AUTHOR: ELLEN GRANT
*ALL VIEWS ARE THOSE OF THE WRITERS AND CONTRIBUTORS OF THIS BLOG
Ahmed Alshaiba is a Yemeni musician, now based in New York. He initially rose to prominence after posting videos of himself covering modern, Western pop songs, such as ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran, on the oud. The oud is a traditional string instrument, similar to a lute and most commonly used in Western Asia and North Africa. Although it was his versions of contemporary songs that first garnered attention, Ahmed’s own original songs have also attracted millions of views, and he is currently working on a debut album of his own compositions.
Ahmed was born and raised in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and is the youngest of 8 children. Whilst his devotion to his craft is undeniable now, he admits that before he learned how to play the oud, he would turn off the television whenever he heard it playing. When he was 14, his sister travelled to Egypt and brought an oud back for his brother, who was equally uninterested and discarded the instrument until it started to gather dust. One day, a friend of the family visited and attempted to teach the boys the basics, and Ahmed quickly went from hating the instrument to being fascinated with it and the sounds that he could create. ‘Every day was like an adventure’, he recalls. From then on, he began to teach himself to play by ear.
Whilst obviously gifted with a natural talent, he still had to dedicate hours to his practice, at times even skipping school to do so. This devotion is evident in his playing today. His fingers are nimble and deft on the ancient instrument, which is one of the oldest stringed instruments in the world. The exact roots of the oud are uncertain; some believe that it can be traced back to as early as 3200 B.C., although it is more generally accepted that it appeared in its most common form in A.D. 224 to A.D. 651. When Ahmed plays, it has a transportive effect. It is hard not to imagine the stories that must have been narrated by similar strings over the years. It is Ahmed’s ability to play the oud so emotively, and imbue any song with a sense of history and profundity, that has gained him such a loyal following.
One of his favourite things about the instrument, Ahmed says, is its pear-shaped body, the curves of which means he must hug it close while he plays, allowing the notes to reverberate through his chest. This connection to the music translates to his audience and his passion for the oud radiates. Ahmed moved to the United States from Yemen at the age of 22. Perhaps his interpretations of modern pop songs were a way for him to connect his new world with his old. Regardless, whether playing the work of others or performing his own songs, the beauty of Ahmed Alshaiba’s music is that it has the ability to traverse generations, linking the contemporary and the traditional, the East and the West.