Soundtrack of Abu Dhabi

Soundtrack of Abu Dhabi

Ancient instruments like the oud communicate the essence of Emirati culture–the forefather of stringed instruments never misses a beat.

National Geographic CreativeWorks

The various sounds of a city can offer a window into its character. You can learn more about the cultural traditions of any given city by going deeper into it. Abu Dhabi is a UNESCO City of Music and has a rich heritage of traditional music that helps tell its story. From stringed instruments such as the rebabah to the strong and steady beat of the al-ras drum, Abu Dhabi’s soundtrack is vibrant, steeped in tradition, and waiting to be explored.

At the center of Abu Dhabi’s music story is the oud, an instrument that defines the instrumental culture of the emirate. The pear-shaped, guitar-like oud is believed to be one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments and dates back to the Akkadian Empire. Its rich, melodic sound can often be heard in Abu Dhabi’s Bait Al Oud (House of Oud). Founded in 2008 by oud master Naseer Shamma, the organization is housed in a villa tucked away in the Al Nahyan area of the city. It is dedicated to all things related to the oud along with other traditional instruments, such as the qanun and a stringed instrument known as the rebabah.

Bait Al Oud preserves traditional Arabic music heritage while providing eager students with lessons and courses. The center is helping to produce the new generation of oud players and promote the continuation of songs and techniques associated with this culturally important instrument.

Such is the oud‘s importance to the emirate, Bait Al Oud also hosts an in-house workshop where the instrument is lovingly made by expert craftspeople. During a visit to the workshop, you can witness the oud being constructed from the world’s finest cedar and rosewood, from the cutting of the wood through to the preparation, assembly, and finishing of the strings. It’s a labor-intensive process that results in each oud being made to be 67 centimeters long and 36 centimeters wide at the sound box. Craftspeople carefully carve and select the wood to make each instrument. This allows musicians to tune the instruments to the highest notes. Budding instrument makers can train at the workshop to learn how to make the oud, which further helps to keep the traditions associated with the instrument alive.

In addition to learning about traditional instruments in Abu Dhabi you will also learn about important cultural and social events that are centrally Emirati heritage. For example, the low-banging beat of the al-ras drum is the gateway to the al-ayyala, an expressive cultural performance involving poetry, music, and dance.

The al-ayyala presents viewers with a mesmerizing scene: two rows of performers face each other while carrying thin bamboo sticks that represent weapons such as swords or arrows. The performers begin to act out a battle by moving their heads, shoulders and arms to the beat of a drum. In between the rows, the band steadily plays the al-ras together with a variety of brass instruments and tambourines. Men chant lines of poetry that cover themes such as group solidarity and chivalry. It is a bold routine that instills pride and strength in both the performer as well as the audience.

There are many variations of the al-ayyala across the UAE, changing according to the region. These variations can be seen in speed, chanting poems, and slight movements by performers. The presence of the al-ras, however, remains a constant throughout. The al-ayyala can be experienced during celebrations such as weddings and other festivities. You can catch a performance at one of the many National Day celebrations in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE if you are there at the beginning or end of December.

Moving on from the al-ras, another instrument that is commonly associated with the emirate is the rebabah, or rabab, which is believed to be one of the earliest known bowed instruments. First mentioned in the 10th century, the rebabah took on various forms in the Arab world and beyond; in the UAE it bears a distinct rectangular shape in contrast to the ring shape of Iraq.

The rebabah gives us an insight into another aspect of Abu Dhabi culture: the recitation of poetry in the majlis. A majlis is a place where members of a community meet to discuss news, socialize and solve problems. Traditionally, a poet would recite his verses here accompanied by the soothing sounds of the rebabah. Nabati poetry is an extremely important form of expression in UAE culture and is characterized by a straightforward, colloquial style that makes it accessible to the masses. Performed together with the rebabah, the poem’s verses seem to reverberate longer in the listener’s mind.

Depending on the time of year, it’s not always possible to enjoy poetry recitations accompanied by the rebabah or even the al-ras-powered al-ayyala. The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, however, offers a homegrown arts program that includes music and dance performances allowing you to enjoy a slice of the emirate’s rich musical heritage no matter what month of the year you happen to be in town.

Read More