The sad sound of an oud – Limbo, a film by Ben Sharrock

Limbo (2020) is an award-winning film that recently played on Mubi. It’s one of those gems that I discovered on Mubi, which has its fair share of unwatchable weird stuff. But it has also had a couple of masterpieces that I would never have discovered had it not been on the channel. I would not have watched Limbo, except that the description of the film had the word “oud” in it, and ouds fascinate me.

The film is about a village on fictional remote Scottish island – it could be a small town, anywhere – where a group of newly arrived refugees wait for the results of their asylum claims. Among them is “Omar”, played with exquisitely delicate feeling by Amir El-Masry. Omar is a young Syrian musician burdened by the weight of his grandfather’s oud (Arabic: عود, romanizedʿūdpronounced [ʕuːd]), which he has carried all the way from his homeland. Omar makes friends with another refugee, “Farhad”, who is desperately cheerful and who just wants to wear a tie and have an office job, played against type as a shabby, shy loner by the very handsome Vikash Bhai. The actors in this film are all excellent, by the way.

Screenshot from Limbo – “Farhad” left and “Omar”, right (Source: Mubi)

The story is often funny, and the refugees as well as the Scottish people who provide them with services (like the acculturation workshops) are sometimes outlandishly strange. But at its core, this is a tragedy.

Omar, with his sad eyes, his dreams about the last time he performed on stage, and his music-less existence, is no less damaged than someone who has survived a natural disaster or a war. Everyone in the film has a story, everyone fled from somewhere, and everyone has hopes and dreams, no matter how ludicrous.

Omar has a silent burden – literally silent: everywhere he goes he carries the beautiful oud in its bulky case. He does not play it. In his old, tatty clothes, he lugs the oud around like he carries the weight of his past and his grief. Every call that he makes to his family from a call box simply makes it worse – he is in Scotland, he is safe, but he feels dead inside, and his parents keep reminding how that he should be playing. The music has stopped for him.

Yes, that is a rooster in the kitchen with Farhad. (Screenshot from Limbo)

It is very moving. Omar cannot play the oud, his oud, the beautiful instrument that he inherited from his grandfather, a master musician, until he feels at peace and has found his place in the new country. The oud that he plays is the Syrian Oud, and his brother is still in Syria, while his parents have fled to Turkey.

Music is your soul

Here in British Columbia, Canada, just about everyone I know either is an immigrant, or is descended from immigrants. Around me live Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians, Chinese, Koreans, Libyans, Iranians – people from all over the world who are now Canadian or becoming Canadian. I sometimes look at them and wonder what they bring to this new world. Of course, what they bring, apart from their work and their determination to make a life, is their art and their culture. I tend to forget that: that man whom I see on the bus, making no eye-contact, hunched into his clothes that is not suited to the winters here, reading an Arabic newspaper, has a different type of music playing into his earphones. He has a different soundtrack to his life, as beautiful, if not more so, than mine.

And that woman who often takes her father (I think?) for a walk around here: he is very old and does not move well. He stumbles ahead, oblivious of other people, and she follows him. He always holds a phone playing loud music up to his ear. He doesn’t use earphones. And he listens to traditional Chinese songs – nothing modern. I know that the music is the sound of his home, his past, the thing that probably keeps his mind working.

The Chinese man listens to music which sounds like Peking opera, and the Iranian man on the bus may well be listening to performance on an oud.

The fascinating oud

Syrian oud made by Abdo Nahat in 1921 (Source: Wikipedia)

I think the oud has an especially sad, wild sound. It is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped, fretless stringed instrument, usually with 11 strings grouped in six courses, but some models have five or seven courses, with 10 or 13 strings respectively. It has no frets and a smaller neck than a Western lute. Ouds of various types have been used in the Middle East, North Africa (particularly the Maghreb, Egypt and Somalia), and Central Asia for thousands of years. Modern-day ouds fall into three categories: Arabian, Turkish, and Persian, the latter also being known as barbat. The Iraqi oud, Egyptian oud and Syrian oud are all grouped under the category of Arabian oud.

The oud in Limbo

I wish I could tell you exactly which oud Omar has in the film, and exactly how it is tuned, but I have no idea. But I do not think that the director and screenwriter, Ben Sharrock, meant for the viewer to go doing a forensic analysis of just the oud performances and compositions on the soundtrack. The soundtrack is composed by Hutch Demouilpied, and the outstanding track is an oud composition called An Alif/An apex, performed by Khyam Allami.

I think that Demouilpied just wanted the sound of the oud to represent Omar’s grief, loneliness and loss. It is such a worthwhile film to watch, so beautiful. I really recommend that you do if you can get a hold of it. It shows how music lives in people’s souls, and that certain instruments – and the music they play on them – are their voices.

As Sharrock explains:

“I think, the thing about the Oud, it always felt to me like a perfect metaphor, because it is sort of embodies  Omar’s culture and his family in Syria. It’s what he is physically carrying with him so the Oud is his identity and the Oud is out of tune, and he can’t play the Oud and he is missing his identity. When Farhad says ‘well it’s like you are carrying your soul in a coffin’ it  literally is his soul and he is carrying it around in a coffin.”  – Ben Sharrock

Being True to One’s Self: Ben Sharrock Discusses “Limbo”, in NotebooK Interview, Oct. 11, 2021, (retrieved May 10, 2022)

Using the oud in a composition

I have been fascinated by the sound of the oud since an Iranian-born colleague had recommended the music of Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. I tried to incorporate the instrument into my compositions on my album, Thermós. It was difficult because the oud’s turning and scale is very different to that of a piano, and it has a slight twanging sound almost as if it echoes a fraction off the key. Here is a clip of a scale played on an oud:

The open strings played on an oud tuned in the Arabic pattern “D2 G2 A2 D3 G3 C4” (Source: Wikipedia)

In any case, after struggling for a long time, I managed to get the oud and the piano and the guitars to harmonize in this composition, called The Empty Quarter, from the album, Thermós:

It is strange to me how, when a professional musician performs on an oud, it sounds so much like jazz – so many complicated variations, so many arpeggios up and down the scale, so many twinkling, dazzling notes. And yet, at the same time, it is melancholy.

Which song represents your homeland?

I am still thinking about which song, or which instrument, best represents the country where I grew up, South Africa. It is not known for its great composers. I think perhaps…the music of Johnny Clegg (The White Zulu) and his bands Savuka and Juluka, specifically the absolutely heart-rending Asimbonanga. I cannot listen to any of their songs now, because when I do, I feel like my heart is breaking. (Oh, darn it – just had to test that link to Asimbonanga and now the Onion Ninjas are attacking.) Which song does that to you?

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