The Strings of Heritage
Before studying abroad in Jordan, I had planned to participate in culture-specific activities, such as playing oud, that would provide me with a great opportunity to engage with the local culture. After having stayed here for half of the semester and been busy with studies instead of offering myself a chance to explore, I realized that I still needed to fulfill my plan of learning to play oud, a common stringed instrument in Arab culture, at a local music center.
I signed up for eight classes and also rented an oud from the music center to practice and to better observe this Arab instrument.
I thought I would be a little familiar with oud because I took a course called Popular Culture in the Middle East at SU a year ago. I have been introduced to lots of theoretical information about oud—the history of oud can be traced to 300 AD. Back then, because it was influenced by China, most of its strings were made of silk.
What’s more, I had also attended some events hosted by the Arab Student Association where the students and guests performed with the oud, which made me aware of its shape and sound.
However, when I first touched an oud, the feeling was completely different from what I learned from those history textbooks or performances.
Although I had watched some performances before, I never noticed that performers used plectrums to play ouds instead of their fingers. My oud teacher told me that plectrums, which are called risha in Arabic, were made of animal skin in the olden days. Nowadays, plectrums are mostly made of plastic. Moreover, because of oud’s pear-shape, performers cannot see the strings when they hold the oud, which requires that performers know at all times where the strings are.
Compared to the ukulele, which I had learned before, playing oud was more difficult not only because four out of five strings are double strings played at the same time, but also because there’s no marker on the fretboard/neck of oud. This requires the acute ability of oud performers to judge intonation.
After learning oud for two weeks, I was still unsure as to how to understand Arab culture through the instrument other than contrasting it with ukulele and Chinese pipa. I understood better when my oud teacher taught me how to play Arabic folklore with oud during the third week, rather than just sticking with with “Mary Has a Little Lamb” or “Old McDonald.”
I was exposed to a new world then: Arab folklore is so special and powerful in its sounds when played with an Arab musical instrument. From my perspective, folklore is a fundamental form of regional music because we know how to sing it before we know how to write it or understand it.
This reminded me of the Amazigh culture from Algeria. Before the Amazigh language was recognized as an official language, it was suppressed by the Algerian government. In order to preserve it, the Amazigh elders taught their children Amazigh folklore as a way to inherit the culture instead of letting it become extinct. Even though the Amazigh language was not included in school curricula (which eventually led to a loss of its writing), folklore were still kept as heritage.
Coincidentally, I am from Hakka clan. Hakka Chinese is one of those dialects that did not have a formal language system until much later. Although my grandma doesn’t know how to write, she introduced me the Hakka language by teaching me Hakka folklore.
Be it Chinese or Arab, I believe that preserving local cultural heritage, like traditional instruments, is important for a country to maintain its history. Three of the people I met here, although not representative of the whole population, who played instruments chose violin instead of any Jordanian traditional instruments.
I really appreciate having the chance to encounter valuable cultural heritage like Arab folklore by playing oud. Rather than blaming those who didn’t choose traditional instruments or analyzing power dynamics in Jordan, I’d like to finish with the thought and reflection that it’s necessary to conserve local cultural heritage because it is the root of a flourishing civilization.
Our “Postcards” series features stories from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Franziska Liu, a junior studying international relations and Middle Eastern studies, will be one of four contributors this semester.