Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassem: Modernizing the Adeni Song

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

There are musicians whose names are associated with the names of their cities, and cities whose names are associated with the names of musicians. Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassem is one of those musicians. And the place most closely associated with his name is the city of Aden.

According to the historian Nada Aubali, “Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassem is Aden’s first musician of distinction and his work has enriched the musical taste of his public. He was one of the first musicians to introduce musical ensembles into Yemen’s musical performance structure, and was a leading figure in the modernization of Yemeni contemporary music. In addition to that, Qassem was also the first to introduce modern musical instruments, such as the guitar and accordion, to Yemeni songs”.

Qassem renewed the structure of the Adeni song and tried to develop it to echo the musical style that was popular in some cities at the center of Arab culture, such as from Egypt and the Levant. Beyond that he also aspired to reach a global audience; but the conditions in the country did not allow for this aspiration. The state, represented by the Ministry of Culture and other institutions, did not support his ambition, and he was unable to achieve global recognition through talent alone.

 art work courtsey of Basma Rawi art work courtsey of Basma Rawi

His life and passion for music

Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassem was born on 11 March 1938 in Aden, southern Yemen. He possessed a beautiful voice at a young age, and often performed the call for prayer at the Ba Nasir Mosque near his neighborhood. Qassem’s mother loved his solemn voice and hoped that he would become a reciter of the Quran with the instruction of the well-known religious sheikhs of Aden at the time. At her wish, he was sent to learn and memorize the Quran with Sheikh Muhammad Bin Salem al-Bayhani (d. 1972). During his studies, Qassem had an inclination to recite the Quran following the traditional Arabic maqam, and revealed a creativity in performance. It was at that time, according to his family, that Sheikh al-Bayhani advised his mother to let the boy follow his own path and dreams. Later, his mother responded with her now well-known statement: “I thought a thought that was disappointed, I wanted him to be a sheikh but he turned out to be a musician.”

Athar, the daughter of Qassem’s only sister, tells us that she had heard from his mother that he was “gentle hearted, ambitious and optimistic in his approach. He never allowed circumstances to be a stumbling block in his way”. She was told that, “He was still a child when his mother discovered his artistic talent at home. He would take the wooden seating they used during lunch, hammer a number of nails, place strings from fishing lines on them, and then take bird feathers to play”.

Qassem lost his mother and grew up as an orphan in a middle class family, and was the middle child among three siblings. He attended the Bazraa School and studied with the late Yahya Mekki who taught him a lot about music, including playing the oud. From there, his genius and talent began to bloom and he formed the Ahmed Qassem Revival Band, which was the basis for his artistic career, with his companions Mohammed Abdu Zaidi and Abdul Rahman Ba Junaid.

His main influences were the cultural dialogues on art, which took place during the musical and literary symposia that were held in spaces across Aden. These meetings and dialogues played a significant role in the musical development of Qassem and his fellow musicians.

In 1956 he studied music at the Higher Institute of Music in Egypt and received his diploma in 1960. Following his studies, he returned to Aden, where the music scene was witnessing a revival, and this is where he founded the Ahmed Qassem Revival Band in the same year. During this time, he performed many concerts on various occasions and recorded most of his songs. Qassem also traveled to several Arab countries in the Gulf where he gained wide fame, and later continued his music studies in Moscow and Paris.

In addition to singing, Qassem had a brief career in cinema while studying in Cairo. He starred in the 1966 film My Love in Cairo with the artist Zizi al-Badrawi. The rumors that the film was not a success are unfounded; the film successfully screened on Egyptian and Yemeni television, but unfortunately it did not achieve the expected financial revenues.

Qassem remained in contact with the great artist Farid al-Atrash. The two had met in Yemen, where al-Atrash invited him to play at the opening of his concerts in Egypt. Qassem later participated in the City Lights concerts, which were held by the greatest musicians in Egypt. During this period, Sawt al-Arab Radio recorded a few of his songs that were inspired by Egyptian music of the time. Among those songs were ‘Al Kawkab Al Sari’ (The planet) and ‘Kam Ahabak’ (How much I love you).

