Sebanti Chatterjee: Hello! Tell me a little bit about your journey. I mean how you started playing the instrument.
Ahmed Mukhtar: I used to live with my family in the outskirts of Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq, the big city. There, most of those people, came from the South. Music of the South of Iraq was an expression of their feelings. In this city, people love either of the two things- Football or music. Earlier, when I was 10 years old and living in Thorah, I started learning percussion from my neighbour. When I was 15, I attended the institute of Fine Arts. After finishing my diploma in music, I went to Syria. There, I studied in a conservatory. I got a licentiate (like a bachelorette) in music. I studied Oud and western percussion. After finishing that, I came to Britain. I learnt English once again. At the same time, I practiced my music. After two years, I started to work as a teacher- in the Iraqi Community Centre. Thereafter, I studied Bachelorette of Music again, this time, at the London College of Music. I studied ethnomusicology. I did my Masters from SOAS during 2002-2003. While I was in Masters, I was teaching students as well. I was taking the practical classes in the department of music. When I finished in 2005, I continued as a teacher of Oud and Percussion. Now, I teach elsewhere too.
SC: That is a variety of things, really. After coming to London, what were the different arenas that you chose to focus on?
AM: It was always my dream to start a school for Oud in London. In 2010, I established it with the help of a friend and an old student, Michael. The school is called Taqasim Music School. We were teaching music there on Fridays and Saturdays. Now, we teach on Sundays as well. We have more than 35 students. Of course they range from beginners to intermediate. I created these programmes. I created it step by step and now I have six levels of teaching music.
During my journey, especially, when I came to London, I started to record my compositions. In 1998, I had my first CD. It was a recorded concert, a live one. By 1999, my second one was out- the Words from Eden. In 2003, one of the big companies here, ARC, adopted the third one. They produced Rhythms from Baghdad. My fourth CD Ode to Baghdad was released in 2005. It was by ARC as well. From 2005 to 2015, I haven’t recorded anything. In 2015, I released a new CD Babylonian Fingers. You know, Babel is one of the ancient cities in the civilization of Iraq. I plan to do the sixth CD with my friend, Ignacio Luserdi. We need to do the compositions, arrangements, etc. I took part in many festivals. I have also done concerts in America, Britain and Middle East and North Africa.
SC: That’s quite a vast experience…
AM: “You were asking me about experience. The teachings helped me a lot. It always made me remember, helped me refresh basic information. Festivals prepared me to be able to play at the small hall, big hall or open air. Recording allowed me to mingle with the other musicians. I played oud with piano, guitar and other instrumental accompaniments. It was a good opportunity for me to be in this multi-cultural city”.
SC: So taking London as a space for musical creativity and facilitating a lot of musical ideas, back home, how did the political situation inform your music?
AM: You see that we have to agree that music is one of the great channels to express the feeling of the people and the feeling of their suffering and their need. So there is a lot of mix between the other fields of life and music. “We can’t be a radio as a musician, to open it when you want to enjoy something. We are human beings, so we have to be affected. During 25 years of my life, I tried to use the music, to say no to the war. To say no to the fight between the people”. By putting up charity concerts, we try to collect some money and send it to children. We are the musicians against the violence and war, against racism. We are against the politics that is actually affecting people. We can play music to express to the people some of the subjects. We, as musicians can play music so that people learn to live in peace. We should help children learn how to live peacefully. There is a bridge between my place, London and Middle East. I am defending most of the countries against the war, anywhere and anyplace. “I try to use the music because music is just like what Picasso said- Art is not just to put it on the walls until you cut it. Art is something to fight the bad and to create the good. So that’s what we can do in music and this is my philosophy to be honest”.
SC: That’s very nice. How often you visit your place?
AM: Only after the dictatorship collapsed, I had a chance to go back. In 2004 I visited Iraq, nearly fifteen years after leaving the place. I have started going back more regularly. Every year I go and do some concerts and workshops. Now, I have a project to send some British people. They are supporting Iraqis against the war. They are supporting peace. We do some workshops there and we participate in festivals like the Babylonian Festival. We do workshops to teach the younger generations how to write fiction, non-fiction and poetry. We have a big place in Central Baghdad. It is an old, ancient house. This association always hosts us when we go there. We did 5 concerts in Iraq, in one year. There are no objections from the government. But, as a part of the security, Iraqi situations are not really stable. There are problems, especially, in the West of Iraq.
SC: Now, in the beginning you said that you started playing oud as an expression of feelings. Is Oud very commonly played all over Iraq? Is it an instrument for a sort of expression?
