Rihab Azar, oud player

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

It might have been the few times when a given ensemble would come from Damascus’s conservatoire to Homs to give a concert and my parents would take me to see it. I remember loving the “order” I felt during these “classical” like concerts, the silence in the venue, the aura of mastery I saw around the performers. It was like they were in a bubble of concentration, and that the unspoken “contract” of these “classical” concerts meant that a few hundred people would commit to not bursting that bubble, and just sit and listen.

I think these experiences made me imagine with such certainty that being listened to whilst in that bubble of uninterrupted concentration would be a wonderful thing for me.

Fun fact: I did try to become a pharmacist first but I dropped out of university in the 4th year, as it proved too difficult for my very music-oriented brain.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

My musical family was the ultimate seed. My dad being my first teacher was a big influence as he had the right mix of playfulness, care, challenge, and patience in his teaching. I think the imprint of that was that I would always need to feel comfortably connected to the people first before I can make good music with them and be able to access my best. It is something quite personal to me, very close to the skin.

My study years at the conservatoire in Damascus built my confidence as I discovered my space in a male-dominated instrument sphere.

My highly introverted nature and need for quiet have influenced my career choices and directions hugely.

As to who, I go through phases of been drawn to a particular musician’s work. The list is so long but I can tell you that in the recent months, I have been listening a lot to Ahmad Al-Khatib and Faraj Suleiman. I love their playing, compositions, collaborations with others, and their personalities.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The main challenges for me have been not having enough time and head-space to compose more music and experiment creatively. The frustration because I feel there is so much music in me that needs to get out. I have been teaching a lot at several primary schools and this leaves me very little time and energy to create music.

The other issue has been the absence of a “manager” who can help with the practicalities of the performance side. Lots of time goes to admin work.

The absence of a potential producer/mentor who can help me maintain more focus, endurance, and direction in my creative aspirations and make that first album I am so frequently asked about.

The mental endurance long creative processes need remains an issue for me. I can get lost in mazes of details.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am quite happy with the solo set I recorded for the third season of Eavesdropping series 2021. It was the first time I play my original compositions in a set:

I am also proud of the article I wrote for Migration and Society Journal

What do you do offstage that provides inspiration on stage?

I always get as much sleep as possible. Sleep to me is the ultimate cleanser and space creator.

I frequently listen to very simple pop songs that are really as distant as possible from what I play, and to instruments that are nowhere near the oud. I feel this gives my brain space to forget, so I can revisit my stuff with novelty.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

On a personal level, success for me would be establishing the golden triangle: wellbeing, creativity, and financial stability.

On a social level, I believe success is ultimately being a good influence in other people’s lives, both by your music and how you are as a person. Being a part of the ethical awareness in the world and bringing more courage, kindness, and honesty to it.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

I would advise them to try and learn carefully first about the day-in day-out of a few musicians’ careers, learn about the music business, and see if their resources and personality type will help them survive and thrive in it. Also, to think carefully if their other life goals and priorities would still have space if they take up this path. I have experienced it as a difficult career choice; not everyone gets super-lucky and looked after in it. In many cases, they might have to sacrifice other aspects in their lives to pursue it, and it can feel quite lonely and stressful like swimming against the current at times. I think it is important to not romanticize a career in music.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

To be honest, I do not consider myself that much of an insider to the industry and I am sure there are lots of important things that are still missing.

However, I believe accessibility has been a big issue in the industry. The music business does not feel to me like a space even the average person can navigate easily. For example, as an immigrant, neuro-divergent, introverted woman who is not quite really middle-class, I have faced accessibility issues in the music industry.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I would like to have made an album or two of my own music, be doing much less teaching, touring to play with different ensembles for which I would arrange my music (I also would love to be closer to owning a house with a home-studio that I can operate!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My current idea of perfect happiness is being able to live, compose and produce music in the suburbs somewhere quiet and green, successfully growing vegetables, and popping out for occasional performances and tours. (What a lovely question!)

What is your present state of mind?

Imaginative and dreamy

Rihab Azar is at the East Neuk Festival with British folk musician Luke Daniels for an hour of fusions and traditions on Saturday 2 July and Rihab Azar Trio on Sunday 3 July. Both concerts are at St Ayle, Anstruther, Fife, Scotland and tickets are £15.  Further details and Box Office: https://eastneukfestival.com

Rihab Azar was born in the Syrian city, Homs to a musical family. Her father, luthier Samir Azar made her first oud and started teaching her when she was 7 years old.

She continued her musical quest later at the Conservatoire of Damascus and was taught by masters of the oud in Syria including Prof. Askar Ali Akbar, Issam Rafea, Mohamad Osman and Ayman Aljesry.

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