The Yemeni Song: Yesterday And Today

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

 Photo Courtesy of Abdullah Alsamei Photo Courtesy of Abdullah Alsamei

At the age of eight, I saw a fantasy film about a man traveling with a time machine through several eras. I wanted to find that machine to visit the settings of the bedtime stories that my mother used to tell me, or the ones I heard at school.


I grew up and realized that time travel was available not only in those stories; there are books, films, songs and poems that transport us to the past and show us other realities.


I started listening to songs, and I would find myself immersed in the feelings of the songwriter and the people of his time through the lyrics and the character of the tunes. I would reflect upon the views of society at that time and about different matters sand events. I would experience a mix emotions, of both joy and grief. In the end I would conclude that no matter how different times and societies are – in their tools, possibilities and people – in their essence human feelings do not change; what changes is the way society views them and their circumstances, and the implications of this. To elaborate, I will give examples of Yemeni songs and my readings of them.


The poet of the Yemeni earth, Mutahar bin Ali al-Iryani, wrote in his rural epic, Love and coffee, which was later arranged to music and performed by one of the pioneers of the Yemeni song, Ali bin Ali al-Anisi:

 Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri

O’ love we meet in a spacious valley

We yearn and dream of hours of encounter and play

And birds coo and praise us when they chant

And from the our colleagues O’ love we hear good wishes.


We find that the intensity of the poet’s emotion in the 1970s, the time the poem was written, has produced a creative stylistic balance between the simple impromptu rural song and the poet’s aspirations to modernize the rhythm and content of the sung poem. The poem has vivid implications that express the connection to nature on the one hand, and the feelings of man and the spirit of social communication on the other.


There is the valley where the encounter takes place, inhabited by chanting birds and fellow humans, who share the spirit of work and eloquent human connection with the protagonist-lover in the poem, expressing good wishes. These are the good wishes for falling in love.


Limited access to culture in general, and to access and hear music in particular, contributed to creating a common artistic taste in the period before the communications revolution, which spread television and other communications means. Radio – the means of transmission that almost monopolized the air at the time – offered few options for the listener. The conditions of the artists in previous periods contributed to the caliber and level of the artistic product. Due to the relative ease of life at the time, and the support and respect artistic work had within the community and state, musicians were able to live in a state of calm, free from the preoccupation of earning a living through other means. In other words, music was produced for music’s sake.

 Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri


If we leave that past and take a look at the present, we find disorder, superficiality and incompleteness in the expressions we hear. The listener no longer has the patience to contemplate and reflect on a song, because ours is an ‘era of acceleration’, to borrow Max Weber’s expression.


Like contemporary jokes, the contemporary song is almost devoid of abstract meanings, and lacks the connotations and metaphors that once created a link between the tangible and the intangible. Today, the means of receiving and the possibilities of listening to and accessing culture are more readily available in various forms and colors, both good and bad. Our ability to filter and select has become almost non-existent. At a time when the flow of content on smart devices is not limited in style or quantity, we can no longer trace a common and connected artistic taste. In the present climate, music has become a commodity, and life’s difficulties and needs are increasingly experienced by musicians. This has created a binding relationship between music and material gain, and increased the precarity of artistic production as the only means of income.


I remember talking to an elderly man who had lived abroad in the 1970s, and he recalled a song to me. It was written by Abdel Karim Mureid and performed by Ayoob Tarish as an appeal to Yemenis in exile to return to their homeland. The song goes:


Return to your surroundings, how often shall they call to be drenched?

spring flowers who else may they reap from but you.


The old man recalled how the song had evoked strong feelings of longing and nostalgia among many people who were living in exile at the time. For many, the reaction to the song resulted in a return to their homeland, and a change in the course of their entire lives. The man told me, laughing, that they had later prayed to God not to forgive Ayoob because his song had caused them to leave everything they had built abroad to return to Yemen.

 Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri


Music was close to the people; it was connected to many occasions, memories and details of daily lives. With one word, music was a reflection of people and an expression of their state and feelings.


One detail that cannot be ignored when comparing music today to the art of the past is the existence of a strong artistic community in which the musician lived at that time. This contributed to the evolution of lyrics, the quality of the music and the level of the songs, because there was great competition to produce the best work.


It was this atmosphere that nurtured the remarkable relationship between songwriters and musicians, leading to the most memorable duets in the history of the Yemeni song, among them: Hussein al-Mahdhar and Abu Bakr Salem, Ali Sabra and Ali al-Ansi, al-Fadool and Ayoob Tarish, Jaradah and al-Murshidi, Lutfi Jafar Aman and Ahmad Qassem, Mahmoud al-Haj and Ahmed Fathi, and many others who had an immense influence on the Yemeni song and contributed greatly to Yemeni music.


Today the sense of responsibility towards music is absent from many musicians, and popular songs have become a priority. The demand of the audience has had much more influence on the direction of the music. In addition, the composition of the music often precedes the theme of the song and its lyrics.


We must acknowledge that the public is not exempt from responsibility for the decline in music and the path musicians have taken. Art in its rise and fall reflects the reality of its society and the level of its collective consciousness. Still, music and musicians are pioneers in enlightening the community. They are responsible as culture makers, and the public does not stand as an impenetrable barrier to music with a purpose. Unfortunately, today we live in a time where the idea of an intellectual artist who bears an artistic message with a well-rounded understanding of various aspects of life is rare.


Despite all, there is still a glimmer of hope among young emerging musicians who are trying to revive the Yemeni song while keeping up with the current industry. And so we say to today’s generation of musicians: You do not lack the mentorship represented by the pioneers of Yemeni music, in all its different shades of Hadrami, Sanaani and Lahji; all you have to do is choose your words, your composition and allow all your elements to flow together. The Yemeni song can maintain its authenticity and merit within Arabic music, it can keep pace with the rhythms of the time, without necessarily neglecting the spiritual desires and sentiments of society.


As long as the people are still singing, everything will be okay. Our musical decline, with all its meanings, implications, instruments and effects on the public, will not last long because our intuition is pure and beauty and elegance are our companions.

 Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri Photo Courtesy of Anwar Sabri


We all know the many difficulties experienced by musicians, and the various obstacles that need to be overcome. The task of making music is the highest endeavor, and the musician bears the responsibility of making a great effort towards bringing awareness to people through what he or she presents.


If only I had a time machine to visit the future, to sustain my dream of a time when Yemeni music will regain its influence and rise in beauty and uniqueness.

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