Did Arabic Singing Originate in Yemen?

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In the pre-Islamic era, Arabic singing and music were still emerging and in their very early stages. However, the south of the Arabian Peninsula – Yemen – was already immersed in music, and its many successive civilizations witnessed singing, chanting and the invention of musical instruments.

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Historical sources indicate that singing and various musical instruments going back to the Sabaean, Minaean andḤimyarite civilizations have been discovered in Yemen, in addition to many petroglyphs of these instruments. Thus, Yemenite singing is considered one of the oldest musical arts, dating back to ancient times. According toAbu Al-AbbasAl-Qalqashandi (d. 1418), singing in Yemen dates back to the Ad era, and according to Al-Masudi (d. 956) in the Meadows of Gold, there were two types of singing in Yemen: Ḥimyarite and Hanafi, but Yemenis preferred the latter. They used to say that a beautiful voice is ‘jadan’, in reference to Yashrah bin Dhi Jadan al-Himyari, who is probably the father of Queen Balqis.

Most historians agree that the first generation of Arab migrants from the southern Arabian countries began to migrate at around the second century AD. Therefore, Arabic music started to thrive and grow in three regions: Syria, Iraq and the western Arabian Peninsula. The sources that chronicle Arabic music mention Yemen and the role of its people in its emergence. British historian Henry Farmer has concluded that the Arabs in the kingdoms south of the Arabian Peninsula reached the highest levels of accomplishment in the field of music.

As archaeological inscriptions and the writings of historians show, ancient Yemenis have used the oud since before the first millennium BC. Yemeni migrants, particularly Hadramis, contributed to the spread of the qanbous in East Asia, Turkey, India and East Africa. Qanbous is a local version of the old Yemeni oud, known as Tarabi in Sana’a. This instrument also appears in the Yemeni petroglyphs that were discovered, including that of a woman holding the oud, which defined singing in Sana’a for a long time. Thus, French scholar Jean Lambert has argued in his book The Medicine of the Soul: San’ani Song in Yemeni Societythat the oud is a “national treasure that Yemen has a responsibility to preserve and to benefit from its vast cultural and lyrical heritage”. He also stated, “The oud in Yemen has an aura of great artistic distinction, as it is the only stringed musical instrument that accompanies the singing of the city. It has been present in Sana’a for a long time and it enables the Yemenis to hold on to the Arab heritage during the classical period. Indeed, it is the ‘chord’ that has the ability to stir people’s feelings”.

Singers traveled from Yemen to the Hijaz and the outskirts of the Arabian Peninsula, and before that to the northern regions. Indeed, Yemeni music was never limited to the borders of the country, traveling throughout the Arabian Peninsula until it became one of its arts, including the sophisticated singing that was later popular in the Hijaz during the Islamic era.

Perhaps the first Arabs to sing in the pre-Islamic era were Jaradatay Bani Aad, who were called Taad and Tamad (two female singers), who came from Aad in Yemen,  as well as the two Hadrami singers Serene and her (unnamed) friend. Moreover, Tuways was the first singer in Al-Madinah in the post-Islam era. A Yemeni, as confirmed by the great historian Ahmed Timur, he had a fine reputation for his singing. According to Abu Al-Faraj Al-Asfahani (d. 967), Tuways was considered the father of singing in Islam. He was the first to introduce rhythm in Arabic singing, turning it into a refined art during the reign of Caliph Otthman ibn Affan. Sophisticated singing was a Yemeni art that is still practiced in Yemen today. It is based on a rhythm-free singing, muwwal-style, that turns in its second section into a performance accompanied by a heavy rhythm, leading to quick beats and dancing in its third section.

Artwork by Shatha Altowai

Similar to Tuways, figures of Arabic music in the era of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, such as Ishaq al-Musli and Ziriab, spread Arabic music and singing to Andalusia and developed it. In his great volume Al-Aghani, Asfahani mentioned eight voices or melodies and words attributed to Yemen.

Yemeni singers were known throughout several eras. At the end of the Umayyad era and the beginning of the Abbasid era, Ibn Tanbour was known for his ‘light’ singing known as hajz.

Moreover, the art of muwashahat, known in Andalusia, originated in fact in Yemen, as mentioned by many scholars, such as Abdulrahman al-Rifai in his book Al-Hamini: The Missing Link in the Arab Extension of Andalusian Muwashahat, and historian Mohammad Abdo Ghanem. Moreover, Yemeni scholar and artist Mohammad Murshid Naji confirmed this by saying in lectures he gave in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that the first singer who sang poetic muwashahat was Muqaddam bin Maafir al-Maqbari, who also hails from Yemen.

Humayni is a Yemeni lyric poetry between dialect and classical Arabic, named after the Humun region. It is the first root and cradle of the Andalusian muwashahat, since it does not follow the rules of classical Arabic. Thus, writer Mustapha al-Rafii suggested naming it the ‘melodious muwashahat’, since it blends poetry and muwashahat.

The Andalusian muwashahat were created by Yemeni poets who were influenced by humayni poetry and rhymes, which are still sung in Yemen today in the same style and rhythm. In the oldest and most important Andalusian encyclopedia, Nafh al-Tibby al-Maqqari al-Tlemceni, it is noted that the majority of Andalusian poets originally come from Yemen, since the Yemenis moved in large numbers within the army of Tariq ibn Ziyad to Andalusia during the times of conquest. In addition, the words and expressions used in the muwashahat are part of the Yemeni vocabulary that is still spoken today.

However, the influence of Yemen and its pioneers was not confined to Arabic singing, music and poetry; their influence spread to Europe. According to many historians, such as Julian Ribera in his book Andalusian Music in the Middle Agesand Andalusian Music and Troubadoursas well as others who conducted in-depth research, there are many examples showing that the metrical structures of poems in Europe reflect those used in Andalusia. These scholars have shown that ballads and troubadour poems consist of patterns that are similar in their arrangement to the muwashahat. Moreover, troubadour poets largely depended on music and singing, as is the case in muwashahat.

Although the heritage of Yemen is rich and has led to many arts, it witnessed a decline in later times due to many religious, political and social factors.

Yemeni art was also promoted by the Yemenite Jews, until their departure to Israel in the late 1940s. They carried it with them and still sing its words and music, despite the fact that six decades have passed. They preserved its heritage, rituals and rhythms, which became widespread and popular around the world.

Yemeni singing is still flourishing and a source of inspiration to many other artistic schools, regions and countries. It is in urgent need of research and classification, so that its impact and long history can become clear. Its lost origins should be documented, since Yemeni art hasn’t been treated with the respect it deserved by those who created it and those who got inspired by it.

Dr. Fares al-Beel, is a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.


Re-edited and translated from Huffington Post Arabic.

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Fares al-Beel

a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.

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