The oud is a plucked instrument with a pear-shaped sound-box built around a mould, and a short angled back neck. The gut strings are plucked with a piece of tortoise shell or an eagle feather. 

The oud plays a prominent role in Arab music: it is called the ‘sultan’ of Arab instruments. The name ‘oud’ is derived from Arabic العود‎‎ ‘al-ʿūd , e’oud’ (‘twig’, ‘piece of wood’). In the course of its long history the instrument travelled from East to West, from Bagdad (7th century) via Asia Minor and the Arab peninsula to Northeast Africa and Andalusia (9th century). It is the immediate precursor of our Western lute.  Both instruments are very similar, but the oud has no frets and its neck is narrower.

The oud forms part of the classical Arab orchestra, but it also plays solo and in small ensembles. It is to be heard in traditional and contemporary repertoires, in ethno jazz and Mediterranean folk, world fusion, sufi, qawwali and new-age music. Contemporary internationally acclaimed virtuosos are Rabih Abou-Khalil (Lebanon), Simon Shaneen (Palestine-Israel-US), Anouar Brahem (Tunesia), Nasser Shamma (Iraq) and Dhafer Youssef (Tunesia). In Belgium the Luthomania band promotes ensemble playing of oud, lute and Chinese pipa.

This instrument with inventory number 0164 is the oldest known oud in Europe. It has seven double strings, which is typical of the 19th century Egyptian oud.  The instrument came to Brussels from Alexandria in 1839, thanks to the Belgian musicographer and director of the Brussels Conservatoire Royal de Musique, François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871). With the help of  Étienne Zizinia, the Belgian consul in Alexandria, Fétis acquired sixteen Arab instruments for his personal collection, a purchase for which he said he had to make big financial sacrifices. Incidentally, he only settled the bill in 1846. 

Apart from the oud, Fétis’s collection from Alexandria contained a qanun citer, a kissar lyre, tanbur lutes, a nay flute, a zamr oboe, an arghul and kemanche fiddles. Fétis claimed he had put together ‘the most comprehensive collection of this kind in the whole of Europe’. This is not correct: nearly forty years earlier Guillaume-André Villoteau (1759-1839), a scientific member of Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt in 1798-1803, had brought a similar collection to Paris, with representative instruments of the different communities that were living together in the big Egyptian cities (Arabs, Nubians, Copts, Ethiopians, Persians). This collection counted at least 22 instruments. Fétis knew Villoteau personally. Some of the correspondence between both gentlemen has been preserved. Fétis was well informed about Villoteau’s work and he was undoubtedly inspired by Villoteau’s collection when he put together his own Egyptian collection. 

In the 1830s Fétis developed the ambition to write a comprehensive Histoire de la musique, which would not only offer a survey of Western music, but would cover the whole world. This is how he begins his Histoire: ‘The history of music is inseparable of the appreciation of the special abilities of  the races that have cultivated it.’ Just like language, every race had its own music. Fétis has been praised for his ‘exceptional openness of mind’ for other cultures, and has been called ‘the first ethnomusicologist’ and ‘the first comparative musicologist’. However, his discourse is heavily imbued with a will to categorize, and with the stereotyping, eurocentrism and paternalism typical of the 19th century. Indeed, the ‘sad truth’ is, he says, that ‘ the human faculties are unequally distributed  among the peoples’.  In his study on the different musical cultures, none appears to bear comparison with Western culture: ‘Let us agree to admit that, while preserving our racial pride, there have been and still are peoples who are shaped differently, but who haven’t, for that reason, been deprived of the joys offered by music.  That ours stands on a higher artistic level, that it is even the only [music] to be real art, is beyond doubt ;  but it remains no less interesting to know the primitive forms of that same art.’  

Fétis gives an elaborate theoretical description of Arab music and musical instruments. He claims that the tonal systems of the Arab peoples are ‘incompatible’ with our musical sensibility, mainly because every tone is divided into three third-tones and not in two semitones, like in our scales. His study of the Arab tonal systems is based on a whole series of translated Arab treatises, on Villoteau’s work and on a study of the tuning and the compass of the instruments in his collection, but never on the music as it was to be heard. It is strongly doubtful if Fétis got to hear a lot of Arab music. He never visited an Arab country – apparently he even never set foot outside Europe. The very first concert of Arab music in Europe probably took place during the Exposition universelle (World’s Fair) of Paris in 1867, when five musicians played in the ‘Café Tunisien’. The oud played the melody in unison with the rebab, with the accompaniment of a tambourine and a darabouka. After attending the concert, Fétis wrote: ‘I have also heard the musicians from Tunis, and I have found that their intonations were false and their songs monotonous.’

After Fétis’s death in 1871 his sons Édouard and Adolphe sold all his musical instruments to the Belgian State. In 1873 they were accomodated in the library of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique. At the opening of the Musée instrumental in 1877 the Fétis fund of almost one hundred pieces made up nearly half the museum collection. 

Saskia Willaert

With thanks to Abid Bahri and Leonard Cools

(Music : Egyptian music in restaurant Le Palais de la Médina, Fès (Morocco), 10.04.2009.
Khalid Lyazghi (oud), Said Benchkroune (violin), Adblmalk Filali (tar-tambourine), Ahmed Slal (darabouka). Recording: Wim Bosmans)

François-Joseph Fétis, 1860 ? Foto : Ghémar Frères.
From François-Joseph Fétis, Histoire de la musique, Brussels, 1869, vol. 2
From François-Joseph Fétis, Histoire de la musique, Brussels, 1869, vol. 2
From François-Joseph Fétis, Histoire de la musique, Brussels, 1869, vol. 2
From Victor-Charles Mahillon, Album des instruments extra-européens du Musée du
External Video
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Ashraf Awad, oud teacher at the Beit al Ud school, Cairo. Filmed by Leonard Cools, during oud lessons in April 2016.