Video Interview with George Wakim Part II

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:40 - J.B. Miller

5:14 - Working on violins

7:39 - Interest in the oud

12:43 - Opening for Simon Shaheen / Customizing the oud

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Arab Community of Louisville; Simon Shaheen

18:51 - Spruce wood / Different sizes of ouds

25:34 - Community of oud makers

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: J.B. Miller; Jameel Abraham; Najib Shaheen; Richard Hankey

30:59 - J.B. Miller's generosity

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Art Mize; Bill Bauer; curly maple; J.B. Miller; Mary Montgomery

37:52 - Creating an instrument from scratch

42:04 - Finish and sealing

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: curly mahogany; egg whites; pumice; shellac; walnut

45:19 - Love fuels the drive to create

49:09 - Playing locally / Arabic music


BG: Ok, so we were talking about his place.

GW: Yea, J.B.’s shop.

BG: Yes, so he would, he made something like 30 violins?

GW: I’d say like 40.

BG: 40?

GW: 40… 41.

BG: That’s a lot for a guy isn’t it?

GW: Yea.

BG: When did he start making them? Do you know how old he was?

GW: I think he was pretty young. It spanned over probably 50 years.

BG: Ok.

GW: I’m just guessing at this point. I know he showed me, I’ve seen his second violin and it got stolen from a car, there’s a story about that… Sometimes you hear a story, you know, about a violin that he had to go to court for because it was stolen from him. I’ve witnessed, one Friday afternoon when I came after work and I saw this guy there, supposedly a minister that had ended up switching violins, and took one of J.B.’s violins in the violin case in the trunk of his car that he apparently rented and left in the airport. Guess what, J.B. gets that violin back.

BG: How’d he get it back?

GW: Because the man left it in the car.

BG: Left it in the car?

GW: Yea, he didn’t fly with it. He must have had some sort of a remorse episode on the way to the airport in Lexington and he may have just decided to leave it in the car and J.B. just got it back. He told me that. I saw the man, he talked his head off. People, a bunch of people, go in there and talk forever. Wait on him to turn his back and steal stuff.

BG: Did he get things stolen a lot or just sometimes?

GW: Just sometimes, a few times, not a whole lot though.


BG: So, he kind of let you work there, was he paying you, or was he just…

GW: No.

BG: Was it like an apprenticeship?

GW: Not even that, no. He taught Eugene Lee of Georgetown, he taught officially also Art Mize the repair business and stuff, but I was not officially taught under him. I worked, if I had questions he would help me out. You know, the first violin that I made we were trying to varnish and I had it all carved and sanded and ready to seal it and, not knowing any better, I trusted a little bit in his hand working and we ended up ruining the color because the stain color was the wrong color, and no matter what you did to the oil varnish on top of it, it looked like a gun stock, kind of a greenish brown and very ugly. We had to strip it, change the color into maybe a reddish brown, and then we had to…

BG: He made this mistake?

GW: I’m not sure what happened. It was one of those things that I chalked up as experience, and that’s how you learn; you just trample in your own mud sometimes and you pick-up and go.

BG: You can’t sand it down at that point.

GW: No because the stain has gone down and penetrated the wood and it’s in there. Even if you tried sanding you might remove some, and then some will stay. It’ll be blotchy.

BG: Are you saying because he was kind of old…

GW: Maybe, maybe he missed it, maybe he wasn’t paying attention.

BG: But he was letting you work in that shop?

GW: Right.

BG: Making your own instrument, and he was giving you help.

GW: He helped me. He gave me free wood. The tone wood that I used on the violins was his wood, free. He let me use his tools. He would bring me a sandwich.

BG: Really?

GW: Yea, back to the shop, you know, he would bring a drink. “What do you need, George?” He would come and see where I am, give me something to eat, and then go back to the house and watch some tv.


BG: Were there other guys working there too at that time?

GW: No, I was alone, sitting there alone.

BG: Ok and that was after work?

GW: That was after I finished the Frankfort job. I’d get down there, and I’d leave there about 9:30. Of course, he had to sleep at 9, so I let him go back and shut the door and lock it, make sure the lock was latched in and everything, and would then head home.

BG: Ok, so you worked till 5…

GW: In Frankfort, then I’d get to his house, eat dinner, work until 9 or 9:30, and then go home. That’s how I did it.

BG: And you were doing that because? Why did you want to learn how to do a violin?

GW: Because the violin I brought from Lebanon, I knew that the tone of it was completely impaired, it didn’t sound like the violin I had heard off this one tape of this famous Arabic violinist that I knew. When you’d get to the base string, that resonate frequency of the violin box, supposedly the C note, my violin was not blowing a C. You reach that note and the whole body will start going (demonstrates vibration). It just changes character. It wasn’t doing it, I knew something was wrong, I wasn’t fulfilled. I’ve studied about what’s inside of it, and I got my hands in to getting into it, oh yea, I wanted to make one, to basically get that fulfillment of good tone, which will enhance the enjoyment in playing. You’ve got to have a responsive instrument under you to perform.

