure 5: The electronic oud with surface
Figure 6: The electronic oud with surface
Figure 7: The front perspective of the electronic oud without surface
Figure 8: The side perspective of the electronic oud without surface