Tunisian Craftsman Worries Oud Making Will Die Out

Jan 5, 2015
Originally published on January 5, 2015 9:35 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, in a changing world, it's reassuring to hear one thing that has not changed much at all. It's the sound of a musical instrument in the Middle East. Amid war and political turmoil, you can still hear the pear-shaped string instrument called the oud. And we're about to meet an oud-maker in the ancient Medina district of Tunis in Tunisia. He told NPR's Leila Fadel, he's trying to keep the craft alive.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Maher Cherif, who's 53, rides up to his workshop in the afternoon on a bike. He carries a baguette in his hand for lunch. He unlocks the door of his shop, and inside the walls are covered with beautiful, handmade, wooden string instruments called the oud. They're basically a Middle Eastern lute.

MAHER CHERIF: (Playing oud).

FADEL: He plays for us. He loves the full and deep sound it brings to Middle Eastern music.

CHERIF: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: But he says he worries that his generation may be the last of oud-makers in Tunisia. He's the only one left in the Medina in central Tunis, where tourists and Tunisians search for traditional crafts through winding cobblestone streets. And he says he's only 1 of 12 left in the country.

CHERIF: (Through interpreter) I had somebody I was teaching, but he left because the youth nowadays do not have patience, and this work require a lot of patience. I require a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices.

FADEL: They can't even wait for a real sandwich, he jokes, they eat fast food. His ouds are crafted from different types of wood, decorated with mother of pearl, wood panels or shards of seashells. They take two weeks make, and he sells them from anywhere between $200 and $600.

CHERIF: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He learned his craft at a vocational school in the Medina, where great Tunisian artists studied.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Like Ali Riahi. The oud is used in music throughout the Middle East, but the Tunisian version of the instrument is smaller and made for the country's own musical style. Now the school that Cherif went to is gone. The owner passed away, but Cherif says the oud is important for Tunisia's future.

CHERIF: (Through interpreter) If we want to look forward for cultural progress, then we need to preserve things that created our culture.

FADEL: Business isn't great, he says. But he didn't become an instrument-maker to get rich. He says he wants young people to grow to love their ouds again. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.