Listening to Omar Bashir in concert is like taking a whistle-stop musical journey around the world. “In two hours, I can take the audience with my oud from Turkey to Iraq, pass through Syria and Morocco and then enter Spain and Hungary before touching down in France,” Bashir said.
Bashir attributes the cross-cultural influences in his music to his family background; he is the son of a Hungarian mother and his Iraqi father is the celebrated oud player Mounir Bashir. It’s an upbringing which gave him a privileged insight into two different cultures. “I feel lucky because I come from Iraq, the cradle of most musical scales and keys and I also come from Hungary which boasts a great musical history,” Bashir said.
Music – the oud in particular – runs deep in the Bashir family. Along with his father, Bashir’s uncle is also a noted oud musician. Rather than just following in their considerable footsteps, however, Bashir has taken his music one step further by mixing oriental sounds with classical, Latin, Spanish, Indian and Gypsy tunes. “I wanted to show the world that the oud is capable of playing and improvising with any Western folk musical instrument from Japan to America because it has a rich musical history,” he said.
Bashir has travelled around the world spending several months in China, Japan, India and Spain studying the folk music of each country. He even lived with Spanish gypsies for eight months to study flamenco. “This was a very important experience because the gypsies are the people who play real flamenco, but they don’t allow anyone easily into their lives,” he said.
Under Rotana Records, Bashir’s album The Latin Oud rose to number six in the Arab music charts. The album’s unique sound soon attracted attention from outside the Arab world and Bashir went on to sign a contract for the same album with EMI, an international music label with stars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna on its list. Another album, The Civilizations’ Voice, combined Iraqi keys with Indian violins. When DJs remixed the tracks on the album, Bashir’s oud introduced new sounds into the world of techno and house music.
The world-famous French group, The Gipsy Kings, are such fans of his music that they allowed him to adapt one of their songs to put on his album for free. “I rewrote the song on my oud and asked them for the rights,” Bashir said. “When they heard it they said it was an honour to have their song on my album.”
With 18 albums out on the market and numerous concerts sold out all over the world, Bashir is taking the international music scene by storm. He regrets, however, that a form of “music prostitution” is developing in the Arab entertainment industry, whereby production companies are increasingly forsaking the value of good music for quick profits. Bashir believes that the commercial songs flooding the radio and TV stations today are drugging the younger generation like morphine. “It’s a war against culture,” he said. “When a war destroys a country, you can rebuild the houses and infrastructure, but when it destroys the minds and tastes of a whole generation, it takes at least two generations to recover.”
Whilst production companies claim they are only responding to the market’s demands, Bashir believes that people still enjoy listening to non-commercial music; they just need a chance to hear it. “When Rotana produced my album it proved a bestseller, overcoming the famous Lebanese singer Alissa,” he explained.
Bashir explained that a lack of sophisticated auditoriums boasting decent acoustics in the Middle East causes many problems for Arab musicians when they perform in concert. In addition, the shortage of workshops for making fine-quality instruments today further limits their performances. “There’s a tendency towards singing rather than instrumental music in the Arab world, that’s disastrous because music comes from here,” he said.
Bashir also believes that the West seems to appreciate Arab art more than Arabs themselves. He explained that unbeknown to many, Western music scales and keys actually originate from the East. Furthermore, Bashir claims that many Western instruments were born out of the Eastern oud, zither, rebec and flute. He also referred to a French study which concludes that the oud is the origin of all musical instruments in the world.
Today, the Bashir family’s music is renowned in the West. Bashir’s music is even used to treat prisoners suffering from depression in New York’s biggest prison, whilst his father’s music is used at a hospital in Switzerland as therapy for expectant mothers and their babies.
This year, Bashir has already performed six concerts in Spain, France, Hungary and Morocco. He is also set to perform in Syria as part of Damascus as Arab Capital of Culture 2008.
Bashir explains that despite the high acclaim he has received throughout his career, his father’s recognition has meant the most to him. “My father never praised me,” he explains. “He always concentrated on my points of weakness. It was only a month before he passed away, after my flamenco concert, that he told me that I was great and he would not guide me anymore. He consigned the oud to me and I want to live up to it.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.