Al-Atrash was keen to invite Qassem to the spring festivals in Egypt. On one occasion, during one of his most popular concerts, crowded with fans of al-Atrash, Qassim gave a wonderful performance that floated from the stage to the audience, who filled the room with applause.

Qassem the father and the glorious musician

Speaking about her father, Naja, the youngest daughter of Qassem, tells us, “He is beautiful in voice and spirit. He is a Father in every sense of the word. He was my friend, teacher and role model in life. All the lessons I learned throughout my life were from him. He was with me at every step of my life”.

One of Naja’s most intense memories is the day her father fell unconscious. Recalling that unforgettable day, she says, “I attended several rehearsals and participated in some of the musical recitations. The one I remember is ‘Fate of the people’, by the great poet Abdullah Abdul Karim. It was in one of the rehearsals of this song that I saw the extent of devotion and loyalty my father felt towards to his work. At rehearsal, he would focus on each member of the choir and each one of the musicians. He would not tolerate any mistake or slip. During that rehearsal, one of the musicians was singing off pitch, and suddenly everyone was surprised by my father’s loud scream followed by a thud. He was lying on the ground, everyone rushed to him and he was taken to the hospital. The doctors said it was a silent heart attack”.

“At that time, I wondered at my father’s scrutiny of these details, but as I grew older and experienced the timeless work of my father, covered by other musicians and sung by the people, I understood why he was passionate about perfecting his performance”, she added.

Contribution, renewal and legacy

In April 2017, the House of Adeni Oud held an event marking the anniversary of Qassem’s death. On the occasion, a number of his pieces were performed on oud by four young musicians.

Many were influenced by Qassem, including his first student, the great musician and prominent oud player Ahmad Fathi. In a television interview, Fathi spoke of his fascination with Qassem’s music at an early age, and that he met him for the first time at the age of 12 when he performed in his hometown Hodeidah, in the west of Yemen. It was during that visit that Fathi insisted on meeting him and offered to perform for him. Qassem was impressed by the young boy’s performance, whom he later named Ahmad Fathi. Qassem advised him to move to Aden and develop his talent there. Later, Fathi followed his advice and traveled to Aden, where Qassem took him in and took great care of him.

 art work courtesy of Basma Rawi art work courtesy of Basma Rawi

Amir Abdullah, a young oud player, is another musician who spoke about the deep influence of Qassem’s music on him, and how he grew up listening to his songs: “Qassem is one of the founders of Adeni music; he dedicated his knowledge and the experience he gained during his study abroad to modernize and develop the Yemeni song. His work was a unique mixture of eastern maqams and western rhythms, where he also combined the Yemeni folk song and the tarab song. This approach created a beautiful and unusual synthesis that deepened the quality of Adeni songs.”

“Unlike his contemporaries, who relied on talent and intuition, Qassem combined his talent and impressionist sensibility with well-founded theoretical knowledge”, Abdullah added. “The introduction of string instruments and presenting his band in uniform, which was not common at that time, were among his contributions to the renewal of Adeni music. From then on, the Adeni song emerged in a completely different form than before. It had its own standards and maqams, and an organized and coordinated orchestral composition that was connected to a single melodic structure of tarab. With these changes, it moved beyond the popular to the professional, although it continued to draw from the melodies and rich rhythms of popular poetry.”

On 1 April 1993, Ahmed Qassem died in a traffic accident near Dhamar, after a lifelong contribution to Yemeni music. Today his masterpieces are remembered and sung by Yemenis. These include, ‘Al-Udayn Oh Allah, Ya Aybah’ (O’ what shame), ‘Asmar wa Oyono’ (The dark-skinned and his eyes), ‘Huqul al-bon’ (Coffee fields), and many more.

Today, those interested in Qassem’s legacy fear that his archive will be lost in the chaos and negligence of Aden TV and Radio, which is the only place that holds the collection of all the works produced by the renowned musician.

For this reason, we must be remember to remain as loyal to Ahmed Qassem as he always was to his country. He sang for the unity of Yemen, and to all people, regardless of background or class. He sang for the revolution of the people of the south against British colonialism, for the revolutions of September and October, and his songs echoed stronger than the cannon when he sang:

The cry of ancient glory from the mouth of the mountain will be fire and iron… when were we ever slaves?!

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