BG: Yea, so you were trying to make your tone from scratch. Right?

GW: Yea.

BG: And you made how many?

GW: Made 5.

BG: 5? Where are they now?

GW: I’ve given the first one to a friend. Number 2 and number 3 are in Lebanon. I play number 2 a lot, in Lebanon when I go I perform there and I use it. Number 5 I have here and I use it when I perform with the Fusion Flamenco group.

BG: Ok and what’s the name of that group again?

GW: Alma Gitana.

6:15 (Skip in the video, unable to discern the question that BG has asked GW)

GW: I do have, I’m planning on working on one, yes. It’s slowed up a little bit due to the oud. In the beginning I thought that I could work on two instruments at the same time. The more I dug in to the oud, and finished ouds, the more I started in my own mind wanting to learn more about its acoustics and what made it tick, it sucked all the energy from the violin making and towards the oud making. I’ve had the stuff laying out there for a year and a half, two years, haven’t forgotten about it. I will get back to it and will make a violin.

BG: How did you get in to the oud?

GW: How I got in to the oud? Good question. I was asked…

BG: Well you said something, that you were coming back from Lebanon with one…

GW: I brought that oud, that other oud, from Lebanon. Should I grab it?

BG: Yea, sure. I’ll get it. Was this the one, how’d you get that?

GW: I bought it from Beirut, Lebanon. $2000.00. Every time I go to Lebanon I know a few musicians in my area that will give me advice, you know, where the better ouds are, so I went after this guy. I went to his house, and the oud teacher at the conservatory at the time came with me and his eyes lit up when he played this one. So we got it. Brought it here. No problem.

BG: Did you like it yourself?

GW: Liked it to a point. Like it for the lack of any other oud that I had. Didn’t have a glued bridge oud, this was a floating kind of bridge, this bridge will move on the top, so it was fine. Decided to take it with me in 2006 up to Canada where my sister, my oldest sister evacuated from Lebanon after Israel and Hezbollah had their own episode. Between Lexington and Chicago, the hostess at the plane here in Lexington was like, “Uh.” No, I said, listen, this is a delicate instrument, it might break down there. She said, “No, no, you’ll be fine.” I said, can’t you leave it somewhere here on the cabin, in the corner; the pilot can put it behind them. No, no, she took it and gave it to the guy and they put it in the tail of the plane with the big luggage. Well, I get to Chicago…

BG: Was it in the case?

GW: In the soft case, yea.

BG: Ok.

GW: That’s the problem. This peg box was broken, the neck was cracked, and the back was crushed. So I reworked all that after I got it back and I came back from Canada and so on, visiting my sister. And the good thing is, I’ve noticed that the top didn’t have any problems, but I went back and fixed everything.

BG: How do you fix it when it is crushed in?

GW: It was crushed in. I brought the pieces back, and I used crazy glue, I used some super gel, then I used some wood putty and I filled in some spots and I held it together, and then sanded, and then filled again, and then sanded, and filled, and went back and forth. Filled inside… and this neck was broken. This whole thing, after this piece was hit that way, it popped this piece here out, and that was kind of easy because you can add glue and then put it back. And I did, I took it a piece at a time. Put it back together. And it’s still here for a reminder. This is how things progress. My first experience in putting an oud back together.

BG: Did J.B. help you put that back together? Was he still here?

GW: In 2006… No, he had already passed.

BG: Did you ever talk to him about wanting to make one?

GW: No, he had showed me a few tricks on guitar making; he was talking about the x brace and steal string guitars and everything… He had his own design… But no, we didn’t. I had given him one oud that I had, an oud which came back to me after he died, and then I gave it to John and Diana Rose here in Lexington, and they have it. They play with it and it is fine. When that broke, I borrowed an oud from a friend of mine here in Lexington that played the drums for me and that was a glued bridge oud. And when I took it and we played in Louisville at the Jazz Factory and I realized, this is the type of oud I want with that type of tone. The glued bridge will, if you design it properly you can get a whole lot of bass response to the note, a whole lot of fluffy bass and that’s what they shoot after in oud making, you want the note…

BG: Did you say the C string is the bass?

GW: Well the C string is one of them, but actually each note, each note will have an element of bass attached to it, just like going to an equalizer and going to the low frequency area, just boost it up and you can hear (imitates sound) you can hear it. That was the goal. So, I knew.

Now the next thing, I got invited to, by the Arab community of Louisville to open for Simon Shaheen, a US Arab virtuoso on the oud and violin. He came to Louisville, I opened for him. I played a few pieces with the drummer and another tambourine guy. Then we all did a short introduction. When the show ended, we talked. I liked his oud sound and he led me to his brother in New York which got me started to think about what I needed to do to get that tone. See again, you are going from a dumb (uncertain of word used) piece of wood, like your knocking a table, so thick and unresponsive, up to a point where with each pluck you can feel the whole bowl shake under you. You know that’s response.

BG: So that’s what he was playing, one like that?

