I attended the 2016 Arabic Music Retreat hosted by Simon Shaheen, and I had a great time. It was a great experience to spend a whole week with some of the greatest Arabic musicians.
The first character I met when I arrived there was Najib Shaheen, Simon Shaheen’s older brother. I like to call him Sultan-a-Soundboard… Because it seemed like every other Oud player at the retreat was playing an Oud that had a Najib soundboard. And believe me, he’s King of Soundboards.
Najib will take an Oud with any old bowl, and he’ll replace the soundboard with his own. He focuses on one thing, and does it extremely well. He doesn’t care about how the Oud looks, if it has a scratch here and there.
He cares about the sound.
Simon’s Oud Nahat is not completely Nahat. Najib took a Nahat bowl and refitted it with his own soundboard.
The Oudman tests out My Dimitri Rapakousious Oud
Najib Shaheen first asked me if he could take a look at my Oud. I was happy to have him take a look as I’m very proud of my dear luthier Dimitri from Greece.
He started to bang around on it, thumping out a few phrases of taqsim right in the lobby of the convention center as I was checking in. “I like it!”, he said. “It’s made very well. It feels good playing it too.” He seemed impressed when I told him that it was made by a Greek luthier.
He continued by mentioning that he doesn’t really like any of the Arabic Oud builders out there, citing the fact that there’s so much shoddy work, and he’s always doing repairs on Ouds that are just not made well.
He spoke about one time during repairs he discovered that a rosette that was wedged underneath one of the braces close to the sound hole.
“Even Nahats are no good, but sometimes you find a good one.”
“There’s only one Oud builder I really like, Ebrahim Sukar…”, explaining that he takes pride in his work, and builds Ouds very nicely.
In regards to my Oud he said, “It’s very nice, feels good, plays well, and has a good Arabic sound, but… it doesn’t have personality.”
I defended my Oud saying that the sound has matured and improved since I got it, and I thought it still has some maturing to do. “Maybe… maybe”, he said.
An Oud that sounds louder from a distance
Najib can easily be found in the lobby of the convention center chatting up everybody, playing Ouds. This time he had one of his own in his hands.
“Hey Navid, come look at this Oud, this is one of mine.”
It was a nice Oud. The soundboard looked very nice, and it sounded good. Deep and penetrating. It had his signature outline around the main soundboard with the names of Maqamat lining the sound hole.
But the bowl was unusual. It reminded me of one of those Egyptian gift shop Ouds with the flashy, cheap inlays.
“Did you make this inlay?”
“No, I don’t do this. I don’t make bowls. Just the soundboard, and work on the pegbox.”
I was very surprised. But after thinking about it, it makes perfect sense.
The sound and character of the Oud is mostly produced in the soundboard. I used to think that Ouds with bigger and deeper bowls sounded better, but after seeing another retreater’s Oud, I was proven wrong. More on this later…
He proceeded to demonstrate the Oud for me. It sounded ideal. Deep, boomy, bassy, and the treble strings cut like a knife. It had the nice round sound I always look for in an Oud.
“Go stand over there, I want you to listen to it.” he told me. So I stood at the other side of the lobby about 20-30 feet away, and I could hear it perfectly. The sound projected nicely.
“Ok, now come back here.” I then stood a few feet away from the Oud as he played, and believe it or not… it sounded quieter than when I was 20 feet away.
I was pretty baffled at this point and just amazed that I had never experienced this from an instrument before. And, that I had never really listened to an instrument from different distances before either.
It was as though the Oud was aiming to project the sound to the other side of the room.
So many retreaters are playing Najib’s soundboards
I started to get an eye for Najib’s soundboards and could tell from his workmanship which ones he worked on.
After seeing all these Ouds and Oud players around at the Arabic Music Retreat I soon realized that a whole bunch of them are playing his soundboards.
As I mentioned before, I used to think… the bigger the Oud, the better. But it’s not necessarily true.
One woman was playing a Najib Oud with a fairly shallow bowl, and the soundboard was a smaller width too. I got to try it out and it sounded superb.
Najib had been waiting around to salvage a smaller sized bowl for this woman and eventually he did. The result is just as good any other Oud.
Najib is repairing Ouds all the time. Once he repaired a really nice antique Oud for a client. After the repair was done, Najib liked his work so much that he offered to buy the Oud from the original owner!!!
Your next Oud
The next time I need to spend good money to buy a quality Oud, I must go to Najib. That would be a one-of-a-kind instrument. I already have an old beat up Oud sitting in storage that appears to have a decent bowl that I could refurbish.
Najib is expensive, but completely worth it. If you’re serious about getting an amazing Oud with personality, I highly recommend considering Najib Shaheen for your next high quality Oud.