A genius bows out

Said Chraibi was famous throughout Morocco as an icon of traditional music and a genius with the Arab lute. The virtuoso oud player died in Casablanca on 3 March at the age of 65. An obituary by Suleman Taufiq

By Suleman Taufiq

Said Chraibi was born into a respected Marrakesh family in 1951. The Moroccans praise his city as ″the pearl of the south″ and it boasts a richly sophisticated musical tradition. The reputation of Marrakesh as a centre of music extends far beyond the borders of Morocco.

Said Chraibi grew up in this city, where music and other arts meant more than mere entertainment. For him and many of his listeners, music represented hope, a feeling of coming together, trance and even healing.

His family allowed him to develop his talent as a musician from a very early age. He first came across the oud, an Arab instrument similar to a lute, at the age of twelve. It was love at first sight and the young Chraibi was fascinated by its shape and sound.

His family wanted him to learn a ″decent″ trade, so he trained as an export clerk. Shortly after qualifying, though, he quit his job and decided to devote himself entirely to music.

A passionate autodidact

Said Chraibi was an autodidact; his musical skill developed through listening and intensive practice. It was his passion for music that made him a seminal oud player and composer, an artist whose music was listened to outside his own country. He was known as Morocco’s sound poet.

Chraibi’s professional career began in 1979. He went on to publish more than 500 compositions, including pieces for vocalists, taqsim (improvisation), soloists, Oriental orchestras, symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles. Many Moroccan voices benefited from his compositions. His passion for melodies brought him great respect in the Moroccan music world.

His international breakthrough came when Chraibi won the “golden plectrum” at an oud competition in Iraq in 1986. He went on to tour North Africa and the Middle East and appeared at the famous Festival of World Sacred Music in Fez.

Said Chraibi’s musical originality consisted above all of an outstanding instrumental technique, combined with a very special balance, one that respected his country’s musical traditions but also allowed creative curiosity stimulated by international musical influences.

Chraibi′s openness to an entire gamut of musical possibilities made him one of the most interesting ambassadors of Moroccan music and one of its most important innovators. He was regarded in the Arab world as the great oud virtuoso, embodying a particular school of playing and a role model for many oud players in Morocco. Musicians like Said Chraibi are often happy to take inspiration from traditional music to develop their own modern style.

Synthesis of Andalusian, Turkish and Persian influences

In later life he began to discover new musical genres that were related to Arabic music, originating in India, Turkey and Iran, for instance. He also strove to gain recognition for his heritage of Andalusian Arabic music. Chraibi was a top musician of international standing. He represented the Moroccan Andalusian school and also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Arabic, Turkish and Persian maqam.

Said Chraibi used his music to build bridges between cultures. He worked intensively on the theory and practice of commonalities between Arabic, Andalusian, Turkish and Persian music. He wrote compositions embodying a synthesis of these cultures.

His music is characterised, for instance, by its particular diversity and colour, owed partly to his excursions into world music. Yet the elements of the Moroccan tradition remain prevalent in his music and are unmistakeable. They do not conceal their origins but are multiply refracted and became marked by his personal style over the years. Nonetheless, his music is outside many conventions and significantly expanded the possibilities of the oud.

In comparison to many other Oriental instruments, the oud embodies Arab culture. Many Arabs feel a touch of nostalgia and tenderness in the instrument’s sound.

With his oud music, Chraibi succeeded in reaching a large audience in the Arab world and in Europe. His technique and his melodies showed that the oud really does possess an inexhaustible reservoir of possibilities. Over the years, Chraibi developed his own technique and composed new pieces that further illuminated his instrument’s broad spectrum.

Free from convention

In the Arabic music scene, the tradition of playing concerts on a solo instrument emerged later than elsewhere. Music is almost always coupled with vocals, with the lute generally only heard as part of an ensemble in the Arab world. Lutists traditionally only play a taqsim, a form of improvisation, as an introduction to a concert.

Chraibi wanted to show that the oud really does possess inexhaustible possibilities. He moved away from the traditional forms of Arabic instrumental music, clothing his music in new forms and taking on new, serious content. He played modern compositions on the oud without leaving the foundations of Arabic music.

To keep Arab listeners fascinated for a long period or even win audiences for an entire solo oud concert, musicians had to let go of traditional forms and develop a new style.

Said Chraibi was a proponent of liberating the oud from its role as an accompanying instrument.

This openness in all directions made the musician Said Chraibi one of the most interesting representatives of Moroccan music. With his death, the Arabic music world has lost a great artist and an original composer.

Suleman Taufiq 

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire