The Suit and The Agal The Musical Career of Abu Bakr Salem

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Drawing Courtesy of Shehab Karman

The musical career of Abu Bakr Salem Belfkih (1939 – 2017) paints an exceptional picture, not only of Yemeni and Gulf music but also of the modern Arabic song in general. Throughout his career he profoundly influenced the emotional memory and musical sensitivity of Yemenis. By introducing a new style of performance and stage appearance, Abu Bakr contributed tremendously to the Yemeni song.

10 December 2018 marked the first anniversary of his sad departure. On this occasion, we recall an unforgettable path that portrays two memorable images: first, Abu Bakr dressed in a western style suit, and later in a thobe (the suit and the agal), both marking different stages of his remarkable career. Those who followed Abu Bakr from his early days – starting from his departure from Hadramout in the early 1950s until his death last year – will find that his career falls into three stages.

Stage one can be referred to as the Aden and Beirut period. It extended from 1956 to1975, with intermittent years when he stopped performing while he engaged in teaching and business activities. In 1975, Abu Bakr resumed his music and was strongly influenced by the pioneers of Lahji and Sanani music. During this period, he brought some of the most immortal Yemeni songs, that were once confined to local sessions and mukhadara (wedding concerts), to stage.

Stage two marked a more mature stage, when 1975 Cairo became the center of his music recordings. At this stage, Egyptian influences appeared through various musical elements in his songs, influences which would continue up to and throughout the early 1990s. Later this paved the way to his opening up towards Gulf music, which he was influenced by – and to which he became an influence.

Stage three represented a return to roots, where he returned to his beginnings inspired by Hadrami folk music and Sufi hymns of Tarim. By this point the agal dominated his stage appearances, long after the suit that had once reflected a desire for a wider Arab audience .

Diversity and richness

The Adeni song was one of the pillars of Abu Bakr’s early career, when he began with presenting a unique lyrical character. The first song recorded for Radio Aden in 1956, ‘Ya Ward Mahla Jamalak Bayn Al Worood’ (O’ Rose How Beautiful You are Among the Roses), was later covered by Saudi artist Talal Madah. Prior to his settling in Beirut, Aden had a great influence on his openness towards many melodic elements in Yemen and the Arab world.

Beirut would be the station of Abu Bakr’s fame outside of Aden and Yemen. This came was no surprise since Beirut was a hub for musicians from Yemen and the Gulf, especially in the 1960s, when many would go to record their songs in a more modern musical context than in their own countries. This is evident in the songs Abu Bakr recorded in Beirut compared to those recorded in Aden. Having access to a band and more capable performers, along with music distributors, made a difference to his musical form. In Beirut, Lebanese influences appeared in many of his compositions, such as the song ‘Ya Zare’en Al Enab’ (O Grape Growers) from the maqam bayati.[1] Lebanese musical themes are reflected in the melody of the song and the repeated melodic cells. Together with the increasing rhythmic acceleration,[2] it resembles the sound of Dabke music.

In 1968, Abu Bakr won the Golden Vinyl Award from Greece after his song ‘Emta Ana Ashufak’ (When Will I See You) hit record sales. This success was attributed to many factors. In composing and writing the song, Abu Bakr relied on words understandable to all Arab audiences, and the quick rhythm and soft melodic themes made for a light and popular melody. In a way, when Walid Toufic covered the song in the 1980s, he was recapturing a part of Beirut’s 1960s music. The song was later also covered by Najah al-Salam. The song’s maqam kurd[3] (free from the eastern quarter tone) is the maqam of many of Abu Bakr’s songs that spread beyond the Gulf and Yemen, reaching the greater Arab world. It is the most widely used maqam in contemporary Arab and Gulf music.

During this period, Abu Bakr presented his most notable songs: ‘Anti Ya Helwa’ (You O’ Beautiful), ‘Bashel Hobak Maa’e’ (I Will Take Your Love with Me) and ‘Arbaa wa Eshreen Saa’a’ (24 Hours). These songs used Yemeni and eastern rhythms, as well as Latin rhythms such as rhumba and samba.

Drawing Courtesy Siham Al-Ahdal

At that time, the suit dominated Abu Bakr’s image, both on album covers and on stage, including the concerts he performed in Kuwait in the 1960s. Later, as he settled in Saudi Arabia, the agal began to compete with that image. This was his second most mature stage, both in developing his own voice and in his musical choices. The sharp tone in his voice disappeared, only to become more pronounced from the baritone down to the bass, the middle and the most rugged tone in the male voice.[4] Throughout this period, the image of Abu Bakr in a suit remained dominant on his album covers and his concerts outside of the Gulf states.

By then the uniqueness of Abu Bakr’s musical style became evident for many of its features. He had a unique, disciplined voice that was so broad that he could alter his vocal layers and improvise without breaking the musical flow.

During the 1980s, new features emerged in the musical distribution of Abu Bakr songs. Despite being a continuation of the late 1970s style, Abu Bakr now aspired to expand his audience in the Arab world. This led him to include many soft melodic tones, even if that meant not showing the strength of his voice.

The song ‘Ana Sabab Nafsi Benafsi’ (I Am the Cause of My Own Suffering) is characteristic of that period and is similar to the form of the song, ‘Ma Alaina Ya Habibi’ (What Do We Care My Love). Not only were both composed following maqam kurd, and carry simple melodic features, but also the two songs highlighted a broad range of music. This is visible in the multiplicity of musical sentences between one segment and the other, somewhat resembling the long songs in Egyptian music.

This does not mean that his work at the time was one-sided. On the contrary, there were many songs that highlighted his vocal abilities. In the song ‘Agol Lah Ayh’ (What Should I Tell Him), composed by Hussein al-Mehdhar and performed in 1978, his voice rings through multiple layers. In the 1980s, many new features clearly appeared in his music. He leaned more towards expressive singing, free from rules and rigid forms, in order to deepen his content to express his feelings.

In the second half of the 1990s, the agal played a role, not only as a symbol of his chosen identity but as a direct link to a specific audience in the Gulf. Abu Bakr’s Yemeni audience loved him in all his appearances; to them he represented the epitome of music. For Abu Bakr, singing Yemeni songs was a continuous source of pride. Over the past few decades, many factors led Yemenis to immigrate to the Gulf, and the agal was a part of their integration into these communities.

Abu Bakr had a vision that centered on presenting Sanani songs in a modern form that could be enjoyed by a wider audience. Together with Ahmed Fathi, they worked on developing this genre. In the process, they worked on shifting the local Sanani style from a focus on melody to an emphasis on maqam. In the song, ‘Rasuli Gom Baleghni Eshara’ (O’ Messenger Send Me A Sign), which is based on maqam bayati, the composition is geared towards the Arabic ear, where bemolle quarter tone – or the so-called half quarter tone – was excluded which is a musical tone that is not palatable to the Arabic ear  and is not used in any other Arab country other than Yemen.

Fathi’s contribution to the song was his performance following the Sanani style fertasha. This was the specific style that emerged as a dialogue between the oud and the orchestra. Mastering Sanani songs was a challenge for Abu Bakr, especially given his image as a modern musician while at the same time preserving his unique and traditional style. With a dazzling voice, Abu Bakr presented many songs of this style throughout his career. For example, his performance at the beginning of the song ‘Wa Moghared b’ Wadi al Dour’ (O’ Chirper in the Valley of Dour) has never been surpassed, nor the delicacy of his high notes and vocal extension.

Abu Bakr’s artistic personality crystallized and matured during this second stage. In this period, the dominance of lyrical expression required an economy of ornamentation at the expense of euphony. From the beginning, Abu Bakr was careful in selecting the bands that accompanied him; knowing that great compositions and his unique strong voice also needed a musical performance that was capable of accentuating his voice and carrying the music further. This was the moment that led him to immigrate. At that stage, he presented many memorable songs, especially in the 1980s, including ‘Sir Hobi Ghamedh’ (The Secret of My Love is Mysterious), ‘Ma Alaina Ya Habibi’ (What Do We Care My Love), ‘Law Khairouni’ (If I Had To Choose), ‘Dhabi Sanaa’ (Gazelle of Sana’a), ‘Aiwa ala Ayni’ (Yes From My Eyes) and ‘Aly Kan Amsi’ (He Was My Yesterday).

In his third and last stage, especially from the end of the 1990s, Abu Bakr went back to the elements of Hadrami musical structure. Despite his return to a local audience, his wider Arab audience remained loyal to the long-standing legacy of his musical style; added to this, the fact music from the Gulf was more wide spread in the second half of the 1990s. In the late 1990s, Warda al-Jazairia performed songs that were composed by Abu Bakr, who by then had become a musical symbol in the Arab world in general, and in his native Yemen and in the Gulf in particular.

