Sounds of wisdom

by Paul Hughes-Smith

Paul Hughes-Smith served as an Associate Producer for BBC TV in its Music, Arts and Education Departments before retirement in 1999. Since then he has been active in helping to put together ‘Sacred Voices’ and then ‘Diaspora Music Village’ festivals. Of particular interest to him are the links between music from the southern regions of Yemen and that from countries of the Yemeni diaspora in East Africa and Asia.

Yemen seems a long way from the East African coast and the island of Zanzibar, yet whenever I listen to music from Hadhramaut in southern Yemen, I am always reminded of Zanzibar and its foremost traditional style of music, taarab. Much Hadhrami music displays the influence of East Africa both in its frequent use of Swahili in the lyrics and in the fuller, almost orchestral sound of its larger violin-led groups. Also, to Western ears, the melodies are often more attractive and memorable than other music from the Arab world.

I had been instrumental in bringing two fine Hadhrami groups, Say’un Popular Arts and the Al-Ahmady group from Mukalla, to London for the Diaspora Music Village Festivals in 2002 and 2004 (with financial support on both occasions from the British-Yemeni Society), so when I read that a new festival of music Zauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) had started in Zanzibar in 2004 and that they were looking for artists for 2005, these two groups immediately came to mind. Not only were the musical links appropriate but both this new festival and the more established ZIFF film and music festival have as one of their main aims the building and strengthening of ties between ‘the countries of the dhow region’, an objective qualifying Yemen – from Tihama to Hadhramaut – for instant inclusion.

Brochures, photographs and recordings were duly sent off to both festival directors in the safe hand of a personal courier organised with the help of Sa’id al-Gheithy. The response was instantaneous and enthusiastic: yes, they would like both groups to participate so perhaps they could be shared between the two festivals. Luckily there seemed to be no jealous rivalry between the festivals, as is often the case over here, so I decided to concentrate on arranging for the Say’un group to go to the Zauti za Busara festival in February and then think about Al-Ahmady for perhaps the other festival in July. This was partly due to the fact that communications are slightly easier with Say’un, there being an email connection with the unfailingly supportive director of the Say’un Museum, Abdul Rahman al-Saqqaf, and with Abubakr al-Hamid, until recently the local director of the Ministry of Culture, who accompanied the group on their London visit in 2002. It has to be said that without these two wonderful people, I would never have found the group in the first place, and would certainly not have obtained the finance to cover the cost of air fares and other expenses for their visit to Zanzibar.

Nevertheless, it was no easy business being the man-in-the-middle coordinating travel arrangements, contracts, visas and material for the festival programme. The experience really makes one wonder how groups went anywhere before the days of mobile ‘phones and emails. Here I have to thank Yusuf Mahmud, the director of the festival, for his patience, doggedness and, no doubt, his belief that a group from Yemen was really worth having despite all the difficulties along the way.

As always, the chief obstacles to arranging the group’s travel were the air fares and visas for nine people. The first was solved through the generosity of the Governor of Hadhramaut and the Prime Minister of Yemen who between them provided the tickets; the second was not so easy. Tanzania has no diplomatic representation in Yemen, and although their website says that nationals from such countries can obtain their visas on arrival at the airport, I luckily found out in time from the Tanzanian Embassy in London that the group would need ‘referral visas’ in advance. This news precipitated a flurry of emails, faxes and text messages between all parties, which continued until the moment the group arrived in Zanzibar; the final problem being that nobody in Say’un knew how to open the attachments with the visas which I had emailed to them just before my flight to Zanzibar. I remember my relief on arrival at receiving a text message from Abubakr al-Hamid: ‘al-hamdu lillah we have opened them!’

Abubakr had insisted on my being included in the group. As it seemed sensible to join them in Zanzibar rather than in Yemen, I travelled direct, arriving a few days ahead of the group and the start of the 4-day festival.
This journal is not really the place to describe the delights of Zanzibar and Stonetown, the old part of the capital where the festival is held. Suffice it to say that Zanzibar is still an island paradise with streets mercifully too narrow for cars, and with a relaxed way of life enhanced by the courtesy and hospitality of its inhabitants. The Say’un group were given a wonderful welcome by everyone on the island from the moment they arrived on the ferry from Dar-es-Salaam – to be greeted by a traditional Beni brass band – throughout their stay until they left a week later.

