Last month, the Malaysian Opera House Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur presented its audience with a special performance by the Hadrami Orchestra. In a trans-geographical synthesis, together with his band, composer and Maestro Mohamed al-Qahtoum performed six musical pieces inspired by the traditional Hadrami music heritage.
In an ambitious gesture, to introduce rich local rhythms and dances to a global audience, 90 musicians and dancers from Yemen, Malaysia and Japan participated in the performance, forming one of the best concerts of Yemeni music on an international stage. The grand ceremony was attended by the Malaysian Crown Prince Tuanku Syed Faizuddin and a number of Arab ambassadors, as well as 1,400 members of the public. This musical contribution was unique and, in the view of some observers, reflects a qualitative shift in Yemeni music towards a global audience.
The performance boasted six musical pieces that vary in composition and rhythm.
The first,the Authentic Madrouf Piece, is a musical piece inspired by the Zerbadi cultural tradition, one of the oldest popular traditions of Wadi Hadramout. Zerbadi is often performed during weddings and other occasions that are celebrated in public squares and courtyards. During the Zerbadi, two or more dancers perform in the middle of a circle formed by chanters and the audience. The instruments include a flute, locally known as a Madrouf, and two types of drums: a Hajer drum and three Mirwas drums. Together, they form a harmonious blend of internal rhythms and taqsims. The composition presented the spirit of traditional Zerbadi folklore with an enchanting modern orchestral twist.
The second, the Joyful Habish Piece, is inspired by the local Habish dance, sometimes called Shareh Saheli because it is mainly practiced in the coastal areas of Hadramout. The Habish dance is performed to the sound of Mizmar and drums. Together the dancers add a rhythmic clapping, and a sound of ringing emerges from the silver anklets that move to the beat of their feet in a musical rhythm. The verse of this dance is characterized by a joyful melody with a short rhythm.
The third, War and Peace (Eddah), is inspired by a popular group dance, composed of two dance styles, a warlike dance routine and a peaceful routine. It is one of the most popular dances and is practiced in Hadramout for various occasions, especially during religious events and weddings. Usually, the dancers get dressed in their costumes at home and head to the dance square while carrying their props, such as an oud or stick, draka or shield, and a dagger. This dance is unique in the sense that it is performed en masse, with a large number of dancers performing a collective movement across successive rows. As the performance draws to an end, it concludes with a Shabwani (coastal) dance – a dance that expresses peace, solidarity and unity, through a collective gesture of holding hands. The piece takes a modern approach towards this dance, an approach that attests to the composer’s innovative process. Through a masterful use of orchestral instruments, while preserving the spirit and identity of the historical instrument, the dancers appear like an expressive painting against a new musical backdrop.
The fourth, Haddani Joyous Farewell Piece, is a musical piece performed during female wedding celebrations in Hadramout. Also referred to as the ‘Sound of Henna’, it plays in the background as the bride prepares for her wedding and applies intricate drawings with henna on her hands and legs. Often these moments bring a mixture of happiness and sadness to the bride and her family. On the one hand, a sadness that she is leaving the family behind, and on the other, a feeling of happiness that she is starting a new life. The performance is led by an all-female band. The band is headed by a solo performer, and a group of women singers chant against the backdrop of the rhythmic drum beat of a Hajer drum and three Mirwas drums. This piece takes the unique female heritage of Hadramout and highlights the melody of traditional music in a rhythm of musical harmony.
The fifth, Confusion Piece, reflects a state of confusion and loss, and the conflict between hope and despair that overcomes people in countries that are experiencing war. In addition to the vocals of the Hadrami Dan, the piece is played using tambourines or Duff, a goblet drum or Darabouka, oprali Soprano, and choir, all accompanied by the orchestra in an expressive musical mix.
The sixth, Sabbuha piece, is named after a famous song that is played as part of celebratory dances. Taking inspiration from the Sabbuha song, the composer created this musical note. Derived from the Henna dance, the rhythm of the piece synchronizes its notations with its tunes. The Henna dance in particular is considered one of the most beautiful dance styles performed during Hadrami weddings.
