10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks of Oud Performances I Can’t Do Without…by Jussi Reijonen

Jussi Reijonen. Photo credit: Luis Zavaleta

Born in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, having grown up in Jordan, Tanzania, Oman and Lebanon, and spending much of his adult life in the United States, fretted/fretless guitarist and oud player Jussi Reijonen has lived a life soaking up the sounds, sights, scents and shades of Nordic, Middle Eastern, African and American cultures, all of which are reflected in his work as composer and performer. 

He has collaborated with a diverse array of artists including Jack DeJohnette, Pepe de Lucía, David Fiuczynski, Simon Shaheen, Bassam Saba, Arto Tunçboyacıyan, Dave Weckl, Hüsnu Şenlendirici and the New York Gypsy All-Stars, Eric Vloeimans, and others. 

His latest album Three Seconds | Kolme Toista, an epic transcultural suite in five movements, will be released on 14 October on Challenge Records International and features his new nonet with Jason Palmer, Bulut Gülen, Layth Sidiq, Naseem Alatrash, Utar Artun, Kyle Miles, Keita Ogawa and Vancil Cooper.

Having become enamored of the sound of the oud or ‘ud – an 11-string fretless Arabic lute which is an ancestor of the guitar – early on, Jussi counts as his mentors on the instrument and Arabic music Simon Shaheen, Najib Shaheen, Bassam Saba, Nizar Rohana and Ziyad Sahhab. For this edition of the series, he chose ten recordings of oud performances that have influenced his musical path the most.

Transliteration from Arabic to the Latin alphabet is in many cases open to subjective interpretation, causing variation in the Latin spelling of the names of artists and pieces. For example, the renowned musician فريد الأطرش can be found as Farid el-Atrache, Farid al-Atrash, and many other variants; this applies to the romanized transliterations of all examples below as well.

A maqam (plural maqamat) is a melodic mode of Arabic music whose behavior adheres to hierarchical and phraseological relationships between its pitches. While some maqamat like Nahawand can sound somewhat similar to Western modes in their intervallic structure, others such as Rast, Bayati, Hijaz, or Huzam contain microtonal pitches not found within the framework of twelve-tone equal temperament. 

A taqsim (plural taqasim) refers to an instrumental improvisation in Arabic music, either in free time or in a metric context. It is common for a taqsim to begin in one maqam, modulate to others as it progresses, and return to its original maqam through a melodic cadence called a qafla.

1. Farid al-Atrash: Taqsim from “Al-Rabieh”

This was the first taqsim I remember consciously hearing, and it is one that always brings me back to the sounds of my childhood in the Middle East. Farid al-Atrash’s playing – and singing – has something magical in it. This taqsim highlights all the signatures of his style, but what I’ve always been the most attracted to is the unique accenting and elasticity in his rhythmic phrasing. He is probably the original reason I’ve personally always been more partial to the Arabic schools of oud playing than Turkish or Armenian, for instance – as deep and beautiful as they both also are in their own right.

2. Muhammad al-Qasabji: “Zikrayati”

 “Zikrayati” is a very famous instrumental piece in Arabic music repertoire by the Egyptian Muhammad al-Qasabji, who also composed many major works for the legendary vocalist Umm Kulthum. This solo performance features a breathtaking taqsim in maqam Bayati midway through the piece, before returning to the through-composed sections. I’ve learned so much about microtonal intonation, language and phrasing from al-Qasabji, and the way he constructs the arc of this improvisation is just incredible. (Unfortunately this recording is unavailable on the internet.)

3. Riyad al-Sunbati: Al Atlal

While this piece composed by al-Sunbaty is perhaps best known as performed by Umm Kulthum with her larger ensemble, to me there’s something very intimate and special about this recording where the composer himself plays and sings the piece, solo. It’s beautiful to hear how he is able to convey the feeling of a full ensemble with just the oud. Note the microtone as the tonic of the piece – gorgeous.

4. Simon Shaheen: Sama’I Kurd

I owe so much to Simon, who I’m fortunate to count among my mentors on my path learning the oud. This performance is Simon’s original composition in the sama’i form, which is a type of rondo with four verses and a refrain in between. In his taqsim before the 7/8 final verse I hear echoes of Farid’s influence, but his command of the instrument, tone and ideas are something completely unique to him. Unbelievable.

5. Munir Bashir: Taqsim from Maqam Segah

Being born on the Arctic Circle, I’ve always gravitated towards open spaces, also in my approach to music. To me, Munir Bashir, who is considered the father of the Iraqi school of oud playing, represents an aesthetical bridge between the Middle East and Lapland: the way he approaches sound and silence makes me feel twice at home, as if I were in two places simultaneously. The microtones in this improvisation give me goosebumps every time.

6. Ahmad al-Khatib: Furatayn

Such a beautiful player and composition. Although Palestinian, Ahmad sounds to me very influenced also by the Munir Bashir school of Iraqi oud playing, which you can hear in this piece in his sound, the tuning of the oud, and phrasing. His expressive control of intonation and his gentle but determined touch on the instrument is on a whole other level. An absolute virtuoso.

7. Nizar Rohana: Safsaf Abyad (White Willow)

Nizar is a dear friend and mentor, also from Palestine. What I love about his playing is I always hear a composer’s mind at work, even when he is improvising. His approach to form, arc and pacing is really something special, as this piece demonstrates. There’s a clarity of direction in his playing that is something I’ll always be reaching for.

8. Abdullah al-Ruwaished: Ya Qu Sabry

I was first introduced to the khaliji music of the Persian Gulf by a Kuwaiti friend who played me this piece by oud player and vocalist Abdullah al-Ruwaished, also from Kuwait. More than anything else, the groove and the rhythmic phrasing just floor me every time I hear it. The way the oud and percussion interact rhythmically is so deliciously elastic, it reminds me in many ways of my favorite hip hop MCs pushing and pulling against the beat. Check out Jay-Z’s “The year’s ’94…” verse in “99 Problems” for a comparison.

9. Hamza el Din: The Waterwheel

Hamza el Din is in a league of his own in my books. Being from further south in Nubia, his style is quite different than any of the other players on this list. I hear so many different influences in his music. A very meditative piece that I could spend days on end listening to on repeat.

10. Bassam Saba: Taqsim Oud, live in New York:

I cannot make a list such as this without mentioning my mentor Bassam Saba, who we lost to Covid during the pandemic. Although known primarily as a virtuoso nay player, he was a conductor and multi-instrumentalist, who was also a brilliant oud player. It’s interesting to me how in this improvisation he consciously quotes many phrases from Farid al-Atrash’s famous taqasim, but then goes off into other territory. To me it sounds almost as if he’s taking Farid’s signature flamenco-inspired pedal tone ideas closer to “The Waterwheel”, above. This performance was filmed right before he took me in and I joined the New York Arabic Orchestra in 2011. A man with a huge heart whose memory and guidance I will carry with me forever.

LINK: Jussi Reijonen’s website

1 reply »

  1. Great choices!
    I used to play with Nizar Rohana (No 7) We had a residency at Askadinya restaurant in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem very near the Old City every Thursday evening for about 6 years 🙂

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