Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich
Here I am again, quoting lines from yet another '80s pop tune, but that stanza from an old Men at Work song very nicely sums up the way I feel about my interactions with perfumer Abdes Salaam (aka Dominique Dubrana) of La Via del Profumo. Both in terms of his personality and the perfumes he sends me, he manages to occupy two places at the same time—the thrillingly foreign and the intrinsically familiar—and that’s how I’m feeling with this latest (very tasty) vegemite sandwich he's handed me—a perfume called Oud Caravan—and the invitation that preceded its arrival: the opportunity to take part in a fragrance project he is hosting at Basenotes.net, whereby through an interactive process with perfumistas (anyone who wants to participate, as well as a panel of ten Basenotes members who have been identified as “Oud fans”) he will attempt to create “the ultimate oud perfume.”
It didn’t take me long to latch onto this invitation. Despite the fact that there has been an explosion of oud-inspired perfumes in the niche sector over the past few years—to the point that it seems oud has been done to death—I knew that here would be my chance to finally learn what authentic oud smelled like, and to learn from someone steeped in the ways of Arabian perfumery. Due to its scarcity and exorbitantly high cost, oud is synthesized in most of the perfumes that bear its name—and I have to say, this doesn’t bother me one bit: you won’t find me throwing my Montale Black Aoud overboard just because the oud note isn’t real. But by the same token, I must admit this too: once I decided to accept Salaam’s invitation, I went really deep into my discovery (venturing far beyond what this project required) and ended up buying über expensive samples of pure oud oil, one of them so thrillingly complex I decided I couldn’t live without it; I think I actually saw stars before I hit the “Buy” button and everything went black.
Even so, at this point in my discovery I still do not know oud—have never smelled the burning chips, only the oils—have only tried two kinds of pure oud oils, when in fact there are many, all with different characteristics. And then there is this perfume of Abdes Salaam’s: the first version of Oud Caravan—to my nose, a leathery, peaty, animalic oud fragrance that is wild and gentle and foreign and familiar and nothing that I am qualified to judge. It smells to me like a man who has never had to follow the laws of cities and their men, but only the laws of nature, which in many ways is the toughest and most compelling of all laws. It’s a fragrance that at this stage of the game (in its first iteration) is a little too spartan and masculine for me to love without end, but at the same time, I find myself fascinated by its air of spiritual stillness (and don’t ask me to explain that descriptor, dear reader, because I can’t). What I can say is that the Oud Caravan project makes me want to inch ever closer to understanding oud and to be a part of something special—a unique opportunity to witness a perfume being created as a joint effort between the perfumer and the people who love perfume the most. If you’d like this opportunity too, I have three samples of Oud Caravan to give away (courtesy of the perfumer)—so if you’re interested, please drop me an email at email@example.com by Sunday, November 27th, saying you’d like to be in. [Note: The drawing is now closed; winners were Michael, Ines and Claudia.] Anyone can enter (from any country), with the only requirement being that you must be willing to express an opinion about it to the perfumer after you've had a chance to smell it, either via the Basenotes.net forum or, if you’re too shy for that, by passing the comment on to me so I can relay it to him. The winners of these three samples will also receive from me future samples of Oud Caravan, in its updated versions, so you can see how the fragrance develops.
Please continue reading my interview with Abdes Salaam below. While there’s a solid and straightforward explanation of the project at Basenotes, I had to know a little bit more—and Salaam being the generous perfumer that he is, kindly obliged me. (My questions to him are in the bold font; his responses are highlighted in blue).
The primary goal of your Oud Caravan project is a very ambitious challenge: to create "An Oud better than Oud, “the ultimate Oud fragrance". My understanding of what you mean is that you hope to create a fragrance in which the beauty of authentic oud is showcased by placing it, much like a jeweler would place a fine gem on a ring, in an olfactory setting that accentuates its characteristics (draws them out a bit). Is my understanding correct -- and/or would you like to expand on it more?
This is exactly the idea, an Oud better than Oud.
Making “the ultimate Oud fragrance” is more than an ambitious challenge, it is an “impossible mission.” For this purpose I have recruited an A-team of Oud lovers and experts from Basenotes, but I know that they will not be enough for achieving the mission. This is why I have also invited every perfume lover on the web to join the caravan. “The ultimate Oud fragrance” should be a “fall in love” not only for Oud lovers but also for all perfumistas.
I don’t know if we shall succeed, but the simple fact that we are joining together in the attempt is already a thrill. What we are experimenting with is a completely new approach to composing perfumes and to the relation of the perfumer with the public. The project Oud Caravan is laden with symbolic meaning and implications, we are challenging the pre-web traditional schemes of perfumery and we are participating in making the “Perfume Evolution.”
