Shamma, Naseer (1963–)

views updated

Shamma, Naseer

Naseer Shamma is a world-renowned Iraqi ud (also oud, an Arabic lute) musician and composer. Known for both his virtuosic technique and expressive lyricism, he is regarded as an innovative composer of Arab music, as well as an expert teacher and composer.


Born in al-Kut, Iraq in 1963 Naseer Shamma (also Nasir) has spoken frequently of his attraction to the ud at a young age, although he was a teenager before he began playing the instrument. He enrolled in the Baghdad Academy of Music, run at the time by famous ud master Jamil Bashir (brother of the even more famous Munir Bashir). Shamma received a Diploma in Musical Arts in 1987.

Shamma served in the Iraqi army during the 1991 Gulf War. In 1993 he decided to leave Iraq to pursue his career. From 1993 to 1998 he taught ud performance at the Higher Institute for Music in Tunis.

In 1998 he was invited to Cairo to realize his dream of establishing an institute specifically to train soloists on the ud. Bayt al-Ud al-Arabi (The Arab Ud House), as it was named, started under the auspices of the Cairo Opera House in 1998. Students at this institute receive vigorous and intensive training on the ud, culminating in a diploma certifying each as an "ud soloist." Bayt al-Ud al-Arabi moved in 2003 to a fourteenth-century house in Islamic Cairo, and it has continued to grow and to attract students from throughout the Arab world and Europe. The institute since has opened various campuses in other countries, including Jordan, Tunisia, and Spain.

Shamma has been based in Cairo since 1998, and he travels frequently for performances. In 1999 he established the nine-person instrumental ensemble Uyun (Eyes). It is based upon the model of the Arab takht, a small ensemble typically including one player of each of the Arab instruments (ud, qanun, nay, and percussion). Shamma's group also includes two violins, cello, and a string bass. The group places a high premium on technical dexterity and plays a repertoire largely consisting of Shamma's compositions.


Shamma's technical virtuosity is indicative of his position in the lineage of Iraqi masters of the ud, including Sharif Muhi al-Din Haydar, and Jamil and Munir Bashir. However, Shamma consciously has cultivated a unique approach to composition that departs from Iraqi tradition as represented by the Bashirs. Shamma also emphasizes his admiration for European classical music and draws inspiration for his compositions from this repertoire.

Shamma's compositions tend to be lyrical vignettes with titles that evoke an image or idea. He eschews the structured compositional and rhythmic forms of traditional Arab instrumental music, instead creating musical sketches with multiple contrasting sections and imagistic titles such as "Light of the Soul" and "Amidst the Palm Trees."

Shamma also has researched historical treatises on Arab music theory and bases many of his innovations on historical precedent. He stresses the ancient Mesopotamian origins of the ud. Shamma has developed an instrument—based upon a manuscript by the ninth-century music theorist al-Farabi—that uses extra courses of strings to expand the capacity of the ud. Responding to what critics have called "Western-sounding" harmony in his work, Shamma references the historical basis of this harmony in the work of ninth-century scholar al-Kindi. His explorations into history, philosophy, and music theory, along with his self-conscious association with classicism, have earned him the nickname "the little Ziryab" after the ninth-century musician, composer, scholar, and renaissance man of Cordoba who introduced Persian music to the Western world.


Due in part to his émigré status, Shamma's audience is highly transnational. Throughout the Middle East he is known among connoisseurs of instrumental Arab music as a renowned modern ud player, having earned prizes and awards in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Portugal. He has performed throughout Europe, North America, and Japan, and he has released several compact discs on European recording labels.

Although he advocates the separation of art from politics, the humanitarian consequences of political turmoil have inspired several of Shamma's best-known compositions. Perhaps his most famous work, "It Happened at al-Amiriyya" musically portrays the Allied bombing of an Iraqi shelter during the 1991 Gulf War that killed over 400 Iraqis, most of them children. This work has drawn great praise from audiences throughout the world.


Shamma will be remembered as a fine ud player who has generated a great deal of enthusiasm for the instrument among his students and admirers. Shamma has devoted tremendous effort to developing the ud as a solo rather than as a supporting instrument within the vocally oriented Arab music tradition. Shamma's impact on Arab music and musicians throughout the Middle East has been profound. Greater exposure in other parts of the world surely will secure his status as a consummate musician and representative of Iraqi artistic culture.


Colla, Elliott. Review of Le lute de Baghdad. Middle East Report 215. Summer 2000. Available from

Naseer Shamma's official Web site. Available from


1994: Le lute de Baghdad. [The Baghdad Lute] Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe

1996: Ishraq [Illuminations]. (Italy)

1999: Rahil al-Qamr [The Moon Fades]. (London: Gebhard)

2003: Maqamat Ziryab [Modes of Ziryab]. (Madrid: Pneuma)

2005: Hilal [Crescent Moon] with Oyoun ensemble. (Madrid: Pneuma)

                                  Anne Elise Thomas


Name: Naseer Shamma

Birth: 1963, al-Kut, Iraq

Family: Wife, Lina al-Teeby (also al-Tibi), a Syrian poet; one daughter

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: Baghdad Academy of Music, Diploma in Musical Arts, 1987


  • 1988: Receives "Best (Performer of) Arabic Music" award at the Jarash Festival (Jordan)
  • 1993–1998: Teaches at Higher Institute of Music, Tunis
  • 1996: Moves to Cairo, Egypt, established Bayt al-Ud al-Arabi (The Arab Ud House)