The Legacy of Munir Bashir: Omar Bashir, ’ud
Improvisation in maqam hijazkar
Love and Peace (Munir Bashir)
Improvisations in maqam laouk and on an Iraqi dabka (folk dance tune)
Piece inspired by maqam nahawand (Munir Bashir)
Improvisations in maqamat mukhalif, awj, huzam, and hijaz
Andalusian Señora (Munir Bashir)
Seville (Munir Bashir)
This performance was part of a U.S. tour by Omar Bashir, which he dedicated to his father, the late Munir Bashir (1930–1997). Munir Bashir was born in Mosul, Iraq, and became one of the great cultural ambassadors for Arab music in the second half of the twentieth century. Combining deep scholarship, virtuoso performances, and a passion for promoting Arab music, Bashir is widely credited with inspiring a renewed pride in the genre during the post-colonial era. Among other accomplishments, he founded the Arab Music Academy in Baghdad, of which he was secretary general until 1995, and received the UNESCO-International Music Council Prize for Music.
Regarded in the Arab world as a supreme master of the ’ud (Arab lute), Bashir was a leading representative of the musical tradition characterized by maqam (mode) and taqsim (improvisation). While he pursued modern musical styles in his early career, he switched to more traditional methods, partly at the suggestion of his many European friends. The global spread of Indian classical music and its ragas in the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired him to pursue a solo concert role for the ’ud—a radical departure from the instrument’s customary role as a background accompaniment to star vocalists. Bashir is thus credited with inventing the solo ’ud recital.
To allow for a concert-length ’ud performance, Bashir created a new repertoire of music, linking a series of taqsim (traditional improvisations) that previously would have been used as individual introductions to songs. This new genre formed the basis of his acclaimed musical recitals for more than ten years. In the 1980s, he introduced composed and metered items into his concerts, utilizing well-known Arab rhythms and tunes. At the same time, he used maqam (melodic mode) instead of taqsim (improvisation) as the organizing principle behind his programs.
In addition to creating the solo ’ud recital, Bashir pioneered a new technique for playing the ’ud. It was distinct from the two most widely used techniques, developed in Turkey and Egypt. Bashir’s new style, which emphasized the pure tone and vibrato of individual notes, became the predominant way of playing the instrument by the end of the twentieth century.
Bashir advocated one final, radical approach to Arab music: He expected total and rapt silence from his audiences. While not always popular with his fans, this attitude is credited with instilling a more intelligent form of listening at concerts of Arab classical music.
— Adapted from Christian Poché, “Snapshot: Munir Bashir,” in V. Danielson, S. Marcus, and D. Reynolds, eds., The Middle East, vol. 6 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (Routledge, 2002).
More than a simple scale, a maqam is a complex set of rules for improvisation and composition, for music that can be either spontaneous or written out. The opening and final notes of a composition are determined by the maqam, as are other prominent notes. The maqam also governs the overall melodic flow, the choice of characteristic phrases, and the modulation to other related modes. The purest expression of a maqam can be found in solo, unmetered improvisations called taqsim, used for instrument or voice. These improvisations may be accompanied by a measured drone or recurring drum pattern, but the melody itself is unmeasured. A performer begins the improvisation with a few concise phrases centered on one of the pitches of the maqam, and then gradually expands both the range and the length of melodic invention.
The first item in this program is a taqsim (improvisation) in maqam hijazkar, which is represented in Western notation as a C-major scale with both D and A flat. The fourth item is an original work by Munir Bashir inspired by maqam nahawand, usually represented as a C-major scale with both E and A flat.
Omar Bashir, son of Munir Bashir, carries on the tradition of his famed father, with whom he studied, toured, and recorded. Born in 1970, Omar Bashir began playing ’ud at age five. At seven, he began his studies at the Baghdad Music and Ballet School, where he later became a teacher. He led his own ensemble, Al Bayariq, which specialized in traditional Iraqi music. In 1991, he continued his musical training at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, studying classical guitar and Western music. In addition to solo appearances and performances with Al Bayariq and Munir Bashir throughout Europe and the Middle East, he made nine recordings that range from classical Arab music to a tribute to Andalusia.
The earliest images of an ’ud-like instrument in the Freer|Sackler appear on a stone funerary couch from the sixth century. The Central Asian performers depicted here exemplify the cosmopolitan nature of the Northern Qi dynasty, established in China in 550 by people of Turkish origin. Invented in West Asia, the ’ud spread east along the Silk Road, where it was later transformed into the similarly shaped Chinese pipa and Japanese biwa, both in active use today.
Details, Cornice of funerary couch; China, Northern Qi dynasty; 550–57; grey marble with traces of pigment; F1915.336
The eighth-century painting on the left probably represents one of the many celestial musicians (feitian or apsaras) who are often depicted accompanying the Buddha. It probably comes from one of the Buddhist caves of Turfan, an important Silk Road oasis center in present-day Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in northwest China. The undated Japanese object on the right shows another Buddhist apsara playing a biwa, as the instrument is known in Japan.
left: Detail, Seated Musician; China, probably Turfan, Tang dynasty, 8th century; polychrome on stucco; S1987.265
right: Buddhist apsara playing the biwa (lute); Japan, date unknown; wood; F1903.285
Arabic treatises on astronomy and astrology usually depict Venus as a seated female playing the ’ud. This image of Venus appears in a fifteenth-century copy of the Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of creation), a work on cosmology and geography written by al-Qazvini in the thirteenth century.
Detail, folio from Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of creation) by al-Qazvini (d. 1283); Iraq or eastern Turkey, early 15th century; opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1954.34
Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Web design by Liz Cheng and Melda Washington, audio engineering by SuMo Productions and Andy Finch, image management by Cory Grace, and text editing by Joelle Seligson. Special thanks to Omar Bashir for granting permission to podcast his performance at the Freer|Sackler.
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