He was a tall man. Thick. Dressed completely in black pinstripes. He looked like a circus freak. A dark one. A circus freak in chains. The clown perhaps. But the clown who dares you to keep on looking. To take a step closer. Entrances you with his invitation to heavy burdens and to sorrow. The clown who laughs and makes you feel clattering inside.
He played the lute. An electric lute. How contemporary. In case you’re wondering, a lute is a rather large instrument. Larger than you’re imagining. Especially when it has about 24 strings. It looks more like a guitar than you’ve been led to believe and it is not a guitar. It is a moaning instrument. A lute suffers at its players hand. It is a strange and evil instrument. It is on fire. Rome is burning.
The name lute is an etymological derivation from an Arabic word. I didn’t have to look that one up. I remembered it from a few years ago when I first discovered the musical tradition of the oud. Yes I’m bragging but I’ll stop right now. The oud is a guitar-like instrument that predates the guitar. It has a shapely bodice like a pear or a pear shaped woman. I am not a musicologist but I gather that the oud has more strings than a modern day guitar and never had any frets. As an instrument, the oud was open to interpretation, as any pear shaped thing should be. Half steps break what you think you know about music. Then come the fourth steps. Then eighth steps. All the sorrowful, undeclared, unresolved feelings that the string of a heart contains but never materializes in those “four-to-the-floor” beats and lurid pop songs about pussy shanking or whatever is in vogue these days for bankrupt western audiences.
So the oud. What does it sound like? It sounds like you’re by the ocean. It doesn’t have to be a pleasant day by the ocean. It is perhaps windy and rocky. Five centuries ago, a ship broke into a million pieces on that particular rock over there. Do you see it? The great black one with white crustacea foaming on its brittle back. If you listen closely you can hear the dead of the wreck singing their favorite love songs. They may be dead but they are singing if your oud player is skilled enough.
So, al-oud takes a little trip, she does. Pear shaped and all, across the abbreviated Mediterranean. Do you see where this is heading? Why Spain, of course. Al-oud to el oud to l’oud to –aha!– our lute in question. It’s a rather quick dissolve of salt in water. Could have happened over the course of a single port deal. Hands shaken, blessings said, mi casa es al-oud.
Fast forward only about 500 years. A few more ships have crashed. Planes were invented. Those crashed too, incidentally. Near the same rock. Can you believe it? A very strange chorus has erupted in that exact spot of the double ship wreck and plane crash. It’s difficult to categorize the genre exactly. Sort of a dirge meets rock opera ballad. In any event, I went to a concert in Los Angeles a few weekends ago.
There he was. The Dutchman. Sitting cross legged in his black, pinstriped clown suit. His lank hair falling in his face. Everything about him looked so greasy. His hair, his pants, his slick and beautiful red lute. You couldn’t look away. You wondered, is this guy for real? And then he started playing.
He’s playing the lute. The electric lute. A gross contradiction in terms if you’re just reading about it. And yet. Is painful feeling — when it’s truly felt — dulled in its magnification? Or is it simply louder? Louder than all the plane crashes. Louder than pop songs raging their insolent substitution for substance. Louder than Spain. Louder than al-oud. Loud. Loud. Loud as we want to feel about our own private, drowning love songs.