Mood of Oud: Michael Onsy presents his project at Cairo's Goethe Institute

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 2 Aug 2022

Michael Onsy’s project Halet Oud – which might be translated as Mood for Oud – centres on the artist’s instrument, the oud, through which he expresses his thoughts and emotions in unique creative gestures supported by other instrumentalists.

Michael Onsy s project Halet Oud / Photo: Inas Gohar
Michael Onsy s project Halet Oud / Photo: Inas Gohar


Most recently, on 21 July, the audience was able to experience Onsy’s magic during a concert that took place at the Goethe Institute in Dokky. It was the final evening in this season’s Shubbak El-Fann, the Goethe programme that aims to give Egyptian artists from all walks of life a platform to present their work, be it music, dance, visual art, film or anything else.

Mood of Oud’s concert benefitted from the space, a garden where the audience had the chance to relax on beanbags in front of the stage. The performance featured Onsy on oud, Feras Nouh on keyboards, Cherif Ramez on bass guitar and Hany Bedair on percussions. Onsy says his music has a chill-out scent, and this made the garden atmosphere perfect for it.

“Mood for Oud is not a band. To me it is a project, an idea based on my approach to oud and to life,” Onsy explains. Through his original compositions, performed by the ensemble, he tackles a range of emotions and mind states; he delves into the human condition and all kinds of situations that take place in life; he speaks about choice, divine intervention, persistence and other themes.

The oud player’s journey with the instrument had begun in 2005 when he obtained his first oud as a present from his father. “One day I told my father that I’d love to have a oud – to me it was more of a joke than a serious request. Then I was surprised to see him actually buying one for me. Once I took hold of my oud, though, I immediately fell in love with it.”

Onsy began searching for the ways to develop his skills, listening to recordings of the Iraqi oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma and others. He enrolled in the Cairo’s Beit El Oud (or Oud House), founded by Shamma, though initially not fully committed to the academic path. As he continued to develop, however, the urge to study properly kept growing. “In early 2015 I decided to take my oud studies seriously. I became a committed student and graduated from the Oud House with excellence in late 2017.”

A series of concerts and tours followed, in which he played with different troupes, many led by Shamma. Alongside this, Onsy began composing his own music until, in 2019, his trajectory converged on Mood for Oud. The project involves three core musicians besides Onsy: Fady Ezzat on percussions, Emad Sidhom on bass guitar, and Feras Nouh on keyboard. But the concept keeps things open to other musicians as well.

“At Goethe we performed as a quartet, with Cherif Ramez and Hany Bedeir joining us for the evening. Over the past three years, a number of great musicians have crossed paths with Mood of Oud.”

That evening the musicians performed six out of Onsy’s most recent 14 compositions, each with its own theme. “Promise”, for example, is Onsy’s pledge to himself to be a better person. “By You I Live” addresses his relationship with God, while “Dream” talks about everyone’s dream of achieving something or other and how it might change from an image to reality. “New Beginning” is about how things start, “Don’t Give Up” addresses negative thoughts, and “Life” – which Onsy composed for his three-year-old son – establishes a reservoir of memories.

With oud, bass guitar, percussions and keyboards, those themes were universally expressed to reach the audience. Each piece was preceded by a few words to put the listeners in the right frame of mind. Onsy’s topics are personal and subjective but, expressed in music, they become not only universal but open to interpretation. Such openness and intimacy is probably Onsy’s edge in the highly competitive musical environment. His work bridges east and west and reaches across generations. There is something for everyone.

“Oud is a very rich instrument,” Onsy emphasises. “Being a fretless instrument, it has boundless musical abilities. While it is often identified with the Oriental music, oud can be fused easily to many genres, crossing the borders of Turkish, Iranian and Egyptian traditional expressions and moving towards modern formations, jazz bands, and others.”

He explains that since the instrument’s fingerboard is not limited to semitones, its range of tonalities is endless, easily incorporating quarter tones and allowing the performer to toy with intervals as well. An offspring of the lute, its illustrious ancestor, the Arabic oud was absorbed by many cultures, and became the “king, sultan or emir of musical instruments.”

No wonder, since its warm sound attracts the listeners and composers alike, adding crucial lining to many compositions or enchanting the ear with its solo abilities.

But Mood for Oud is much younger too, with bass guitar as one of its pillars. In fact, while probing the musical possibilities, Onsy often incorporates other instruments as well, making Mood for Oud a multi-dimensional experience.

“Our first concert, in 2019, was at the Room Arts Space and Café. We were a trio: oud, bass guitar and percussion. I later added keyboard, and other instruments depending on the concert,” Onsy clarifies.

In the over 15 concerts that Mood for Oud has given across Cairo and Alexandria in the last five years, the largest number of musicians on stage were nine. Even if, on one occasion, the ensemble was joined by a vocalist performing two tracks, Mood for Oud relies mostly on Onsy’s instrumental compositions, sometimes supplemented with songs drawn from the classical repertoire – such as pieces sung by Umm Kalthoum – yet arranged to Onsy’s purposes.

In Egyptian music maintaining a purely instrumental project is far from easy, but Onsy has managed to keep the project going, attracting enough of an audience to consider releasing an album, “the first in a two-volume CD” he envisages. As Onsy clarifies, he is already thinking of taking this step, searching for opportunities and support. But until that happens, listeners can enjoy the music live. Mood for Oud’s next concert will take place at El Sawy Culturewheel, on Monday 8 August.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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