GW: He was playing an oud that was excellent, and it was his brother that had made that oud top. And apparently it’s a lot easier, and of course a lot easier and cheaper, to just pop an old thick top and make a new top and glue it to the bowl and go on, because making the back, as I showed you earlier, it’s actually a lot of hard work putting all these ribs together, light tight, no gaps, that’s a lot of work. You got to give it time to cure. 23, there’s 23 times 2 if you’re working continuous. Or, if you do one a day, then that’s 23 days, and the neck and the peg box, you don’t have to do that with an existing oud, you get an old cheap oud, you pop the top off, and you make your own top with the right thickness and the right braces and you got the tone of a fine oud. And that’s what happened with Simon Shaheen, he was playing an oud that his brother made the top. So I called his brother after the show and he recommended that I do the same thing we just said, I pop an old top off and make a new top. And, let’s see, I have it somewhere…

BG: With the new top?

GW: Yea, somewhere…


GW: First experiment. My old commercially-made Syrian oud had this top. I made sure I didn’t destroy it because I just wanted to use it for demonstration purposes. You know some people think hey look, how are you doing? Do a little face with it… You gauge the thickness. Some areas here are up to 3 mm, so whoever made it didn’t pay attention to thickness. And then workmanship, cutting the lines, curvature, smoothness of lines, not impressive. I don’t see it. Inlay, again, cheap. Then you flip it and look on the inside. Look! Look at the texture here. These people never even bothered to sand the back of this top. This thing I sanded, it was almost as rough as it is back here. I’ve used the 220 grit and the 400 grit and cleaned it and softened it like that.

Then, ok, look at this brace, and right down here is the tail end block. You know, this is like putting a beam right next to the wall, what’s the use? Why do you need this brace here? What are you trying to support? They glued right here at the tail end block. This is unnecessary. This is a huge difference, a huge distance back here. Then you look at this brace. Too thick. Look at the glue. High glue, it’s squeezing out, too high… well, not necessarily too high here, but the way the brace connects to the bowl here, which the brace will come this way, this is over a cm high. With lutes, down to 7. Some ouds, 9. So you got to scallop it down on each end, and you got to thin it down even more. Plus they are rough cut, hand heavy, you can feel the weight. 2:00BG: Now, could that have been because it was a folk instrument and made by somebody who wouldn’t have, who just saw it as a…

GW: It’s basically, it’s just a quick and dirt assembly line with a bunch of people working and it was $350.00, $400.00 dollars, what I paid for it. You get what you pay for. Now, the unfortunate thing, most people from the Middle East will think an oud is an oud. They can’t distinguish tone and they don’t care as long as it looks like an oud, it’s an oud. If it walks like a duck, it’s a duck.

BG: What do you mean, most people in the Middle East?

GW: Some of my friends don’t quite have the understanding and the appreciation of a fine instrument, of a fine responsive instrument. Some want to buy it for free if they could. They try to basically cut it down thinking that they can get it at the cheapest deal that they can.

BG: Have they tried to buy yours for cheap?

GW: Yea. I’m like no, I’ll keep this, I’m not dying to have money for it. I’ll keep it. I’ll enjoy it.

BG: So what is that top made of, spruce?

GW: This oud particularly is…

BG: I mean the one that you’ve changed out, took that one off and…

GW: It was European spruce.

BG: Spruce is what, instrument makes for guitars use a lot.

GW: Guitars, violins…

BG: They all use that for their front board.

GW: Ukulele, yea it’s the sound board.

BG: Sound board.

GW: You got to be, again you got to be stiff and light, and spruce has those characteristics.

BG: Stiff and light (interruption by videographer)…


BG: So ok, you make, all of yours are spruce, right?

GW: No, actually… The first oud top that I made was with spruce, and now it is being played with a good friend of mine in Lebanon. He actually has just joined an orchestra in Qatar, in the United Arab Emirates, and he’s been there, I don’t know that he has taken that oud, but he will show it to the person who was managing that whole show though and we are going to try to establish some sort of collaboration, some effort that I’m able to help him with the oud making because he wants to do an alto, a tenor, a bass and a soprano. This is what they are trying to do in Qatar right now. The man builds his own ouds but he needs help and I’m going to try to pitch in.

BG: So are you saying there are different sizes of ouds?

GW: Absolutely, this is starting to show right now in the Middle East. There is one gentleman that has done that. Some claim that Simon Shaheen brought in the bass oud, and so on. So it’s all new and still happening, but the idea is similar to the violin family. You’ve got the bass, a huge thing that you stand by and play, and then you’ve got the cello, and then you’ve got the violin, or the viola, and then the violin which is the soprano.

BG: Ok then…

GW: So they are doing a similar thing like that.

BG: Ukuleles are like that too aren’t they?

GW: I guess.

BG: I know we were talking about that earlier today and Cathy Currier, there’s an old…

GW: Bass, tenor, alto and soprano…

BG: Yea, well, they don’t call them all that, but they, so this is new, this hasn’t been traditional…

GW: Not quite traditional, no, the oud, traditionally, is an accompaniment instrument for singing. Conservatory students in Lebanon of course, every time I go, I’m curious enough that I go to those schools and I look through the stuff that they teach. It’s a requirement. If you’re learning to sing, in the conservatory in Lebanon, you are required to pick up oud and learn oud because it does help clean up the intonation, the vocal intonation, you know what they call solfege. It’s basically conditioning your sound, or your voice, to a reference, which the oud is a good reference. It will keep you in shape and in line with those notes.