AM: Yes! The first instrument in the Arabic and Middle Eastern Cultures is Oud. It is from Morocco to Central Asia. It is the main instrument in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Turkey, Iraq and Morocco. There are millions of people in these areas, who play oud. The oud is the most important instrument to express the feelings of those people and is also the most developed as an instrument. You can play all the scales and all kinds of music. Middle Eastern music, Arabic and Western Music. Oud is self-tuned, it is easy to modulate technically and “the sound of the oud is touched to the culture from 5000 years till now. We call it the Sultan of the instruments which is like the prince or king of instruments”.
SC: Oud and the tradition of the Iraqi music that you play from Baghdad, is that a part of an indigenous folk tradition? Or is it a part of a classical cannon? Or is it a mix?
AM: You see, actually the Oud has a life which is more 5000 years from now. So, it is part of a tradition. It is part of the religion. It is part of the wedding. It is part of the folk music and part of the modern music. There are always many styles and you can play their note. That’s why the Oud is still alive. You can find it everywhere. 300-400 years ago, it was part of the folk music. Now, it has moved to become tradition, it has moved to become contemporary. People play oud in different ways nowadays. Maybe, they will fall down the list and not succeed. Maybe, they will succeed, we don’t know. Atleast, they are always experimental with the Oud. They are trying to make it respond to the time and the environment, to the atmosphere of the time of music. You can always find it in different ways. We call the very traditional Iraqi music, Maqamat. It is 500-600 years old but our Oud plays it even today. Also, Richard Dumbrill, Archaeology and Music professor at the University of London, proved that the Oud is 5200 years old. It has come from the south of Iraq, which is nearby Babylon. Ofcourse, it has been broadcast in Babylon city and have been broadcast in other cities, in the north of Iraq. During the 9th century, the Oud travelled to Egypt, to Morocco, and after that to Spain in the 12th c. Oud became bigger and bigger from the Middle East, it went to North Africa, to Spain and the other side. It went to Central Asia, to Armenia, to Azerbaijan, to Tajikistan, to Gurcistan.
SC: Since you teach, perform and compose, which is close to your heart? How do you manage time?
AM: Of course, the Oud is more for expressing my feelings. It’s the most progressed of all instruments according to me. I love to play my compositions and the improvisations. This is the core of my career and the closest things to my heart. The other things that I do, some of them are actually for fun! Some of them are part of a job/work. The rest are a mix of job, fun, and enjoyment. For example, one of my students has started to perform. He is doing something nice and successful, even on TV. As a TV presenter on Al-Fayha Iraqi TV, I am writing about the music. It is very nice to give back information and let people know about the music and to experience that with them. It is important to make the music a part of the culture, part of the educational things. How to manage between all of this? To be honest, I am not really good with managing my time. As a child I was very good with time and when I came here, life forced me to be very precise and on time. But the time is not enough for me. It is not enough to do all of these things. I work 16 hours a day. It happens because sometimes I am not well managed. I learn from the Oud makers – when you have to do the box, you have to paint it and wait. What do you have to do for this? You have to not wait for this but you have to do something else. Next day, you do the box, then tend to the neck of the instrument and after that, focus on the other box.
SC: That is an interesting comparison! Tell me about the percussion instruments that are used alongside Oud. What goes and what doesn’t.
AM: Most of the Middle Eastern and Arabic percussions, and specially the Iraqi percussions work with Oud. We have the Bandeer, which is a framed drum. Then, there is a local drum which we call the Darbuka. There is also the Raq, known as the Tambourine. Most of the instruments come very nicely. The framed drums of different sizes, of bass and treble, work well. Other instruments like Cajon, the Spanish instrument goes well with the Oud. The drums or the timpani, are too loud for the Oud. Indian Tablas sound very nice with it. Most of the small percussions like Djembe, the African drum would go – but you have to play quietly. Many percussion instruments can sound well with the Oud, if you know how to direct them to play softly. In a concert, you usually have to agree with the percussions. One has to play and listen to them. When you listen to the Oud, people will also listen to Oud also. Percussions need to be played softly.
SC: Finally, tell me about your experience in India, playing for the Monte and Ketevan festival in February 2017.
AM: I had always wanted to go to India and Egypt as a child. Since, I had already visited Egypt, India was on my list. We grew up watching many Hindi Films. I feel that Indian people are romantic. I also like collaborations because there is always some kind of mutual learning. In music, you will always find that the root remains the same. Be it the Western, the Latin American, the Flamenco or Oud- you will find something similar. You will find similarity with Chinese music too. I remember, once I had composed a one and half minute piece on Chinese pentatonic scale. I had done it when my composition teacher asked me to try a new scale on Oud. Recently, I played a song with the Goa University Choir, as a part of their recording. Performing in India was a great experience because it was a different culture and a different audience. They have full respect for music and I found the people there to be peaceful. They have a nice relationship with music as music is part of their culture and religion. I also found that they are very well organized as musicians. The spiritual part of the Indian music fascinates me a lot.