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Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Yin, Yang and Oud: when two musicians play on one instrument

Not only do Ghassan Al-Youssef and Dina Abdel-Hamid play on one oud, they also share a philosophy of life that embraces peace and meditation as tools supporting mental and physical practice

Maria K., Sunday 23 Aug 2015
Ghassan Al-Youssef, Dina Abdel-Hamid
Ghassan Al-Youssef and Dina Abdel-Hamid (Photo: Malak El-Awady)
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It was a natural standing ovation, as everyone got up with their smartphones and cameras to film the much anticipated piece - two musicians playing one oud. Ghassan Al-Youssef kept the super hit until the very end of their programme in the Open Theatre of the Cairo Opera on 21 August.

Sitting side by side and handling the instrument gently like a baby, the couple looked so relaxed and natural you even stop realising how much concentration and coordination is required for this performance.

Dina Abdel-Hamid is the left hand and Ghassan Al-Youssef is the right. She holds the notes on the neck of the instrument and he explores the sound with the risha (a tool that works like a pick). If one makes a mistake, both fail.

But these musicians feel each other like circus artists on a flying trapeze. During the evening, they started with the classic Ya Salat el Zein and moved on through many other compositions, culminating with Biladi, Biladi, Egypt's national anthem, which concluded the concert.

After the performance, the musicians revealed to Ahram Online that the task was even more difficult than the audience could imagine.

"We played a different piece from what we prepared for," Al-Youssef commented.

"In fact, we were rehearsing Ana fi Intizarak (I'm waiting for you), but then on stage I felt I wanted to give a message of peace to Egyptians. So I chose another item, which is a prayer for peace."

Strictly speaking, the two-in-one number, which the couple claims as their own invention, has been demonstrated before by a number of artists.

In a country with no shortage of oud players -- good oud players and brilliant oud players -- one has to be really inventive to surprise the audience. Playing the oud with one hand, virtuosity on a single string, turning the oud into a double bass, gathering a large orchestra of ouds - the audience has seen it all.

Dina Abdel-Hamid
Dina Abdel-Hamid (Photo: Malak El-Awady)


However, for Al-Youssef and Abdel-Hamid, playing on one oud is not a mere advertising point, but the tip of the iceberg for an entire lifestyle.

First of all, they both believe that men and women have an equal right and ability to play the instrument.

"In Arab society the oud is mostly an instrument for men. But in reality it is for both," Al-Youssef observes.

Abdel-Hamid agrees, "we both have hands, we both have brain and a sense of tempo."

Both started learning music at a tender age – Al-Youssef started at eight, Abdel-Hamid at nine – but then the society divides their roles in life. Girls grow up, marry, have babies, need to take care of the family and simply cannot handle both music and daily life anymore.

"It is a gift of God that Hassan is also a musician and he understands I need to have my privacy and time for practice," Abdel-Hamid says of her husband.

Al-Youssef's support allows the lady musician to continue with her four-hour daily practice routine, which she is used to from early childhood.

"Yes, I help her, I do the dishes," Al-Youssef adds smiling.

"Not all the time, but before the concerts, yes," Dina clarifies.

Being among the first students to graduate from Naseer Shamma’s Beit Al Oud (The House of Oud) in Cairo about 16 years ago, today the couple feels they have a legacy to carry into the future.

"We are the second generation after Shamma, and now we are developing the third one. It is our aim to build a new generation of oud players, both boys and girls," Al-Youssef explains.

In their own institution in New Cairo, House of Music and Arts, Abdel-Hamid prefers to teach girls. One of them, nine-year-old Rawan, also performed with the couple during the evening at the Opera House.

Rawan
Rawan (Photo: Malak El-Awady)

Apart from the musical technique, what the couple seeks to show through teaching and performing is a philosophy comprised of Islam as a religion of peace, yoga as physical and mental practice and popular "new age" ideas.

Al-Youssef experiments with pranic healing and tuning his C pitch to the frequency of 528 Hz, which he believes works directly with the heart chakra (centre of love and compassion).

"One of my compositions is called Gandhi, it works on this frequency. I play it and feel that the audience is feeling love and happiness in their hearts," he explains.

Yoga maintains a healthy posture, which is especially important for oud players who often suffer from lower back problems. Meditation helps to clarify the mind, slow down the heartbeat and get into a relaxed state required for musical practice. It is also useful for addressing emotional issues common in the artistic community.

“We used to be jealous of other peoples’ work, but not anymore,” the couple comment.

Both musicians attribute that achievement to regular yoga and meditation practice that they have done for the last six years together two to three times a week, and a healthy lifestyle.

One could also say that as this man/woman duet secured their place in the world of oud through uniqueness, there isn’t much competition to fear.

The obvious mastermind of the duo, senior to Abdel-Hamid in age and music by some ten years, Al-Youssef allows his wife to express herself both on stage and in the interview as a gentleman.

"I used to be the leader, but for the last two-three years we are both the leaders," he says.

"She understands me from one stroke of the risha, without words."

Abdel-Hamid supports his word with a charming smile.

If music brings more peace and understanding at least to one household, it is all worth the effort.

Ghassan Al-Youssef
Ghassan Al-Youssef (Photo: Malak El-Awady)

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