BG: How does that, to get back to the different types, different sizes you said you go back to Lebanon and you look at how their teaching it, but that’s…

GW: At this point in Lebanon the curriculum in the conservatory is only about I think the tenor. I think this is a tenor oud, the only shape that’s out there that’s being taught.

BG: That one right there?

GW: Yea, this size. Some of them come with a little more pearish shape, a little longer shape, and you know, about the same neck. You know in oud design your neck length is a 1/3rd of the string length.

BG: Ok.

GW: So you have one neck length, and two neck lengths over the face to the bridge. So the whole string length is three times the neck length which brings the fourth position right at the interchange between the neck and the body. In other words, this is fourth position. This is first, second, third (demonstrates on oud). C, and this is a G. See, I know I am right there.

BG: That’s where it’s supposed to be then…

GW: Yea.

BG: You can’t play any farther up can you? 4:00GW: Oh yea, you can (demonstrates).

BG: Oh, you can? Ok.

GW: Now this oud, the top, we were talking about the oud tops and what material, I used spruce and then I kept reading and reading and you know, everybody, some guitar makers bragged about port- orford- cedar, so I switched to port- orford-cedar. So this is a port- orford top.

BG: Ok.

GW: The more I make, the more I need to stick back to the conventional material. I’m going back into more walnut on the back and also the spruce. Now as far as western red cedar, it might not take as much breaking period for an instrument, but it also dies and some people say it doesn’t have a lot of longevity. The European spruce seems to be at this point the material of choice.

BG: So, is there a community of oud makers?

GW: In the states?

BG: Yea, that you communicate with?

GW: There is. The gentleman that I mentioned earlier in New York, his name is Jaheb (unsure of spelling) Shaheen. Richard Hankey, he is the author of an oud construction book. Jamel Abraham, out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he is a fine workman. He makes ouds. He learned from the first book that he bought, from Richard Hankey. There’s a few blogs, you get online there’s all different kinds of blogs, all different kinds of theories. And then there’s talking to the makers in Turkey, and the makers in Lebanon. There’s a whole big, across the pond communication about oud making.

BG: And you’re in that, they know you, too?

GW: Hankey does, Jamel Abraham does, Jaheb Shaheen does, I’m not sure about the Lebanese even though I just got into an article in 2009, in a magazine in Lebanon and I have the magazine here I’d be happy to show you, about instruments and stuff.

BG: So you’re becoming known too, as…

GW: It seems to be that way, but I’m not going to go out there and broadcast it. I might, if I could, I will visit a couple of them and talk with them…

BG: Well, is the difference between you and them, you kind of do it as a hobby, right, and some of these other guys are doing it as their…

GW: Profession, yea.

BG: Profession, right.

GW: The difference, it’s big because they are hanging on to their information, they are keeping their cards to themselves. This is how they, in the Arabic culture performs. The Nahhats of Syria, any oud maker, any professional in the Middle East, will hang on to that information. There’s no sharing of information. And some of them will even give you, maybe give you incorrect information if they could just to mislead you. So you don’t steal that and you don’t compete with them because their livelihood is on the line. That’s all they know, that’s how they bring the bread and butter to their family, it’s a big threat.

I commend Richard Hankey of Oregon I think, or Washington, the state of Washington, for writing the first book on oud making. After Lundberg’s renaissance lute construction book that came out, Hankey’s book, he’s opened up, he’s broken up the secrets about oud making. It’s not a taboo anymore. If you buy the book you can get in to it, you can see a few things. He doesn’t teach you acoustics, he doesn’t teach you the feel of the spruce, what’s flexible, what’s not flexible, what’s stiff, he gives you the dimensions, here’s a sample of an oud made in 1902, those were the dimensions, do it this way. Glue this, put this… Acoustics, which is the main ingredient and what makes an instrument responsive, a bunch of them will bring you to it and drive away from it. They will give you a little whiff, but they never sell it to you. So there’s a whole lot of experimentation. Even in the western world, that’s kept close to the chest, but as far as how it’s made, parts are, how you go about it, how you put things together…

BG: Did your work with J.B. help you with the acoustic parts on this at all?

GW: Working with J.B. opened up some doors. Now, as far as the acoustics of a violin, it’s a completely different method of vibration. The violin you know, flanks and everything around the graduations of the top you go from about an 1/8th of an inch in the center and you taper down to about 5/64ths (uncertain of fraction) which is pretty thin around the edges. Now you want that flexibility to help your treble tone, so with the movement of that top, which will go almost in a speaker-like fashion, even though some might tell you that the sound goes in circles and stuff. No, I mean the sound is nothing but a transferred pressure wave. Our ears get that pressure wave and our brain interprets that pressure wave for a certain frequency, for a certain sound, that’s how we hear. So from your end as a sender, you’ve got to be creating pressure waves. The whole thing is an air pump. You have to vibrate enough and move the air in different frequencies so that those pressure waves will travel and get in your ear and interpret it into sound.