The traditional musical and rhythmic instruments used in these compositions are numerous and diverse and include the following:
- The Oud is one of the oldest string instruments in the world, dating back to 3000 BC. Its name originally meant ‘wood’ in 15th century AD. Today it remains the king of instruments, and is a symbol of both old and new classical Arabic music. Many Western musical instruments, such as the guitar and mandolin, were derived from the Oud. It comes as a pear-shaped wooden box engraved with three decorative holes and attached with six double-strings, where, in the past, a feather or an eagle’s beak was used as a pick. Its value is clearly displayed in taqsims, an improvised play of maqams, which highlights the potential of the Oud as an instrument as well as that of its player.
- The Ney or Qasaba is made of a hollow wooden cylinder. It resembles a pipe made to be a special musical instrument. It is placed on the mouth in a slight slope so that a part of the tip remains open to air when blowing and producing sound. The flute is open from both sides and has six, sometimes seven, finger holes. The position of these holes extend sequentially in a row across one side of its surface. The local instrument is called the Qasaba and differs from the Ney in material and quality of sound.
- The Mizmar is an end-blown flute with two double-parallel hollow cylinders of the same length. Each cylinder features a single feather ‘tongue’ which is cut from three sides of the body. On each cylinder there are five round openings that are either blocked or released by the players fingers following a specific sequence in order to produce the melody. The instrument can be made from metal, cane or eagle bones.
- The Dan sound is a genre of vocal melodies which usually precedes the lyrical song. It is composed and sung by poets, who fill the Dan rhythm with poetry verses during improvisational contests in Hadramout. The Dan sound is characterized by its range, strength, and the clarity of its sound.
- The Drum or Darabouka is a traditional rhythmic musical instrument, made from clay, brass or metal. One side is covered in goatskin or plastic, and the other remains open. Darabouka comes in different sizes depending on its role in the rhythmic unit of a song, such as a small Dum, big Dum, and trimmings Dum.
- The Duff is a type of drum made from a single goatskin or plastic membrane attached to a round wooden frame. It often has a number of metal plates installed in small openings that circle the frame. The skin is stitched onto the frame with a two-threaded thread that passes through small holes in the wood. Small metal bells or zills are sometimes placed inside the frame. The smallest size of this instrument is called the Duff, while the larger is locally known as Al-ttar.
- The Hajer Drum is a drum made from marine teak, a type of wood used in building ships. The instrument is a cylindrical body decorated with prominent rings. Its drumhead is usually made from goatskin while the diameter, height and circumference vary depending on the type of music it will play.
- The Mirwas Drum is the smallest drum used in Hadramout, and the sharpest. It is held in one hand and the drummer plays it with the palm of their other hand.
- The Marfaa’ or Maten Drum is similar to the Mirwas in form, but differs in size and quality of sound. Mainly it has a larger diameter and produces a less salient sound.
- The Tabla Drum or Banqaz is a foreign instrument that was introduced to traditional Hadrami music in the early 1970s. It consists of two wooden cylindrical drums that differ in size. They are covered with plastic drumheads and are usually 6cm and 8cm in diameter.
- The Maraqis is a Hadrami instrument composed of two pieces of flat wood, held in both hands and clapped together to produce a sound that synchronizes with the sound of the dancers clapping. In addition, the Maraqis works as a rhythmic attribute that gives a consistent and harmonic musical sound along with other instruments.
Held under the slogan ‘Hope Out of the Deep Pain’, the Hadrami orchestral event included six pieces that delivered messages of love and peace, and spread a feeling of hope despite the difficult times facing our country. The extraordinary performance carried the aspirations of an entire generation struggling to live!
The project was composed by Maestro Mohamed Salem al-Qahoum. Born in 1991 in Tarim, Hadramout, he is the founder and director of Echo Studios in Yemen. In 2015, he participated in the international contest for musical composition held by the Arab Music Society. He was a representative of Yemen after being nominated by the Yemeni House of Music.
Ahmed Al-Hagri is a Yemeni filmmaker and photographer studying Electronic Media at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. During the past five years, he has worked in graphic design, film production and content development. Ahmed started making short films and documentariesin Hadramout and in Sana’a, where he founded RAW Media, a company that specializes in media and visual production. Since then he has produced a number of short documentaries on the war and conflict in Yemen and worked on several projects, including the project ‘Yemen Used To Be’ and other documentary projects still in the making.
A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)