Our modest hotel, tucked away in a tangle of alleyways, was also accommodating the al-Tanbura group from Port Sa’id, whom I knew well from a previous festival. Although I had hoped for some musical interaction, performance schedules and sleep patterns meant, alas, that the two groups hardly met.

Despite the fatigue of having travelled for 24 hours on their flight from Sana’a, with a surprise stop in the Comoros, the Say’un group came with me in the afternoon to attend a performance by the wonderful ‘ud player, Zein al-Abdin from Mombasa. He has the same percussive and highly rhythmic style of ‘ud playing as Yemeni musicians, and after he had finished, the Say’un group danced for a few moments in front of the stage to show their appreciation.

On Sunday, the day of their actual performance, we did a lengthy sound check on the stage in the Old Fort where the festival is held. This fort was built by Omani Arabs in about 1700 and its grassy interior, surrounded by crenellated walls, made a perfect auditorium for the festival, with most people sitting on the ground and thus getting in for free, while VIPs and Western tourists sat to one side on white plastic chairs in a roped-off area.
The group returned to the hotel to rest before their 9pm performance, and caused me some anxiety by sauntering back, in true Yemeni style, rather too close to the start time for comfort. Dressed in their trademark green and gold futahs, they had their instruments ready and tuned by the time the preceding Zimbabwean group had left the stage, and we were then treated to a wonderfully vibrant and exciting 45 minutes of Hadhrami music.

Earlier, on seeing their passport details, I had been a little concerned to discover that apart from the lead singer Salem Mahyour, the composition of the group, due to a previous commitment in Dubai, was totally different to the one which had come to London. But I need not have worried, these performers were just as brilliant, and we also had the bonus of an additional solo singer, Muneer Rajab, with his unique and powerful voice. The fact that Abdullah, the keyboard player, was able to do all the introductions in fluent Swahili also went down extremely well with the locals. Naturally, the group chose some songs which they knew would resonate with Swahili speakers, and one could feel a frisson of recognition in the audience when these were played. The group came off stage to tumultuous applause and were later greeted and thanked by members of the island’s Hadhrami community.

As there is only one flight a week from Sana’a to Dar-es-Salaam, I was able to arrange other activities for the group such as a ‘spice tour’ visiting one of the plantations, which they all enjoyed. I had also been in correspondence with Werner Graebner, an ethno-musicologist and record producer who lives in Stonetown for much of the time, studying and recording taarab music. One of the principal taarab orchestras, Culture Music Club, with whom Werner works, invited the Say’un group to play at their club where they hold regular public rehearsals. This turned into a delightful and memorable evening recorded by Greek TV and German radio, and, by the end, all members of the orchestra, including the ladies, were singing along with the group. Werner also has a recording studio at the club, and arrangements were made to record a few tracks the following evening so that the group would at last have a CD of their music to help promote their work. In the event this did not happen until after I had left, due to the vagaries of the electricity supply which constantly disrupt Werner’s recording schedules.*

I sadly had to depart before the Say’un group, who had decided to extend their stay by a week in order to meet the Hadhrami community in Dar-es-Salaam and to give a last performance there at the request of the Yemeni ambassador. I have many fond memories of our visit: not only the group’s part in the festival concert but also their daily impromptu performances outside our hotel which amazed and delighted local children and stall holders, bringing all other activity to a standstill.

After my return I completed arrangements for the Al-Ahmady group from Mukalla to play at the ZIFF festival in July, the organisers having generously agreed to pay their fares from Sana‘a.

Note: * We are currently seeking the help and support of the Ministry of Culture for a visit by Werner Graebner to Yemen early next year to make a CD of Hadhrami music. Meanwhile, I have been in discussion with the Horniman Museum over their possible acquisition of a qanbus (the Yemeni precursor of the Arab lute or ‘ud, more commonly referred to in Sana’a as turbi) for their renowned instrument collection. Fuad al-Quturi is the last maker in Sana’a of this rapidly disappearing instrument and only a handful of musicians still know how to play it. We are hopeful that Fuad will be able to make a qanbus for the Museum’s collection; there would be an audio/visual accompaniment to the display of Yemeni instruments.

August 2005