BG: Ok.

(Videographer switches tape, begins third tape)


BG: Ok, so we were talking about kind of all the different influences when you, you went to the hall of fame with…

GW: J.B. Miller, yea.

BG: Were there other people there giving you advice?

GW: Yeah, there was some, there was a violin maker, I remember, and I couldn’t believe it. We all joked and laughed about it after it was said and done. This guy was claiming that he gets better tone if the tone wood is soaked in cow urine for a little bit for a while. I’m not sure…

BG: Do you clean it out afterwards, or just keep it in there?

GW: I don’t know that we even asked him anything at that point. J.B. took his plaque and Bill Bauer of Louisville that had a Miller violin played, and we came back home when J.B. got that plaque and hanged it in the house.

BG: What was J.B. like, was he a nice guy?

GW: Very nice guy, very kind, very generous. Sweet man, whatever he has he will give you. He gave me that violin.

BG: Yea, tell us about that, can we look at that violin?

GW: Yes sir. This is a violin I’ve always liked. This is a J.B. Miller violin in curly maple. It had a little of a birth mark, I knew it because of this line and this little knot thing here. So what happened, this is after he started teaching Art Mize in the shop, I come from Frankfort and J.B. will break in his violins kind of in a circling fashion, he will circle them. He goes upstairs, he has this one area with two beds and he has all the violins lying on the bed with covers, and he’d grab one and bring downstairs into his bedroom and that’s the one he plays. So I went into the house, and I kind of recognized it and I played it, and I was like man I love the way this one responds. I went back out to the shop, and I was telling that to Art Mize that was in the shop. As I was saying it I did not know that J.B. was coming from the house to the shop, and he heard me say that, and I said, Art, there is a violin on the bed in J.B.’s bedroom that’s just absolutely amazing. Of course, to me, some people have different tastes and they may like and they may not, I’m not sure, but to me this was like a fine sounding violin.

Well I didn’t make much out of it and I get back in to the house after I talked to Art and then the next thing, here comes J.B. with the violin and he had it in a paper bag and J.B. goes, “Son, I won’t be here much longer. Take it.” I’m like, oh, what? Like, no. I started crying and said no, I can’t take it and he goes, “Well, how about if you give me one of your violins?” Will make it look like it was an exchange. I finally did. I gave him number 4 that I made and he kept it until after he died and then Art Mize got it, and Art Mize switched it right handed because it was left handed.

BG: And so it was yours? He didn’t want to give it back to you?

GW: Well at that point it was part of the deal. I had J.B.’s violin and I didn’t feel to be in any position to ask for it back because I have this.

BG: That’s very nice.

GW: I didn’t want to…

BG: Which do you think was a better violin, yours or his?

GW: This, his…

BG: Yea?

GW: Yea… Art, I just learned recently, around 2010 when the World Equestrian Games were going on Art was playing at the airport welcoming all of the international visitors and they had an article on him with his violin and so on and my violin was in there and I knew it right away because of the color it was. And the next thing, he emailed me and tells me, “George, I think I have a buyer for that violin.” And I said cool, and you know a few months went by and then he said that it sold for like $3500.00 dollars to an orchestra player from either Centre College or Maysville, I don’t remember the location, but I took it as a compliment. Definitely it’s his money, he took it after J.B. died, I’m happy with this… 6:00BG: Did J.B. leave a will?

GW: I have no idea.

BG: Ok.

GW: Yea, I didn’t even…

BG: But Art kind of took over his shop after he died, right?

GW: Right.

BG: So, I mean, after you had been there I guess?

GW: Yes, I started making them and then Art came into the picture and I tried to help Art with a few cello bridges and so on, but he got too busy and was doing volumes and I couldn’t help him as much and I got busy with other things. So, I’m happy to have this, really.

BG: Oh yea, it looks beautiful.

GW: It’s beautiful. It sounds great. Can’t complain. To me this is testimony of J.B. Miller, the man that he was, the man, he puts his heart into making an instrument like this that’s worth thousands, that he hands it to you and says it yours, take it.

BG: He must have really respected you to give that to you.

GW: We had a good relationship. I loved him and he loved me. We were friends for 10 years. I did anything he wanted me to do, I helped him with a bunch of things that I could, and apparently he appreciated it and I appreciate this too.

BG: Did he have a wife or anything at the time?

GW: Yea. His wife was Mary Montgomery from Lancaster.

BG: Ok. And she was still alive?

GW: She was still alive. Yea, when he was 100 and 3 months he died.

BG: Wow.

GW: A month and a half after Mary died. They were in the nursing home and I used to go and visit them there and so on.

BG: When you make an instrument, what does it feel like to you? What kind of satisfaction do you get out of it?

