Game Changers The Arab Art Issue

Amal Waqar, the Omani girl with the oud

This young talent is making strides in the male dominated field.

By Sharifa Al Badi

Imagine, if you will, the soothing sounds of the majestic Arabian oud, and it is not a man playing the instrument like you would typically expect in this male dominated field, but Oman’s vibrant Amal Waqar. A musician and composer whose musical journey started from a young age, as a child Amal was always drawn to music and gravitated towards instruments. But it was only later on that she became serious about an instrument, when she saw and picked up the oud for the first time at 15 years old.

When I ask her “why the oud?” she explains that it was part circumstance, part innate love for the instrument. If she was raised in the US, for example, she probably would have gotten serious about the guitar, or if she was raised in India the bansuri, she says. As a collective, Arabs “have a very nostalgic view of the oud, a purist, and bordering on nationalistic, view of what the oud represents” she says.

No one in Amal’s family plays music, but her mother has always loved music and exposed Amal to it. When she saw the spark it brought in her daughter, she encouraged her by taking her to concerts whenever they happened in Muscat and supported her through learning and early performances. Amal also learned by watching jalsat on friends and family’s television sets, and on YouTube. “I really started exploring the international world of oud when I discovered YouTube. It’s still a huge resource for me,” she says.

At 17, Amal made national headlines as the youngest and first female Omani musician to headline a recital, in which she explains the moment as a great honour that the Oman’s Oud Hobbyist Association trusted her at that time with her early vision of the kind of music she wanted to make. That moment and trust instilled in her a great deal of confidence and encouraged her to pursue her vision.

After graduating from school,  she went off to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and pursued her studies with oud master Simon Shaheen. “The opportunity to work with Simon opened my eyes to the history and culture of classical Arabic music— particularly the periods he focuses on—and strengthened my relationship with the oud. He truly is a master musician and getting access to his perspective of the instrument really helped me deepen my own awareness,” she describes.

Amal Waqar. Image courtesy of Ali Waqar.

Today, at 24 years old, Amal Waqar is amongst the most promising young oud players from the region (and one of the few women), and with time may become one of the best in the world.

In addition to playing the instrument, Amal is also a composer. The composer finds inspiration everywhere, “When I sit down to write, my whole life affects what comes out. When seeking inspiration, I look everywhere: to literature, to art, to film, to relationships, to other music, to the history of human consciousness. The list is endless.”

The young creative feels very blessed to get to call this her career; part of her job has included preforming for private and live events, including Katara’s Festival for Oud Instrument and the Beirut & Beyond International Music Festival. She has also performed with the National Arab Orchestra.

Amal Waqar playing the oud on a video shared on social media.

Like many other musicians worldwide, however, her work has been affected by the pandemic. We are still facing the uncertainty the COVID pandemic has brought forth, the lockdowns and restrictions have shaken up everyone’s world and regular routine, and with each event there is the good and bad. But Amal has a balanced view of the situation and believes we need to focus on the mental health dialogue. “Something I’ve noticed during this pandemic is the increased pressure for creatives to be producing all the time, but I think this can be really draining and can eventually become toxic. It’s really important that we continue the ongoing conversation on mental health during this time,” she explains. Everyone needs to continue to be realistic with what they expect from creative, she says. “If musicians want to perform live on platforms, that’s great, and if musicians want to take a step back, that’s also great.”

For Amal, the lockdown gave her a much needed moment to breathe and reflect on the experiences she has had. “Everything was going at 180 mph and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, honestly. This time has been crucial for me to reconnect with my true artistic vision and aspirations.”

At the same, “Right now I really miss expanding on my performance skillset through live concerts. I’d love to do more of that,” she says.

Amal Waqar performing with Oman’s Oud Hobbyist Association at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Muscat. Photo: courtesy.

One of her most memorable performances was playing at an immigration themed concert in a small restaurant in the US. She felt it went very poorly. “Every musician has these moments and knows what I am talking about,” she adds. It left her feeling discouraged for a long time. Only later did she find out there were some Khaleeji students and immigrants in the audience that were moved to tears by her music. “Learning about this impacted me in many ways, not only professionally, but musically and personally, too.”

As for the future, we will have to wait and see what this music magician has in store for us, as Amal sees the creative life as one being in a constant state of metamorphosis. “Seven years ago, I would never have been able to imagine I would be where I am now, so it feels kind of short-sighted to claim I know where I’ll be in another seven, especially with the rate at which the industry is changing right now. I am always plotting, though, and my ultimate goal is to create a body of work that feels as completely raw and authentic as possible, and to be as reflective as water.”

There is yet much to see from this talented musician and composer so watch her space to know more and get a glimpse of her journey. As for pearls of wisdom for us, whether you have started something new or not Amal says, “Essentially trust what you love and want to make. People will rarely know or understand what you have envisioned in your heart and mind, and what you’re trying to say. But it’s not their job to. It’s your job to explore and remain honest with yourself and bring it to life.”

*This article was corrected on August 26, 2020 to reflect that Amal Waqar is 24 years old, not 22.

Sharifa Al Badi is a published writer and author from the magical lands of Oman. She has written for Esquire ME, Khaleejesque and The Culture Trip. She is also the author of “Themis Aella & The Magical Forest” and “50 Things To Know As An Adult.” 

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.