Persian Oud – Barbat

by Majnuun Music & Dance on August 16, 2013, no comments

I’m not sure if you were aware of this but the Oud was used in Iran many years before it was used in Arab countries. It was called the Barbat in pre-Islamic times.

The Oud was originated somewhere in greater Iran, the lands that encompass the ancestral lands occupied at one time by Iranian tribes. Most definitely an Oud-like instrument has been seen in art work in Mesopotamia, and as far west as Egypt in ancient times. The Oud is said to have about 5000 years of history. It is difficult to ascertain what the Oud was really like in those days but according to some luthiers it is likely that the old Ouds were carved by hollowing out one or two pieces of wood for the bowl back shape.

According to ancient sources, the Oud was called Barbat in Farsi, and was transported by trade east and west. It found itself in the fringes of western China among the Turkish tribes there and is now incarnated as the modern Pipa of China, and the Biwa of Japan. These instruments still hold the general shape and contour of the original instrument. Also, the name Barbat is still phonetically related to Pipa, and Biwa. It was in the western trading cities that the first Chinese encountered the Barbat of the Persians and started learning and using the instrument.

According to Persian historians, before the Islamic conquest during the Sassanian period one of the most renowned court musicians played the Barbat. His name was Barbod and he played and sang with such skill that he could turn peoples tears to laughter, and laughter into slumber. A fantastic legend attributed to him occurred when the King Khosrow beloved horse Shabdiz fell ill. Khosrow’s sorrow was such that he threatened the bearer of the news of Shabdiz’s death with death as well. Upon Shabdiz’s death, none of the nobles dared tell the King the truth for fear of death. Barbod was told of the nobles plight and found it upon himself to devise a solution. The next time a court performance was summoned, Barbod sang and played a woeful tune, a true lament, and it was so sorrowful as to make the King say, “Hath Shabdiz died?”, upon hearing this, Barbod cried, “So it is! And it is the King that hath spoken!”

A form of Barbat had probably reached Mesopotamia sometime before the Islamic conquests of Iran. But following the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, the artistic and technological advancements the Iranians had cultivated under their civilization for so long took a second rebirth under the subsequent “golden age” of the Islamic Empire. The Arabs borrowed the Barbat, and called it Al-Oud, and it became the main instrument for the development of music. The Barbat fell out of use in Iran and no one really knows why. It is possible that certain instruments were more favoured in the courts or because of some religious sanction prohibited the instrument.

From this time forward I believe that more Turkish instruments came into use in Iran due to more the continuous establishment of Turkish tribes in the region. The use of longer necked lutes seems to have become popular. An evaluation of Central Asian Turkish instruments seems to point to this. Turkish instruments like Komuz/Kopuz, Dombra, when compared to Iranian Dotar, Setar, and Tar are more analogous from a technical standpoint than in comparison with the Oud. So it seems that Central Asian instruments influenced the music from this point onward into the modern age. The main instrument in the Persian music is now the Tar. Theory and composition tend to favour this instrument.

Music in Iran after the Islamic period always had a very tumultuous time. There were times when the interpretation of Islamic law would prohibit music causing music to go underground. In other times, such laws were loosened. Even in the modern period there was a renowned master of the Dotar, the late Haj Ghorban Soleimani, who upon being told by a cleric that music was prohibited, put down his Dotar and allowed it to languish. Later in his life, a different cleric asked Haj Ghorban why he didn’t play music any longer and the Haj Ghorban Soleimani relayed the same story. Thereupon, the cleric told Haj Ghorban to continue playing his music, and if this be a sin, he himself would carry the burden in the next life. So Haj Ghorban Soleimani continued to play and became a legend of the Dotar in North Eastern Iran.

In the last century, there were a few Oud players in Iran. A couple of note of the old generation were Mansur Nariman and Abdul Vahab Shadidi. Mansur Nariman went on to teach many of the young generation who are well established Oud players in Iran now. It was not before the last century that interest in the Oud began to kindle again. In the last 40 years, some of the best luthiers in Iran have been conducting research on old paintings of Barbat, and Oud to best reproduce the Barbat of old. There are at least three luthiers who have created unique designs based independent research: Majnun Karimov of Azerbaijan, Ebrahim Ghanbari Mehr of Iran, and Mohammed Arafati or Iran.

The modern Barbat differs from the modern Arabic Oud in a few respects. First, the shape and dimensions differ in that the bowl angle with the neck has been decreased allowing for smaller body and increased accessibility of the higher ranges of the neck. The shape of the bowl back has been made deeper and the width of the face has been lessened. This ultimately has created a different sound. It is a new sound, and it may or may not be the sound of the ancient Barbat, it is anyone’s guess. But it is a distinctly Iranian sound and an Iranian instrument. To recreate a distinctly Iranian version of the Oud was the whole goal of the project.

The most well known solo Iranian Barbat player in the world is most probably Hossein Behroozinia. Hossein Behroozinia began playing the Tar, but when he discovered that the Oud was once a dear part of Iranian music and culture he decided to dedicate his life to the redevelopment of the Barbat. If you listen to Hossein Behroozinia’s works his music is strictly Iranian in nature, there is not a trace from the Arabic tradition.

Because of these efforts the Arabic Oud and the Barbat are now once again part of the Iranian musical landscape. It will be for the next generation to decide where the future of this instrument lies.

Are you interested in learning the Barbat? Check out http://www.oudforguitarists.com for more information.

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