As you endeavour to create the ultimate oud fragrance with the feedback from your Basenotes panel, will you be letting the panel in on your creative process as you tweak the formula? In other words, will you be revealing perfume notes and accords used to achieve this, explaining the interplay between certain notes, etc?
The Basenotes panel of 10 experts is only a part of the participants, their views will be very important because they are “a difficult lot to satisfy”, but the rest of the public is even more important because Oud Caravan must be understandable to every perfume lover, otherwise it would lack the universality that is our goal.
The Oud experts will guarantee that there is no cheat about quality and that the fragrance is up to the highest standards of Oud. The perfumistas who are not Oud experts will ensure that the fragrance is worthy of the aesthetic canons of modern perfumery.
The nose is the least necessary instrument in the creative process of a perfume. The most important part in composing a fragrance is not choosing the ingredients but rather the logic and concepts that determine this choice.
In this sense the participants of this project ARE themselves the creative process.
They will be evaluating the new scents as their input shapes the fragrance, but their knowing the ingredients is of no use for this, it may even confuse their judgement. This is why I shall probably explain only at the end what ingredients were added or eliminated at different stages, because only when the work has been completed this knowledge will be useful to them for understanding the fragrance and the creative process that they themselves have generated and have shared.
For the participants who want to experience materially the process I have imagined a final kit that will contain all the separate ingredients of the perfume in dropper bottles with some vials. They will be able to recompose and remake Oud Caravan as they like with the very ingredients I have used.
Aside from creating the fragrance, what kind of insights do you, as a perfumer, hope to gain from the Oud Caravan project?
I cannot even imagine what I shall learn from the public in this experience because it is the first time that such a thing is done in such an interactive way.
The idea is to bring to life “the ultimate Oud fragrance" and my hope is for success, but it is very possible that we succeed only in making a “good” Oud fragrance or even a “very good” Oud fragrance, failing to produce a “fantastic” Oud fragrance. In any case it is clear to me that with the help of the perfumistas my chances to achieve this are much more realistic than if I were to do it alone.
Similarly, what kind of insights do you hope the project's participants will come away with in the process of evaluating your oud fragrance?
This is an educational project and I am glad first of all to let the perfumistas discover the smell of real Oud. Such an opportunity is not easy to come by, because of the difficulty to find authentic Oud.
They will participate in the process of the birth of a perfume which is basically how an idea becomes a smell. “The ultimate Oud fragrance" is the idea, the creative process is the public itself. It is very much like participating in a live concert instead of listening to music on the i-pod. In a live concert the public is taking part in the event and is being part of it. Being in a concert is experiencing another dimension of music. The project “Oud Caravan” proposes another dimension of experiencing perfume.
I think it's quite open-minded of you to invite someone like me to evaluate your oud perfume because, while I do attempt to educate my "nose," so to speak, I am a Westerner with only the most cursory knowledge of oud and Arabian-inspired perfumery. So even though I ordered some oud oil samples and tried to get an understanding of the note before evaluating the first version of your fragrance, there are many different kinds of ouds and I wondered if I might not be comparing apples to oranges when I made my comment in the Basenotes forum.
There are many varieties of lavender, but lavender is always unmistakably lavender. The same is true about Oud.
There are many fake and adulterated lavenders but when you have smelled the best ones you will always recognize the fake and the lower qualities. This is also true about Oud.
The comments of a non expert in Oud are precious to me because his evaluation of the smell is unprejudiced. Making a fragrance that satisfies Oud experts and at the same time makes the general public enthusiastic is the real challenge.
What kind of thoughts run through your head when you read the opinions of someone like me, who does not have a solid understanding of what constitutes a great oud fragrance?
Comments about fragrances are always more than mere opinions, they express feelings, and feelings are the essential thing about perfumes. I shall have to understand the feelings of the people through what they write in their comments. I have no idea yet how I shall process this information because this is a new experience. I only know that I shall have to do it. I trust completely that it will come naturally.
Is there anything further you would like to say about the project?
I am calling all web users interested in perfumes to participate, you are welcome to join the caravan. The project is not reserved to Basenoters, although you should register on our Basenotes group to obtain the free samples and to comment on our pages. The protocols for participation are very easy and simple, you can find them on the Oud Caravan project page.
Credits: photo titled Camel Caravan is from Wallpapersm.com. Lyrics excerpted at top of page are from the 1981 hit song "Down Under" by Men at Work, written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert.
November 22, 2011:
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You’re Invited: The OUD CARAVAN Project at Basenotes.net
Introduction, Drawing & Interview with Abdes Salaam of
La Via del Profumo