Omar’s Journey Playing the Oud


October War 1973

A family of man and wife - the man who was a General in the Syrian Army and the wife who was in her last few days of pregnancy. Alone, the pain of pregnancy got harder by the days and by the hours. The time away from her husband made her lonely but the radio soon became her companion. A song, Zaman Ya Hob by Farid Al Atrash, came to the radio and the lyrics were music to her ears. Upon hearing the words يا روح الروح يا نور يا عبير that meant “Abeer you are my heart and light”, she knew in that instant that if the child growing inside of her was going to be a girl, she would name her Abeer.

And so, my mother Abeer was welcomed to the world.

That one song has given plentiful of memories for my grandmother and our family. And who would have known that the melodious sound of the oud and piano played in the song would have an impact of my family’s musical inclination as well.

The oud, the King of Middle Eastern Instruments, produces the kind of sound that is able to touch the hearts of people, as if knowing what you are feeling. In 2003, my mother learnt to play the oud for more than six months but unfortunately, it was only a short-lived musical journey for her.


Stepping into the Musical World

However, I grew up possessing the opportunity that my mother did not have. At age six, I began studying at Al Shabibah Institute that had an advanced curriculum in music. It was difficult for me as a six-year-old to fully grasp what was taught and hence, found it difficult to pass their subjects. The institute also held on to the principle that students are unable to proceed to the next year if they fail any subjects and are expected to leave the institute if they fail to complete the preparatory year.

I did not lose hope and was enrolled to a different school, AlBasel Institute, which had a curriculum fitted for beginners. It was unlike Al Shabibah where we had to learn the theory of music in depth, we instead focused more on learning to play the instrument. It was not the proper way to learn music but as a seven-year-old, it was best.

After two years of learning to play the keyboard, I returned to Al Shabibah to study music at an advanced level and was given admission. At age nine, I began their preparatory year and proceeded to the next year, where I majored in playing my second instrument, the oud. Over the course of my study, I had the chance to learn about renowned Turkish and Arab musicians such as Göksel Baktagir, Charbel Rouhana, Marcel Khalifa and Riad El Sonbaty.

In 2015, I tried to play the song that has given my mother her name, and holds special meaning to my family, but with its high difficulty level, I was unable to finish the whole song. But after 12 years of learning music and nine years of playing the oud, I am honoured to present a video of me playing the song Zaman Ya Hob by Farid Al Atrash. The song that is so dear to my family, the song that it became the root of my passion


Performing as an Oud Player

As a musician, it is advantageous to have many years of experiences and to know of many other musicians who can possibly hook you up with opportunities for performances. I, however, lacked in those aspects.

Fortunately, a day came when a group from the Development of Youth Talent came to talent scout in my school. The group which consisted of various musicians - 4 guitarists, 1 cajon player, 3 violinists, a keyboardist and 12 singers - were looking for someone to who could play a Middle Eastern instrument, especially the oud. This then became my door to the opportunities I would receive as a performer.

My first performance was at the Art Gallery of the National Museum in Damascus, Syria. My second performance was at the theatre ‘Nabil Younis’ where I performed my first solo. Though I was extremely nervous, it was a very fulfilling experience for me and I am immensely proud at its success. This was followed by another performance together with the ‘Steps’ (a group of around 50 talented individuals who create music through the use of utensils, such as forks and spoons, and household items). The performance was graced by various VIPs such as the Minister of Education. The hall that was overwhelmed by the music of a Syrian traditional song, the Syrian flag flying behind us, and the sight of more than a thousand people on their feet, clapping and cheering for us all, is truly an unforgettable experience.


My Home, Damascus

What used to be peaceful and beautiful in my eyes, have turned to terror. The streets I used to walk on, have become targets for bombing. The most normal of routes I used to be on to get to school, have been cordoned off and placed with checkpoints after checkpoints, and hence, did not allow me to finish my final year in school to graduate. For awhile, I was living in a situation where streets were filled with explosives and dead bodies. Although things are complicated for my country right now, Damascus will always have a special place in my heart.

My last performance was at the Syrian Private University, in honour of the seven students who had lost their lives due to a bombing caused by terrorists at the university. It was a true honour for me to have been able to be the Music Director for the theater performance that was held so I had to leave Syria. My family decided to leave our home in Damascus to found somewhere have more peace. since 23/September/2015 we have been living as refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

One of the things I will never forget is the band I had created as well. We were special in our own way, as unlike other bands, we took popular songs from around the world and gave it a different take with a Middle Eastern tune. Although difficult as the melody had to be modified to fit the melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music (Makamat), I was able to do so with my educational knowledge through my musical studies.

In the studio, we recorded the Mexican song ‘Malagueña’ using our own style with the oud and kanoun and it was heard by various well-known musicians in Syria, who praised and encouraged us to create more of such quality music for it to be showcased and performed at the Syrian Opera House. However, it has turnt to become only a dream for me as I had to leave Syria.


Oud Player in Malaysia

Although I am far away from my country, the sound of the oud brings back the beautiful memories of Syria. I must, however, be more forward-looking and am very grateful for the platforms where I have been given the chance to perform here in Malaysia. Selected to be part of ‘Theatrefugee’ Malaysia, an initiative by the UNHCR, to share the stories of refugees, I have been given the chance of taking multiple roles such as the music director, musician, actor and singer. Places I have performed at includes the Malaysian Parliament, UNHCR Office, UITM (an audience of over 1000), JW Marriott, The Syrian House, and Publika. My only hope is that I will be given more opportunities to perform in Malaysia.

It may have begun with just one song on the radio during a time of loneliness, but it is that same song that has filled my life with colours as I find solace in music. The song that is so dear to my family, became the root of my passion as an oud player.

I do not know what the world has in store for me. Hopefully the future will become clearer for me, with every strum of the oud string, with every melody that comes with it.

Omar Alkhammash

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