GW: Creating something from nothing has a whole lot of reward inside. It’s a very good question. I’m not sure that I can give you a few words, but there’s a lot of pleasure, a lot of anticipation, it’s like a pregnant woman wants to see her kid come out and wants to see what it looks like. You’re working, it’s like cooking a tasteful meal, you’re working all the ingredients, putting your love at each step, caring for the elements and putting them together to a point where you’re excited and anticipated the fine tune you are shooting for.

BG: That’s a long process, right?

GW: Yes, yes, you got to have the patience, you got to have the talent, the skill to use the tools, I mean there are a whole lot of stations to stop and learn as you progress into the making. You have to do for example inlay, you want to do the purfling on the violin, well, you’ve got to stop the carving and now you want to dig a trench and sink the purfling into the trench tight without much mistakes around the edges that the eye can see. So there’s a lot of stop and learn like you know, tangential tasks that you gotta perfect as you move forward.

BG: Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you feel…

GW: Sometimes you feel good, sometimes something breaks, and sometimes you’re not completely happy with something. I have, even on this oud, when I glued the first two ribs on it, there was something that bothered me on the first rib when I lined it up and glued it that kept nagging me when I put the second one. I realized I had made a mistake and I decided…

BG: When you put the second what on?

GW: The rib of the bowl.

BG: Oh ok.

GW: This is the rib, the first rib and the second rib (demonstrates on oud). Glued both strips.

BG: And then you realized you’d made a mistake?

GW: Yea, and then I realized I wasn’t completely happy with, I know, at that point I just break it, break it off the mold, pull it off the neck block, pull it off the tail end block, clean, start again. Don’t want to have any regrets. You know, not necessarily be a perfectionist from the angle of you know, you’re never happy. Like J.B. Miller will say, “Well enough, just shoot for good enough. If it’s well enough, leave well enough alone.” And I’ve learned that, but again, my well enough has to do with whether or not I can stand keeping something that’s not right or that I should just stop, if it’s worth stopping and starting again. There’s a whole, I mean a final product, it may have been, it’s a journey in making, making maybe slight mistakes, correcting, redoing, straightening out, it’s tedious, takes a lot of patience, lot of love to do it. 7:00BG: I would imagine if you… 8:00(Interruption by videographer, slight glitch in tape, begins with discussion on new topic) 9:00GW: Wipe it, brush it, 10 to 15 minutes, wipe it, brush it, 2 to 3 coats you’re sealed and the next thing you put 4 or 5 coats of oil varnish and you’re done. Then you put it down. 10:00(Interruption by videographer, instructs interview to start again with regarding to using varnish on violin) 11:00BG: So, I was talking about the finish on this. If you could hold this up…

GW: Yes, the way I finished this oud is, when, after sanding the wood down and I actually varnish it with steel, you know four zeros, steel… wool.

BG: Steel wool?

GW: Right. Make sure it’s clean. Then I get the microfiber cloth and I clean out all the remains from the steel wool. Blow some air on it. Clean it up. When I’m happy, the next thing is to seal it, or if you don’t want to seal it you can apply the oil varnish and it might be 12 coats, 12 to 13 to 14, depending on how thick the material is that you have, so you have to play with that for a little bit. You can thin it with turpentine.

What I’ve done on this, I have sealed the wood with egg white, I guess they call it albumin, if I’m not mistaking. It’s basically breaking the egg, putting the yolk on one side, leaving it alone, straining the egg white through a little screen, putting the stuff in the cup, getting this wide brush, you know just take the egg white and brush it all over. If there are any lumps you want to remove those. You want to wait 10 to 15 minutes till it dries. Then you can give it a little steel wooling, even it all out. Do another coat.

BG: I’m surprised you aren’t wiping it off.

GW: No. It goes in, it soaks in, and then it dries. If there are any lumps you can wipe off or you can sand down.

BG: Why is that better than sealer that you can buy at the store?

GW: It was one way that I wanted to try. You can do shellac, you can shellac it.

BG: So the egg white, it doesn’t attract bacteria or anything?

GW: No, no, I did three coats, and I steel wooled it again, and I put on the oil varnish. Took about 4 to 5 coats at best.

BG: Are you hand rubbing it in like hand oil?

GW: Just a little piece of cloth and… (Demonstrates rubbing on oud). Leave it alone. Come back and steel wool it for any lumps or high spots, and then come back and do another coat. And then give it, do one in the morning, one in the evening. Go to work, come back in the evening and put one. In the morning, in 2 or 3 days you’ve built it enough, then you basically pumice it, rub it down with the rubbing compound. Pumice, and then you can go to a finer compound, the grey rubbing stone. When that’s done, then you can put a very thin coat of the oil back on there and then it will be as shiny as you see it.

BG: It’s beautiful.

GW: Thank you.

BG: And is it walnut?

GW: Claro walnut and curly mahogany.

BG: Do you think its art what you do?

GW: Well, if it’s not art, what is it? I don’t know. I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide. There’s a love element. If there’s no love, there’s no work. If there’s no love, there’s no drive to make. I don’t know that I will continue to become commercial in as much as I would probably want to be in the position where I can, where I will make one a year, but if someone wants two then I’ll get to work, but maybe I won’t have, I don’t want to burn out. I don’t want to go through a point where I’m like, oh, I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I want to protect it by allowing it to be as comfortable as possible until there’s high enough demand and then I’ll deal with that situation when it comes.

