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Sound Training Workshop
Hasan al-Ajami

Safeguarding the Song of Sana'a: challenges and issues

by Samir Mokrani

This article is based on an address to the Society by the author, a musicologist, at Goodenough College, London, on 23 November 2010 

The Song of Sana'a: a brief introduction 

The Song of Sana'a or ghin' san'n, is one of the main kinds of Yemeni music. It can be described as a traditional urban genre, derived from various poetic traditions dating from the 14th century, which constitutes an integral part of social events, such as the samra (night-long wedding celebrations), and the magyal, the daily afternoon gathering of friends and colleagues at which the mildly narcotic leaf qat is chewed. Thus, the Song of Sana'a is a major component of the traditional urban elite's culture, made up of musicians, poets, writers or just connoisseurs. More than a kind of music, it represents a whole micro culture, with its own social codes, aesthetic and vision of the world.

The ghin' san'n is performed by a solo singer who accompanies himself on the Yemeni lute qanbs/turb or the Arabic lute 'd. He is sometimes also accompanied by a traditional copper plate player (sahn mmyie/nuhs).

The UNESCO Action Plan and its implementation 

Mostly as a result of Jean Lambert's efforts, the Song of Sana'a was proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the World Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. Dr. Lambert was then in charge of writing an Action Plan proposal, helped in this task by Sabrina Kadri and myself; both of us were then trainee researchers at CEFAS (The French Centre for Archaeology and Social Sciences in Sana'a), where Jean Lambert had become the new director, and were studying for our masters. The proposal benefited from a UNESCO/ Japanese Trust Fund which supported the project from 2006 to 2009, in cooperation with the Yemen Social Fund for Development (SFD), the Ministry of Culture and CEFAS.

It was logical that the Yemeni Centre for Musical Heritage(YCMH) was chosen as the official implementing agency of the UNESCO Action Plan, and its director, Mr. Jaber Ali Ahmed, was appointed as the National Coordinator, while I was the Administrative and Scientific Coordinator.

The project's activities encompassed the following:

  • preparation and development of an inventory of the Song of Sana'a;
  • establishment of archives within the institutional infrastructure of the YCMH and the training of researchers in the techniques of field survey and data collection;
  • encouraging the transmission of the Song of Sana'a, through the establishment of master classes and scholarships for students;
  • preservation of the musical instruments through lute-making workshops, with scholarships for students;
  • awareness-raising campaign and dissemination of recordings, together with the production of promotional documentation such as CDs, DVDs and books.

Mixed results: Issues and problems faced by the executive team 

The archiving constituent can be considered as a success, as we managed to build a computer database with more than 300 melodies. We also released an official CD of archive recordings, and a history of the Song of Sana'a is due to be published in a few months. However, the results we obtained concerning the other aspects of the project, namely the recording of living masters and musicians, and the setting up of musical and instrument making skills transmission workshops were much less positive, and this for the reasons that are discussed below. Thus, we only managed to record a group of traditional religious chanters (munshidn or nashshdn) and two living masters of the Song of Sana'a. On the transmission side, the musical workshops were, to be honest, a complete failure, while only two young men benefited to a certain degree from the lute making workshops.

Work & personal relations

First of all, and as a preliminary remark, I would like to explain my personal position. When I was appointed as the Administrative and Scientific Coordinator, I built up a close friendship with two men who were supposed to play a major role in the transmission activities, namely the lute maker Fuad al-Qutur and the master singer Hasan al-Ajam. Up to a point, I was even considering the latter as my master for learning the very demanding tradition of the Song of Sana'a, as I had spent several hours at his house singing, learning and chewing qt. Unfortunately, I discovered that these personal links made things much more complicated, particularly in regard to financial matters, than if I had been an outsider; unfortunately, my relations with these two men changed considerably.

Music and musicians in Yemen, a still ambiguous status

As to the failure of the recording and the transmission activities, it is clear that the still negative status of music and musicians in Yemeni society played a major part. The dubious moral reputation of musicians is partly due to religious factors (the Zaydi Imamate was always quite strict on this issue), but also to a code of honour related to the tribal social organisation specific to Yemen, which, in our case, had direct consequences: the musician who can be considered the last real traditional qanbs player and singer simply refused to be recorded or teach his music to young musicians. For him, it was not music in itself that appeared to be the cause of the problem, but his appearance in public as a musician. He once told me an anecdote, which, despite the fact that it relates to 20 years ago, is still relevant today: My father once told me: my son, this music which I play and which my father played before me and his father before him is a treasure, and I would be glad to teach it to you. But if I hear that you have played it outside the house, I will kill you!

Transmission and competition

Regarding the tradition of lute making, we were confronted with a very practical problem. Mr. Fuad al-Qutur (al-Gudaym), identified as the last of the old-style Yemeni lute makers, was quite happy when he first heard that our project would support him by employing him as a lute-making teacher. But after a while, as he considered that the amount we could pay him for teaching was not enough, he told me: OK, if I teach three or four young people, then they will be able to make turb by themselves and to sell them as well. So in the long term, they will become competitors to my own business No, the only solution is that you pay me a big amount in compensation for revealing my skills. Here we can see all the dilemmas and limitations of our project.

Yemen, social changes and globalization: an evolution of musical tastes

As a matter of fact and like most traditional societies in the world, Yemen has been facing huge socio-cultural changes for about 30 years, with a particular peak in the urban areas from the 90's up to now. These violent upheavals, of course, also occurred in the musical field, resulting in notable changes in the younger generation's musical tastes. Anyone who has spent some time in Sana'a, Aden, Taiz or any other urban area in Yemen would immediately notice that many young people, let us say between 10 and 40 years old, frequently listen to Lebanese, Egyptian or Khalj (Gulf) pop music. Certainly, this phenomenon increased with the spread of television and more general use of the internet.

Despite this, however, local musical styles still seem to enjoy quite a large success, with a well-defined variety of characteristics or "colours" (alwan) according to the person's origins and/or the place where he was born and grew up. As for the Song of Sana'a, I would say that the issue is much more related to the internal formal changes that happened in the repertoire itself. What I mean here is that the ghin sann that is sung today is not the same as the one former generations used to listen to. From a highly sophisticated music that can almost be compared to a kind of initiatory tradition, it has become a popular music. The best example is the adoption of the large Arabic d in place of the earlier, smaller qanbs/turb. Thus, many young Yemenis told me: Yes, the turb is nice, but the d sounds stronger and better


It seems obvious that the global conditions now confronting the Song of Sana'a are unlikely to favour its preservation. However, although the implementation of our Action Plan has been unable to avoid the Song's progressive disappearance, the process has at least stimulated a debate, and opened up new opportunities for action. But only a genuine political will on behalf of those concerned among the Yemeni authorities will achieve a real safeguarding and promotion of this unique tradition.

Vol 19. 2011
Samir and Marwan, trainee musicians
Muhammad al-Juma
Fuad al-Qu'turi, Sana'a instrument maker, working on a qanbus