Elias Jubran: Maker of Magical Instruments

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Jubran was first acquainted with the oud, his favorite instrument, thanks to his neighbor.

By: Rasha Hilwi

Published Friday, July 6, 2012

Palestinian instrument-maker Elias Jubran learned how to make the oud and other instruments virtually on his own – a talent he was born with. He recounts the story of his beginnings to Al-Akhbar.

Elias Jubran has spent many long years in the small room beneath his house in Rameh, a village in the Galilee, northern Palestine.

The “musical operations room” – as he calls it – is packed with ouds and many other types of string instruments. But around a year ago Jubran abandoned it, when his deteriorating health forced him to retire from making musical instruments.

He was first acquainted with the oud, his favorite instrument, thanks to his neighbor. “In 1954, when I was a young man, I heard music coming from the house of our neighbor Jad. I followed the sound until I found him playing the oud on the balcony of his home,” he said.

“He had a piece of paper in front of him that did not seem to have anything to do with musical notation. On the paper, the writing said “third finger, one strum; second string, two strums.” It was the tune of the song Marmar Zamani, Jubran recalled.

Jubran took the oud from his neighbor, and started humming the song and playing the instrument without having had any previous experience. “I learned by observing Jad’s fingers as they plucked the strings.”

He has been fond of the instrument ever since that moment. Jubran borrowed his neighbor’s oud for two weeks, during which he was able to learn to play 10 folklore songs often heard at weddings.

When the two weeks were over, Jubran had to return the instrument. He decided to get his own oud, but did not have enough money for that, as its price was anywhere from 200 to 500 liras (the equivalent of three salaries at the time). In the end, he had to sacrifice a little, and make do with a violin he bought for just 19 liras. After he took it home, he tuned it to play like an oud.

Later he decided to study music, but the only way he could achieve that was to gather seven youths from the village who also wanted to study music. The eight of them chipped in to hire a tutor to teach them.

For two months, Jubran attended weekly music lessons given by Sidqi Shukri. But eight lessons later, he decided to leave the group and study music on his own.

Jubran said, “I would ask anyone who travelled to bring back a book about music, even if it is in Hindi.” Why? “Because in the Palestinian territories, we were cut off from the Arabs and the outside world; we couldn’t get music books from abroad,” he replied.

In 1959, Jubran married, and moved with his wife Nuhad to Acre, to live in a rooftop home near the port. He took a job at a factory near Acre that paid 300 liras a month.

Although he still had the violin, it did not quench his desire for an oud. But he could not face paying a month’s salary for a new one. “I decided to make my own oud,” Jubran said. He then spent 6 months designing and creating his own instrument, which he has since lost, as he told Al-Akhbar with an air of sorrow.

After consulting with a relative of his, he bought the wooden pieces required to make the instrument. Thus began Jubran’s journey of making his first oud, relying on what he remembered about the one he once borrowed from his neighbor Jad.

He would work on his oud project after coming back from work at four or five in the afternoon. After he completed the instrument’s ribs and the face — as well as the ins and outs of its body — it was time to install the pegs.

Jubran — whose children Khalid and Camelia are also now musicians — went to a carpenter’s shop in Acre, and asked the owner to make him 12 pegs after sketching their shape for him. On the next day, he went back, picked them up, and paid 12 liras. “That was more than my daily salary,” Jubran joked.

After installing the pegs on the oud’s neck, he went to Haifa to buy the strings from al-Muluk Street, and then back to his home in Acre. He slotted the strings into the instrument and then tuned it.

By that time, six months had passed since he began making it. “It is difficult to describe how I felt; I was above the clouds,” Jubran proclaims.

Jubran later branched out from oud making, producing his first bouzouk after a request from his son. “Khalid asked me once to make him a bouzouk. I did not know how to make one, but I still pulled it off at the first attempt,” he said.

As regards the qanun, according to Jubran, “the credit goes to a friend from Nazareth who asked me to fix a problem he had with one.” Before that, Jubran had never even touched one. “After venturing into it, and discovering the ‘inner world’ of the qanun, I managed to repair the instrument, and then to make them!”

Jubran even moved away from Arabic instruments, introducing innovations to guitars back in the eighties, when the instrument was riding on a wave of popularity. “Everybody wanted to be like [famed Egyptian electric guitarist] Omar Khorshid in Palestine,” according to the oud-maker.

What happened was that a young man asked Jubran to make him a guitar but he told him he did not know how. Then, an idea came to him: he should “orientalize” the guitar. So he brought one, and installed four metal pieces in the guitar’s neck to modify the sound. This allowed anyone with knowledge of musical keys to play this “oriental guitar.”

Jubran does not believe there are schools of oud-making that are better than others. It has more to do with the correct dimensions of the instrument: the thickness of the wood, the ribs and the face of the oud, and the distribution of the bridges inside that cannot be seen from outside, according to Jubran.

He added that “it is a mistake to differentiate between an Iraqi, Syrian or a Gulf oud.” Jubran then criticized al-Nahhat’s ouds, started by Elias Abdo al-Nahhat (1902-1993), and Ali Khalifa’s ouds (both Syrian). “They became too commercial,” Jubran said. According to him, it is rare today to find an instrument that suits the sincere desire of the oud-player.

After Khalid was born, Jubran returned to Rameh in late 1965. There, he built a house and started giving music lessons in his home, while continuing to make and repair ouds. Then in 1967, he was hired as a teacher of music at the school of Rameh, where he composed and wrote many songs.

Although he grew up in a family that did not care about music, and was even against it, according to Jubran, he managed to impart his skill to his four children, Khalid, Camelia, Rabee, and Rawya.

We know the first three as famous musicians, but what about Rawya? Jubran says that she has a beautiful voice, but did not choose to become a professional musician, preferring instead to keep her talent to herself and the family.

Rabee, in addition to being a musician, inherited his father’s skills in making instruments. But Jubran says that he does not want this to be Rabee’s profession. “I taught him some secrets so he can fix his brother’s instrument when needed,” Jubran explained.

Khalid’s first word, spoken when he was still one, was “duq-oud” (play-oud), merging two words he had often heard at home. Often the child could only sleep when he heard his father play.

Jubran recounted that, “once, a neighbor died in Acre. So throughout the days of mourning, I had to close all the windows in the house, even in the hottest days, so I could play to Khalid to get him to sleep!”

Camelia’s journey also started thanks to her father, as well as her mother, who used to hum her children to sleep. She would hum songs by Umm Kulthum, which Camelia came to memorize.

Today, Jubran spends his time at home, sometimes listening to Umm Kulthum, and others to Koran reciters such as Abdul Basit Abdul Samad, Mohamed Siddiq al-Minshawi and Mohamed Refaat.

“Tajwid [recital of the Koran] represents the height of musical art,” Jubran said, adding, “those three can sing without music, something that not many can do.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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