BG: For now you’ve got it at a rate that keeps you happy.

GW: Mhm.

BG: If you did more right now it might make you burnt out.

GW: Right. Especially if there’s no demand, and then it’s like why am I making those?

BG: Well, do you see people buying them from you? Have you sold a couple?

GW: I’ve sold, yea, I’ve sold 2 or 3. My second oud is in Lebanon, I play it when I go, I took it with. The first oud is in Louisville.

BG: Now let me ask you about that one because she doesn’t even play it, does she?

GW: No, she doesn’t. Actually…

BG: Does that bother you?

GW: No.

BG: Ok.

GW: She wanted it, and she bought it. Now, she has gone through a bumpy road. It cannot economically, with her father dying, something about her job, found, I sent an email to my email list and I actually managed someone on the email list that had interest and bought it from her.

BG: Oh really?

GW: Yea, and so she got the money, she actually sold it, but then someone else has it and they’re happy with it.

BG: Ok, because we borrowed it for the Made to be Played exhibit at the Historical Society, and it’s funny because it was made to be played but she didn’t play it.

GW: Right.

BG: That’s kind of funny. Now it is being played by someone?

GW: I would say so, yea.

BG: That’s good; it found a home where it can be played. It just bothered me to have an instrument that nice just sitting there.

GW: I played it actually. I had made it and started playing it until she saw me play it in Louisville at gig and she wanted it.

BG: Ok.

GW: That’s how it became hers.

BG: How much did you sell it for, if I might ask.

GW: About $1500.00.

BG: $1500.00, ok.

GW: Yea, it was my first oud. That’s probably reasonable for me. I’m not going to ask for a whole lot. I want to try to basically get my foot in the door, and in an attempt to recover some of the costs I’ve spent into the equipment and the tools.

BG: Are you happy with the results of your last couple of ones? 12:00GW: Oh yea. This is super satisfying for me. When I play it I’m happy with it.

BG: Now, if you gave it to the superstar that you mentioned before, what’s his name, that you played with before…

GW: Simon Shaheen.

BG: Yea, do you think he’d like it?

GW: I would say so, because I’ve showed him. One time he had a show at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and he said bring it with you. So I took that first oud top that his brother told me to make, in replacement to this oud top, he wanted to see it. Took it up to Dayton and watched his show and I showed it to him, and I played it for him and he was like, continue. Keep going. And, I kept going.

BG: Do you still play for the community, besides… you mentioned earlier that you played with another guy, you played for the Lebanon community…

GW: Not quite because the gentleman that I mentioned, he moved back overseas. I have played with another performer in Lousiville. He moved back to Qatar. Right now I appease private parties in Lexington, Lousiville, Cincinnati, if they need anything…

BG: What kind of private party?

GW: For like, maybe an Arabic group, that they want strictly Arabic music. Voice, I do the singing, and I also play the oud. I take my sound system, go there and give them a gig. I also play with the Fusion Flamenco group, Alma Gitana. We’re at the point right now, we have an assortment of fusion flamenco, that I participate in, in terms of oud lines, violin lines, percussion, and also Arabic songs that are palatable. I use the word palatable to the local mind here. You don’t want to give them a very juicy Arabic song that it might end up being a little hard to digest, you want something…

BG: You mean because it’s long, or because its…

GW: Not because it’s long, not the length. There are three quarter tunes in Arabic, there’s a whole bunch of complex scales called maqams. You want to stay around what’s acceptable, and so we discussed and I said look I’m thinking about this piece of music here and let’s see, do you think we can run that in the group. And they say, “Yea, let’s do it,” or, “That’s too thick,” so we stick to what we think works best. And we have about 7 or 8 Arabic songs, Egyptian, Lebanese, slow, fast, people will come up and dance. So we are doing fusion flamenco, with Stuart Walden singing in Spanish, and then it’s like, the next thing I’m on the oud or the violin doing a Lebanese song. So the ear, when they watch us play, it’s never getting board, it’s going from oh, what’s this, to always keeping it wowed.

BG: Well the name is “Fusion,” it’s a fusion so, if you were going to play for an…

GW: Arabic community event?

BG: Yea, you’d do the thick stuff right?

GW: Yes, and it all depends on the crowd. It’s a matter of judgment. You’re sitting there, you’re thinking, are they all Lebanese, do they like the fast stuff, do they like the juicy stuff, it’s a matter of trying and then seeing how they respond and then you can switch gears and go back to other styles. At the end of the session usually you would switch to the slower, mellower, but more enchanting. In Arabic music there’s this element of, they call it in Arabic, tarab, t-a-r-a-b, as in the enchantment of the mind. There is this elevation, a state of being elevated above the clouds, emotionally and mentally, that you only get to through that style of singing. And it could be that the melody is so enchanting, could be that the voice of the singer is so enchanting, or that you have both. For example, Um Kalthoum, the woman in the book that I showed you a little earlier, her picture was on the cover, Um Kalthoum was the enchanter of the whole Middle East. When Um Kalthoum sang, way back then, it was usually Thursday night when she sang and she’d sing for three hours and everybody in the Middle East was sitting at the radio, and we’re talking about 40 years ago. Thursday night, from this hour to this hour, everybody sat listening and, you know, the ah’s, when they say something is ahh inspiring, as a result of being enchanted there’s this ahh, the feel of, kind of ecstatic.

