While he waits for his lesson at an Egyptian music school, Maissara Mohammed plays his oud, its soothing tones dissolving the stress of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I play four instruments, but the oud is certainly my favourite,” the 27-year-old Sudanese engineer says, hunched over the pear-shaped body of his instrument.
The oud, a stringed instrument popular in the Middle East and North Africa whose origins date back thousands of years, is a key element of classical Arabic music.
Its tuning and practice is based on a complex system of Oriental melodic modes known as maqamat.
Long an instrument of accompaniment, it has slowly come out of the shadows since the end of the 19th century.
Mohammed arrived from Khartoum in September to learn the oud at the Kipa music school in Giza, west of the Egyptian capital.
While he could have studied elsewhere, he said he chose Egypt because it was renowned for oud players like Mohammed al-Qasabgi, who composed and performed some of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum’s greatest hits.
The oud “is an instrument that has its own sentiments and is capable of translating everything inside you,” he said.
Coronavirus lockdown measures in Sudan helped him focus on practising, he added.
Kipa opened earlier this year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and has attracted music lovers from all walks of life, according to founder Romani Armis.
Students can learn instruments including the guitar, the violin and percussion, he said, but the oud has been the most popular, with 25 enrolments.
Though the oud has long been dominated by men, teacher Hagar Abul Kassem said her students included several young women.
Lessons are also held online, and group classes at the school are limited to two students per room, Armis said.
“Playing music has helped students channel their worries to overcome” this difficult period, he said.
– Online interest –
In the Al-Marg area north of Cairo, Khaled Azzouz, a veteran oud-maker, bustled around his workshop.
“The problem with the oud is that it requires long hours of practise and people usually don’t have time,” he said.
Azzouz heads the biggest oud workshop in Egypt, producing 750 instruments monthly.
Occasionally, children from the neighbourhood earn pocket money by doing odd jobs at the workshop, such as removing staples from the unfinished oud bodies, Azzouz said.
It supplies the Cairo branch of Beit al-Oud, a specialised school with branches across the Arab world, and exports to 12 countries, from Sweden and the United States to Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Azzouz, who has been crafting the musical instruments for 25 years, said he had observed “unprecedented interest” in the oud during the global health crisis.
But he said a pandemic-related disruption earlier this year of wood imports — including rosewood from India and ebony, mahogany and beech from elsewhere — had slowed down production.
“We make the oud from A to Z… but Egypt has no forests, so all the wood here is imported,” he said.
Egypt has officially recorded around 125,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 7,000 deaths.
Azzouz said an upside of the virus-related restrictions was that it had helped people find time to practise.
“With the coronavirus, everyone is bored at home,” he said.
“People are contacting me online for orders.”