March 2006


“When invented, Music has only gained its value and assets from being the spirit means for approaching God. For this reason, I want my music to remain the spirit of humanity through expansion and extension of the human soul” Naseer Shamma

The Arabic lute is a beautiful string instrument – similarly to the violin it’s fretless – so you have no excuse – you must use your ear to play it and find all those notes- half notes and quarter notes that make up an Arabic maqam.

While I was staying in Tunis, every day on my way to my Arabic classes I walked past Amina Srarfi’s music school. Having been playing the violin since I was 7 – I always tried to peep through the windows and see how Arabic kids learn music – I was wondering if it was different from the way I used to learn the violin in Hungary. The interesting thing was – whenever I heard kids play the violin – they seem to have been playing many of the classical melodies I used to learn at the conservatoir.

When I managed to find an open window – this is what I saw:

This went on for months – I walked past the building trying to catch a melody or an open window to see what is happening inside – and one day – I decided to walk right in and went to see Amina Srarfi – the director of the school. I told her I’d like to learn music and told her about my musical background – so she agreed.

I was really excited – I decided – I was going to learn the lute.

But there was a problem. I didn’t have one. Lutes were very expensive – especially when one is a poor student – barely surviving on hostel food. So I decided I’d call my aunty and I’d tell her that things were tough and I need money. It worked – she sent me money and I rushed to buy my lute. I know this was really not nice of me – but once I saw the lute – I forgot all about this – you will know once you see one – lutes are beautiful instruments – and now I owned one.

Then my Arabic music studies started. I had a lute teacher and I also studied music theory. Both were new and exciting to learn since Arabic music differs so much from European classical music.During the theory classes we learnt about different maqams.

Instead of learning songs or complete compositions – we started first with a scale – in other words we learnt the notes in a specific scale (maqam) – some scales only had 2-3 notes some had more. And these notes were written down and given to us. The first step of learning scales was to be able to sing the notes. Then each scale also had its own rhythm structure – we turned over our lutes and practised tapping the rhythm on the back of the lutes. Once we got used to the notes and rhythm patterns of a maqam, then the teacher demonstrated the maqam by improvising on his lute – the improvisation was based on the maqam we were busy with. This was a revolutionary difference for me – when it comes to learning music. In my music schools in Hungary we simply learned given sonatas written on paper – we didn’t focus that much on the scale itself or the rhythm – all we did was play the notes on the paper – every time the same notes – again – and again.

Here is an example – from Maqamworld.com :

With time I started to get used to the school, the lute players and the maqams – in a way it all reminded me of the weekly evenings I spent with the Calcutta trio back in Budapest – since the way they explained about Indian ragas were similar to the way I was learning the maqams.

Once I got to know more music students I also visited the main conservatoire in town.It was in the conservatoire where I heard about the famous Iraqi lute player – Naseer Shamma – for the first time.

He was teaching lute there – and I decided to try to attend his classes and listen to how he is teaching. His classes were very interesting – since he was teaching advanced students – they all played at a very high level. Reading music was never part of the training – most of the time Naseer and his students focused on a specific sequence of notes, learned different hand positions – different ways of playing the same note. Once they spent some time with the notes themselves – they started improvising on the notes.

My plan was to ask one if his students to teach me the lute – but they were not really keen on teaching me. When I asked Naseer if he could recommend any of his other students to teach me – his answer was “I can teach you”. I was shocked – I really didn’t expect to hear those words.

The lute lessons were at Naseer’s house – and lessons were a whole social event. When I arrived the first thing was to relax, have a tea and then lunch. Once everyone ate – then I got the lute out of the case and started practising. So each music lesson was a social gathering – everyone was singing the melodies I played. What a way to learn music – I thought – very different from the boring music classes I had at home at school.

Naseer is a great teacher and musician – during his performances very often he is the only person on the stage – the melodies he plays are never ending improvisations – and the more he plays the more we all get mesmerised by his performance – as he varies the notes of the maqams in a million different ways.
His website is one one the most beautiful sites I have every seen – click here to see it and listen to some his lute solos.

And in case you were wondering this is how I looked playing the lute :

The sad thing is – before I came to Johannesburg – I gave my lute away to a local jazz musician – he was very happy to have it and used it for many of his performances.Now I am thinking of getting a lute again.

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I think people in South Africa don’t realise what an amazing place they live in.

Most of the time people tend to moan about life here – but actually – they live in one of the most amazing places in the world.

For me to get as far as South Africa – I had to go through a 10 year “initiation process”:-)

My interest in Africa started by itself – noone has really started it in any way – my family was not really interested in African cultures – though there was always an interest in many different cultures – and most people in my family spoke at least 2-3 languages – which is not normally the case in the average Hungarian family.

While most of my family conducted their studies at universities and other institutions – I normally did the learning on the streets, clubs, playing/teaching/learning music – and travelling – rather then sitting in a class and open a book – well I did that as well – but I always found – no real learning/teaching is happening in a classrom.

To qualify for my “studies” I had to:-) learn English, French, Arabic and also – the lyrics and music of Bob Marley – ( and music itself – being the most universal of all languages -) the reason being that these languages (and Bob Marley and music) are widely spoken in Africa – and they are absolutely necessary – for my discoveries later on.

I learned English while in primary school – and also continued while I was in musical high school – ( where I majored in classical violin.)

My first Arabic course was a short intensive course in a Budapest language school – where I learned all about Arabic letters, and the basic conversational phrases. Later I carried on learning Arabic at university (where I majored in English and Arabic literature).

As I spent one year in Tunesia – I spent my time learning languages like French, carried on my Arabic studies and started also with music classes that introduced me to the language of the Arabic lute.

In Hungary I tried to frequent as many clubs:-) as possible as part of my training. One being the local student club – which was a regular meeting place for African students mainly from Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria – this is where I got to learn all about Bob Marley, Alpha Blondy and even Fela Kuti – and also about how to mix red wine and coke successfully:-)

In the hostel I stayed in – I spent lots of time with the students from Mali – and we spoke Hungarian to each other – which probably sounds really funny – then I still didn’t speak French (nor Bambara:-)) so we communicated in Hungarian.

Another “course” was the Marthin Luther King organization in Budapest – that addressed the local skinhead problem – though very badly organized – it did make me think about racism issues for the first time.

But all of the above was just the “tip of the iceberg”. I learned the most during my trip to Tunesia – one year of fun – and discoveries of Islamic culture – Tunesian and that of the many other francophone African countries – that you find in West and North Africa and even places like Comoros islands – as there were hundreds of African students doing their studies there in Tunis from all over the continent.

Many of these students brought some of their family members with them – so I got to spend time with families from Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Chad, Ivory Cost and of course Tunesia.

So what did I learn from all these experiences?

I learned that you can start playing music anywhere – on the street – in the bus stop – you don’t actually have to go to a concert hall. I also learned that you can carry on discussing a topic without actually stopping for the whole night – even if you don’t speak the language properly and are not even intocsicated in any way:-). I also discovered that it’s not only me that learned a lot from the lyrics of Bob Marley. I also learned that travellers must be respected and taken care of.

But most of all – I learned a lot about sharing – sharing skills, food, clothes, sadness and happiness , music and more…

Once in South Africa I just continued where I left off – this country is full of unbelievable surprises – stories and people to learn from. So I’m lucky many of them come and visit at the OpenCafe – during OpenCafe’s one year of existence – I met some amazing Africans – they all have a little piece of the big puzzle that makes up all the traditions and cultures of this majestic continent.

And the good thing is….. one never graduates from this kind of “studies” – one does come to realizations – one gets a bit wiser every day – but to graduate …. not in the near future …