Ancient traditions of the Oud brought up to date at East Neuk Festival

Palestinian oud player Nizar Rohana
Palestinian oud player Nizar Rohana
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Euphrates is a river name to conjure with, flowing with the Tigris through what was once the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation.

Today, sadly, it is an area riven by conflict and immense suffering. The Euphrates flows on, however, through hearts and minds, and not least through the musical imagination of Nizar Rohana, the Palestinian oud virtuoso, whose new album is titled Furāt, the Arabic name for the Euphrates.

The album sleeve notes bear a modified quotation from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha: “The Euphrates taught me its secret. That there’s no such thing as time. For the river, like music, is everywhere at the same time …”

Rohana brings this timeless music – much of it contemporary, yet with a pedigree going back through millennia – to the opening weekend of the eclectically programmed East Neuk Festival later this month, playing with his trio in Crail Community Hall and giving a solo recital in Dunino Church.

The Middle Eastern ancestor of the lute (which added frets after the Arabs brought the oud to Europe) as well as the guitar, the oud, with its delicately springy, microtonal voice, particularly lends itself to intimate listening. Despite its ancient pedigree, it is used widely for contemporary music by masters such as Rohana. “I think the first documentation of the oud came from Mesopotamia around 2,500 years ago,” he tells me, speaking from Ghent in Belgium, where he has been studying. “The oud has prevailed all this time and in that sense it is a very special instrument, and to me it’s very important to write contemporary music for it.

“Many people, when I tell them I play the oud, think that I must play traditional music, but what I try and do is present oud music for 2016, and that’s the idea of Furāt.”

Accompanied on the album by Hungarian jazz bassist Matyas Szandai and Paris-based percussionist Wassim Halal, both of whom join him at Crail, Rohana has created music evoking some of the towns and landscapes through which the Euphrates flows. As a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, he explains, he is unable to visit these places – “But we have the Euphrates in our memories and our imaginations.”

“It’s shocking how an area of such importance can become …” He hesitates: “I cannot find the words … misery.” One track, for instance, is named after the Syrian city of Māyadīn. “Māyadīn is now known more because of Isis, and I thought, OK, I want to use the city’s name and relate to it in a more positive way.”

He wrote the music for the album first of all, he says: the concept and titles came later. “In Furāt I try to achieve a kind of flow, but I don’t necessarily mean like water, but in listening to the piece from end to end, fluently.”

The music of the oud lends itself to improvisation, but he steers clear of being bracketed in jazz or any other categorisation. “Of course, I have a great jazz musician playing with me – bassist Matyas Szandai, and the bass and the oud can combine and contrast and have a conversation, so jazz is a part of my music but not too direct, the same as all the influences I have absorbed.

“I grew up in Palestine on Pink Floyd and pop music from the Eighties,” says, Rohana, now 40. “I played piano for many years and loved western and Indian music, and my musical identity is a blend of all that I absorbed.

“But of course, everything centres on the Arabic character of the oud.”

• The Nizar Rohana Trio appears with klezmer specialists the David Orlowsky Trio at Crail Community Hall on 26 June. Rohana plays solo in Dunino Church on 27 June. Also featured during the festival’s opening weekend are the Kosmos Ensemble and the Classic Jazz Orchestra. The East Neuk Festival runs from 22 June until 23 July, www.eastneukfestival.com