Abu Bakr’s musical upbringing dates back to Tarim, Hadramout, where he grew up in a Sufi environment. His father had descended from the Belfkih family and his mother from the Kaff family, and both families had branched out from the Baaloui family. In this environment, Abu Bakr grew up immersed in poetry and spirituality, and he practiced and performed traditional and Sufi hymns following their traditions and ceremonies.

Drawing Courtesy of Siham Al-Ahdal

During his career, Abu Bakr presented many Sufi songs. Perhaps Ibn al-Arabi’s poem ‘Alalani’ is the most famous. The rhythmic role of the melody in these compositions reveals a spiritual tone with roots in Asia, specifically in India. Abu Bakr’s performance of Sufi songs was characterized by spirituality and mysticism. This allowed the melody to shift towards a more daring vocal display and euphony.

Abu Bakr’s turn towards Sufism leads us to wonder whether this turn was driven by nostalgia, or by a spiritual period that would continue to influence his work until the end of his life, like others before him. Both are probably true. In this period, he presented religious songs with a Sufi character – most importantly, ‘Ya Rab Ya Alem al Hal’ (O Lord You Know My State), composed from a poem by Abdullah bin Alawi al-Haddad, and ‘Al-Rashfat’, composed from a poem by his grandfather Belfkih. The last of these songs appeared in the album Shouf ly Hal (Find Me A Solution), which was released in 2017. In this album, Abu Bakr revives an earlier song, ‘Hay al Rabou’ (al-Rabouh Neighborhood), in a new musical mix. This song was also derived from a poem by his grandfather Alawi bin Shihab. By this time, his voice seemed weary and tired. It was a few months before his passing, as if his purpose was to emphasize that to him music was the air that he breathed and lived by.

It is not possible to end our recollection of Abu Bakr’s musical life without mentioning the poet Hussein bin Abu Bakr al-Mahdhar, his companion and collaborator from the early years of his career. He presented Abu Bakr with his most memorable songs throughout a 50-year musical collaboration. Among those songs are: ‘Sir Hobi Fik Ghamedh’ (The Secret of My Love is Mysterious), ‘Aiwa ala Ayni’, ‘Seer w’ tikhabar’ and ‘Shilani Ya Abu Jinahain’. These songs present another story in a great musical journey that travels across the Arabian desert through the palm trees of Hadrami land.

Abu Bakr’s biography is a portrait of a sensitive Yemeni identity, where diaspora appears as a passage to success or a lifeline that rescues your dreams and ambitions. Against this background, Abu Bakr has become the face of a dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf States present him as a Saudi artist of Hadrami origin, while Abu Bakr remained loyal to his roots despite carrying a Saudi nationality. In return, Yemenis consider Abu Bakr an integral part of their cultural and musical heritage.

There is no doubt that Abu Bakr, then an emerging composer and musician, was aware of the importance of developing his work and honing his talent. Later, he would reinvent the lyrical styles and local compositions that he carried with him to the diaspora. His life is a success story of an exceptional musician who left behind a great legacy and a life-long contribution to the development of Yemeni and Gulf music alike. Throughout his musical career, he embraced many musical elements without losing touch with his local musical heritage. With this, his lyrical influence extends beyond Yemen to the entire Arab world.

Special thanks

I would like to especially thank Ghanim Hazza for generously sharing his knowledge on Abu Bakr, and to also extend my gratitude to Waddah Othman for extensively discussing the topic with me.

[1] Maqam bayati is the name of a maqam (melodic mode) used in traditional Arabic music. It contains one quarter tone and is one of the most used maqams in traditional Arabic music. It is almost the only maqam that contains a quarter tone and is still used in Arabic pop songs.

[2] Melodic cells are the smallest formative unit of meaning in a musical piece. One cell can consist of one or more scales. However, usually it does not exceed two scales as long as it consists of a complete melodic and rhythmic structure. The total number of melodic cells forms the musical sentence.

[3] Maqam kurd is one of the main maqams in traditional Arabic music. Many modern songs are based on this maqam because it is one of the easiest of the musical scales. It is mainly used in the Middle East, in addition to Greece, Spain, some Eastern European countries, as well as India. In fact, the musician Mohammad Juma Khan who came from Indian music introduced it to Hadrami music.

[4]  The male voice is divided into three types: tenor, baritone and bass. Tenor is the highest of the male vocal types, while baritone is a middle vocal type and stronger than the other ranges, and bass is considered the deepest and most rugged of the male vocal types.



Gamal Hasan, a writer and a journalist from Yemen, writes in Yemeni and Arab publications about musical criticism. He published a novel called “the insects of the memory”

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