BG: But you kind of really have to be part of the culture to understand that right?

GW: It’s very complicated, yes.

BG: And so, you saw your parents respond to it, and then you responded to it, and it just became part of…

GW: Right, right, and not necessarily that every person in the Middle East can favor that style. The more I go around there’s a whole bunch of people that want the dancing style. They want this folkloric, almost like a line dance when they do the depka, they join shoulders and they do the swing, to me that’s not enchanting, that’s like repetitious of some simple melody.

BG: Do you think that’s enchanting for western audiences? Or, are they not prepared for it?

GW: I have done that in Louisville at Café Classico, and it depends. You will have somebody from an American background that comes to you and says, hmm, what you’ve done over there with that song, you’ve grabbed my heart, and I didn’t know it, I was just being myself, trying to emote a certain song.

BG: Does it help to give some background to it before you play it?

GW: I do, I do. I actually translate the words.

BG: Do you talk about the enchantment stuff that you just told me?

GW: Not necessarily in that fashion. As I would explain what the next song was going to be, and I translate, I make an effort to translate the lyrics.

BG: How you just explained it to me makes me want to hear something like that, but I would think if you talked about the enchantment and how you heard this when you were in Lebanon it might be a key for other people… Maybe not, maybe it’s too complex. Know what I’m saying? I feel like I wouldn’t mind going home and playing or hearing some of that, listening to that music and playing that, if I knew enough about it. That’s how I feel about almost all music; I have to know something about it before I can…

GW: Right, right.

BG: … understand why it’s important. I guess you’re saying that guy in the restaurant kind of got it by himself, which is good too, right?

GW: He invited me, and also it was more like a cosmopolitan café where people from different backgrounds came. There were people from North Africa, a bunch of people that knew Arabic and the Arabic community will come. I had a very diverse audience at the time.

Now with the enchantment, if I may say, it’s this getting the mind to a phrase, a musical phrase, and the repetition of that musical phrase up to a point when you make a little twist. And so there mind’s going ahh, every time you repeat it and twist it one way or another and change the length of a note in that phrasing at the expense of another one being important in an enchantment way, that’s where you grab it. It’s complicated.

BG: I’ve heard some Indian music doing something like that, like Robby Shankar. Is that similar in a way, where they go on and on and then they change it a little bit?

GW: Yes, yes a little change.

BG: And then you kind of relish that change?

GW: Absolutely, absolutely.

BG: So you really couldn’t play something like that because you’d have to play it for a long time, like yourself, I was going to ask you to play something, but you can’t really do that can you?

GW: We can try.

BG: If you feel like it.


BG: I think we’re good. We can end after that if you want to.

GW: We can try if you want. 14:00(Wakim performs on oud) 15:00(Wakim stops)

GW: I’m sorry. I’m not quite getting the words. I’ve repeated the thing, I’ve made a little tweak here and there, and that’s basically what it would do. Now, there might be other voices that can do it better.

BG: I kind of (unable to discern due to strum on oud)…

GW: Did you? But I’ve forgotten the words, so I don’t know if you want to do it, if you’ll keep this.

BG: I think it will be good for people to see what it can do.

GW: Want me to repeat and go through it? It actually continues (demonstrates), but I wouldn’t want to go back to the beginning. Then we’re like doing a recording thing.

BG: That’s ok.

GW: It would be a little more tedious.

BG: Well I’d like to come down and hear you sometime when you play like that. Are there some records that you’d recommend to somebody that wanted to hear music like this?

GW: If you get on YouTube, very easily you can say oud Kalthoum on YouTube, you’ll get all different kinds of videos of this lady here, an Egyptian band in the background. Let’s see, Um, like in English if you were to spell it, U-m, K-a-l-t-h-o-u-m.

BG: Ok.

GW: Um Kalthoum, then you start getting all the different video clips. And…

BG: Could you send me that in an email tomorrow maybe?

GW: Absolutely. Yes.

BG: Yea, that’d be great. I’ll try it out. Anything else you want to say? This is one of the longest interviews we’ve ever done I think.

GW: Yea, right. Wow.

BG: With the hour outside and then in here. Do you think we covered everything pretty much?

GW: I guess, yea.

BG: Well, thank you.

GW: Thank you.

BG: Is it ok if we keep this in the archives and let other people see it?

GW: Sure, sure.

BG: Ok, great.

GW: And, as far as the program airing at some point, do you all have a…

BG: Well, we don’t know what she’s actually going to do with these. There’s no program planned right now. It’s more, interview all the luthiers…

(Recording stops at 1: 16:00 )