Traditional music in the Yemen

by A. D. Bakewell

The recent visit to Britain of the lutenist and singer Hamud bin Junayd afforded the occasion to hear live Yemeni music in this country, a rare opportunity, despite the long-established Yemeni community here. His success in the competition at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen demonstrated the level of appreciation of his art and many expressed an interest in learning more of Yemeni music generally and its place in the wider context of the Arab world.

Given the country’s geographical position, poised 'twixt the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and its great cultural continuum, it is not perhaps surprising that the Yemen’s music traditions are immensely rich and varied. For millenia they have been the dominant influence in the music of the Arabian peninsula, and have been transmitted over a vast area from Indonesia to Africa. They are also, as most things Yemeni, distinctive, having only a peripheral relation to the main streams of music in the eastern (mashraq) and western (maghrab) Arab world. (Perhaps this singular situation is deserving of a new category - majnub?)

The pre-eminence of poetry in Yemeni culture cannot be overstated, and its importance to music is illustrated by the story of an accomplished lute player from Baghdad, who visited the Yemen some years ago. He was invited to attend a gathering at the house of a well-known amateur poet and musician in Sana’a where he performed, as was his custom, a highly technical and brilliantly executed lute solo lasting nearly an hour. When the music stopped, there was a pregnant pause in the room. The guests, who had sat patiently chewing qat throughout, waited expectantly. The Iraqi, it seemed, had finished! To a Yemeni, such an instrumental piece, however interesting, was merely a prelude to sung poetry, without which the performance was simply incomplete.

It may be too much to say that poetry gave rise to music in the Yemen, but many poetic genres are intimately linked with the musical forms, and they have contributed much to the structure of Yemeni music. Certainly the metres often dictate the rhythmic patterns of the songs, and it is the special rhythmic quality of Yemeni music, above all else, which sets it apart and makes it so difficult for non-Yemeni musicians to master.

Poetry aligned with specific melodies and rhythm makes up the ‘corpus’ of Yemeni vocal music. The interpreter of the most formal of the sung poetry and, in a sense the guardian of the musical heritage, is the nashad. He sings, not in the melismatic vocal style which one associates with the Middle East, but in a sustained and high-pitched voice, often in a responsorial manner, with chorus (or several choruses) answering in alternating and changing refrains. This antiphonic form, though highly structured, complex and undoubtedly very old, is by no means restrictive. It accommodates melodic variation and improvisation and allows, even encourages, group participation. The effect on the listener, I can attest, is mesmerising.

Different poetic/musical genres require different settings, and one would hear the zamil at large tribal meetings, the razfah and balah at wedding celebrations, the dan at more intimate social gatherings and the qasidah in any number of situations. The madih and the mawlid (hymns of praise to honour the Prophet) are heard on appropriate religious occasions, but are perhaps more correctly described as recitations.

Vocal music has therefore predominated, particularly in the northern highlands where musical instruments have been largely discouraged and, in some periods of the Yemen’s history, even proscribed. In the early part of this century, the Imam Yahya prohibited their use (except in the military band) and forbad the ownership of gramophones. Nevertheless, both vocal and instrumental music continued to be enjoyed, often in clandestine conditions, and came bursting forth, often revitalised, when the prohibition was lifted.

Instruments, though rare, are certainly not unknown in the north. The tasah and marfa’, single and paired kettledrums, are indispensible to the bara’ and other important tribal dances throughout the highlands, and the tar frame drum provides the rhythmic accompaniment to religious singing in many parts of the Yemen. The celebratory tones of the mizmar or double clarinet, are commonly heard with the tabla drums and the baurayzan, a rare trumpet probably left over from the 19th century military bands, is occasionally carted out for ceremonial occasions.

It is in the coastal areas, however, that the greatest variety of instruments are found; large standing drums (madiff), frame drums (sahfah), double headed drums (hajir or tabla), and kettledrums (marfa’) make up ensembles of up to six members. (In the recent past, these same drummers would board dhows approaching harbour after long sea voyages and hire out their services to ‘drum’ the boat ashore with great flourish and fanfare).

Lyres, known in the Yemen in ancient times, are still to be heard in the coastal areas today As in Ethiopia, they are associated with magic and the large bowl lyre (tamburah) is used exclusively in healing ceremonies. The smaller box lyre (simsimiyah) is played by fishermen to accompany ghazal love songs. Its five strings are perfectly suited to the predominantly pentatonic music of the coast. Flutes, called shubbabah or qassabah are made either of metal or reed and are played either singly or in flute ensembles. Being of the simplest construction, they are perhaps the most widespread of instruments, though the Zaraniq tribe of the Tihamah are particularly renowned for their flute music.

An instrument of special significance to Yemeni music was the turbi, also called the qambus. A skin covered lute which, along with the copper plate (sahn nuhasi) and mirwas drum, accompanied the sung poetry of the urban art music, it was a particular target of suppression. Often referred to surreptitiously as kitab, or book, to avoid suspicion, some were even built with a hinged neck to allow the instrument to be bent double and hidden in the folds of the musicians’ clothing while walking in the streets. From the 1930s the qambus gradually gave way to the 'ud, the pear-shaped lute common to much of the Arab world and few if any players (mutrib) of this venerable instrument survive.

The music consisting of sung colloquial poetry to the accompaniment of the 'ud is nearest to what could be termed a ‘popular classical’ tradition. It is by no means a static one, however, and present day melodists, poets and musicians, though adhering to traditional forms, are constantly enlarging the repertoire with new songs. While it is in Sana’a where it has probably reached its highest expression, the tradition has absorbed characteristic melodies and rhythms from all over the Yemen: Lahej, Aden, Hadramawt, Udayn, Tihamah and so on, drawing upon regional styles and incorporating them into formalised and highly structured music for a specialised audience. In Republican Yemen, this audience has undergone something of a transformation. Once confined to intimate circles in the mafraj salons of the cities and towns of the Yemen, the music is now available to nearly everyone in the country through cassette, radio and television.

There are certain social groups that specialise in music making, but in every case the distinction is made between the amateur, who would never accept payment, and the professional, for whom the performance of music is a vocation. Amongst the professionals are the muzayyin or khaddam who are called upon to perform for special occasions such as weddings and circumcisions, the akhdam, professional entertainers, and groups such as the ma’an gypsies of eastern Yemen who function as peripatetic minstrels.

Though there are some notable female singers who accompany themselves on the 'ud, women generally restrict themselves to drums (the dakm or the tar) or more commonly handclapping, when accompanying group singing or the la’bah dance. Work songs make up the traditional daily life of both women and men and, in this category, we can still hear smithy songs, winnowing and grinding songs, songs for drawing water from the well, camel songs and sea shanties. One cannot, however, realistically sing a work song while operating a diesel pump and inevitably they are diminishing with increased mechanisation.

November 1995