Folk Art, Heritage, Music
I am a professional oud player. The oud is an old instrument from Arabia. It is like a lute. I love the sound of the oud. It brings joy to my heart, it is food for the soul. We all need food. We all need music to touch us. It expresses all feelings—joy, anticipation, loneliness, sadness, and pain.
The oud is like the guitar in American rock and pop. The American guitar is the center instrument. It is the leader. It is very important. The oud is the same for Arabic music. But the oud plays different scales. Most American pop music uses a simple major scales. The oud uses major, minor, and other scales from the East that use quarter tones. Americans learn there are 7 notes in the scale: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti. In Arab music we use the same 7 notes as the basis but we divide each note into 7 more semi-tones, with a total of 49 different notes! This gives us power to express lots of different kinds of sadness. Arab people love sad music because life there is very difficult. They need this music because they can take a rest. Every time I play music, someone says, “Please Mustafa, play something sad. I want to cry.” So I play for them and then they can feel better.
Learning the oud is very difficult. The oud does not have frets. Where you put your finger makes a big difference. If your finger is not in the perfect place, the sound is not right. There is a lot of technique to learn. But the most important thing is to express feelings. The oud player has to feel it to make the sound sweet.
I am also a composer. Before the war, I wrote songs for each wedding I played for. I wrote songs for my wife. When I was in Jordan I wrote songs about the war in Syria. It was very hard, there was no food, my friends and neighbors die. I tell the truth about the pain of war. It helps me but it helps people hear their story. We miss our home. My songs help many people express their grief.
My music is important to other Arabic speaking people in Erie because most of us have a lot of grief. Most of us came as refugees and lost our homes, our jobs, and our family to war. My music is familiar to them, reminds them of home, and also lets them feel the pain. They miss hearing our music. There are 130 families in Erie now from Syria. There are thousands of people from Iraq here too.
I believe my music is also important to people who do not speak Arabic. They will not understand the words but my music can touch them. My oud can speak and everyone will listen. They can feel my culture, my pain, my history. I can make beautiful music that will bring peace and understanding.
Mustafa Albalkhi was born in Daraa, Syria in 1972. As a child he loved the oud. He used to walk miles when he heard the sound of the oud in a wedding or evening celebration. His family did not have money to buy him the instrument. As a child he tried to make his own oud out of an iron box and old telephone wires.
After high school he had a plan to be a lawyer but decided to study music instead. His family thought this was a bad idea. They lived in a small village and they were afraid he would not have money. Mustafa felt so strongly about his love of music he did not follow his elders’ advice.
A music school opened in his town and he was one of the first students. Because the school was new, the teachers were not professional, so Mustafa spent a lot of time teaching himself. He used to stay up at night practicing oud for long hours. In 1992 he finished two years at the Daraa Music Institute and became a music teacher for elementary and middle school students.
In 1996 he moved to the United Arab Emirates to manage a music studio in the city of Al Ain. For eight years he scheduled performers, played oud for recordings, and began writing his own songs. He was exposed to great musicians from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and other countries and learned the regional styles. He produced an album on cassette. It was played in local stores, taxis, and busses. Many of the songs became very popular.
In 2004 he returned to Daraa to perform and teach at the same music institute that taught him. He could see that other musicians in Daraa were creative in playing but some of them did not develop due to lack of training. Most musicians only learn to play by ear. Mustafa was one of the only musicians who could write music notation. In 2006 he furthered his knowledge and completed a program in advanced oud and music education from Al Basel Center in Homs, Syria.
As a composer, situations in life created songs. In his youth he composed and sang love songs. When the civil war began in Syria, he wrote his experience of destruction, death, nostalgia, and torment.
He immigrated to America in September 2020 and his dream was to be a professional musician again. A few days after his arrival, his brother and friends arranged a wonderful party where he could perform. Over the next months these parties were repeated in several friends’ homes, and everyone was happy to hear his oud.
In November Mustafa formed a trio with Belal Aldehnah from Syria, who plays the doumbek drum and Nibal Abd El Karim, a singer from Palestine. They recorded a music program produced by the Erie Downtown Partnership. The concert was aired in April 2021. The trio has also performed for other local celebrations for the Syrian community and for World Refugee Day. In addition to public performances he has done numerous school programs introducing pre-school and elementary students to Arab music and children's songs.