A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
When Muhammad Murshid Naji (1929 – 2013) died, news of his passing was painful for the Yemeni people, who saw him as one of the most prominent voices expressing the country’s conscience. An artist and composer, he was born in Aden in 1929, when Aden was under British occupation. He was raised as an only child under harsh conditions, receiving a traditional Quranic education when he was young, then enrolling in public schools, but he did not complete his education. However, thanks to one of his teachers, he was able to become proficient in English and worked as a translator.
He became known as al-Murshidi when he was a soccer player, but then left the sport for music, becoming famous as his songs played on Radio Aden from 1954. He became one of the most famous singers in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula in general. During a career that lasted almost 60 years, al-Murshidi produced more than 200 songs, with everything from songs expressing emotions to songs with political messages, patriotic songs, and songs with social messages. The music that he produced became one of the most prominent sources of what can be called the voice of contemporary Yemeni identity.
Music and Revolution
Al-Murshidi lived as an artist committed to his cause, believing in the role of art in changing and revolutionizing the reality that people live. He bravely, ably, and persistently used his music to achieve this objective, and he expressed, through his music, his position on a number of the political and national issues of his time. At the forefront of these issues were independence from British occupation and the revolution against the Imamate in what was then the north of Yemen.
From Aden, he started singing at social events and gatherings, opposing the British occupation. One of his songs was called ‘Oh Oppressor’, and he was always requested to play this song during his concerts. Because of these kinds of songs, he was harassed by the British authorities.
In that same vein, his political songs continued, at times sarcastic and at times indignant, but always with a patriotic message. They include ‘Abu Zaid come to me with bad news’, in which he says:
Tell the people of Himyar to wake up before they regret it,
They should not listen to or obey this hypocrite,
And they should be patient because relief is coming, and the light of the star of hope,
Is shining from the east, and it has brought an end to the darkness.
From the core of this revolutionary voice came songs like ‘Put out the fire, Oh Tawahi Port’ and ‘My brother chained me’. He also used stinging sarcasm against the occupiers in a song called ‘The Commander of the British Army’, where he mocks the panic of the British in the face of the guerillas.
All of these songs worked to expose the practices of the occupation and to increase popular discontent against it. They also worked to build a new awareness by breaking the symbolism of tyrants and occupiers, sharpening people’s motivation, mobilizing their energies, awakening the national consciousness, and driving the masses to prepare for sacrifice and struggle.
When the Revolution of 26 September 1962 started in the north of Yemen, al-Murshidi was involved in the revolutionary process, singing and narrating the events. With a voice full of happiness, he sang to mobilize the people into supporting the newly born revolution:
My people have revolted today to renew old glories,
For glory only comes to those who are patient.
My brother, in your revolution is your freedom,
In it is a true covenant to protect your dignity,
Stand, and salute today your republic,
For the Lord has blessed your revolution
And the tyrants have gone to Hell.
A revolution of truth against oppression is always right,
It has buried all tragedies under the ground,
For the reign of injustice is gone and done with.
Similarly, the song ‘This is Radfan’announced the birth of the 14 October 1963 revolution, from the mountains of Radfan against the British occupation. Al-Murshidi’s voice grew louder and louder, feeding into the popular revolutionary sentiment, mapping the features of the revolution, and confirming the unity of Yemen, north and south, while aspiring to a greater Arab unity:
“This is Radfan,” a shout from the mouth of every revolutionary,
From the soul of the tribes and clans,
This is Sana’a the Enduring,
This is Aden the Glorious,
This is Yemen the Happy,
These are free men, recreating the glories of the past.
This is Radfan, it is my heart and my soul,
This is Shamsan, down to my core,
It is me, these are my family and my people,
This is my relentless nation, all that I love,
This is where my forefathers lived and built all that I have,
To preserve my legacy and write, in blood, the best possible ending.
This is Radfan, this is where the forerunners started,
To call for a glory to my nation, to defend.
This is a new Yemen, these are the industries,
This is the farmer, returning to the farms,
Has it been made by anyone?
And renewing our pledge,
And achieving our promise
To the land of the Nile, the Levant, and Algeria.
This is Radfan. This is Radfan.
This song remained the anthem of the revolutionaries throughout the years of the revolution, until the withdrawal of the last British soldiers on 30 November 1967. This song shows that art worked hand in hand with the guerilla action.
During the revolution of 11 February 2011, al-Murshidi’s voice was loud and uproarious, as if time had gone back to his heyday. The answers to his voice echoed in all of the squares of the popular revolution in Yemeni cities, with loudspeakers and the people singing ‘I am the people, a powerful quake’:
I am the people, a powerful quake. My anger will put out their fire. My yell will silence their voices. I am the people, an unstoppable storm. I am Allah’s will on my land. I am the people, and my force and persistence will end every oppressor. My movement will not be stopped. I am victory for the free, I am the future of the judgment in my land. I am the people.
Similarly, his song ‘Oh, my country’is still influential among the people, filling them with motivation and their hearts with hope:
Oh, my country, this roaring call that lives inside me,
Oh, my country, the riches of my grandfather, my son, and my father.
You welcome my presence, and only make it warmer.
A treasure that cannot be matched by jewels and gold,
Leap, from the top of the mountains to the height of shooting stars,
Leap, for glory is like a flash lightning smile up close,
Leap, for glory does not come to those who do not.
After independence, and under the national state, al-Murshidi spent his time conscientious singing, and held a number of concerts that made him a popular star.
His song ‘Do not be shy, leave the veil’was an important turning point in socially conscious music, and
al-Murshidi was a symbol for this type of music at the time. This song was met with a lot of reaction, both support and rejection, because it dealt with the issue of women covering their faces and their right to express their love.
Do not be shy, and leave the veil, be yourself.
Because of their ignorance, passion within dies,
You are not the first to refuse, or the last to be aware.
As an extension of his role in the creation of socially conscious music, al-Murshidi contributed to composing music for the monologist, Fuad al-Sharif. He composed a number of comical songs that satirized and criticized social issues.
Al-Murshidi, who saw himself as a politician who loves art, would singing from time to time, and he would not think too much about the past because there were things that would ruin his joy and he would be left singing ‘Oh bird, how I envy you’to express his opinions on the limiting of people’s freedoms. In this song, he says, with sorrow and bitterness:
Oh bird, how I envy you. You have your freedom, and there are no borders to limit you. They cannot control where you go, but they have taken control of me. I wish that they had ended me, because everything is closed to me. I have been deprived of even the air.
Despite the fact that al-Murshidi’s country had gained independence from the British occupation, they still needed more than just regaining control of land. Al-Murshidi mournfully sings about searching for the dignity of his country:
Deep in my core, you can live, in my soul and in my heart,
You are the destiny and the core if you want to be near me,
My heart lives in its passion for you, if you would care for my love,
But my heart, oh my love, is still thirsty,
It has a thirst that can only be quenched by the dignity of a nation.
In the middle of his afflicted feelings about the failures taking place in his country, al-Murshidi announced his position in song, borrowing Ahmed Fouad Negm’s poem eulogizing Sana’a Mehaidli, singing:
Paper Paper Paper Paper
Oh, what a nation, built upon paper
In you, dreams are on paper
Knowledge in you, is on paper
I was fooled by the sound of paper,
And I traveled in you, on paper
And I dreamed of you, without paper.
Later, he produced Nashwan, a famous song that became the epitome of political satire of the authorities, especially since the song was part of an exhibition eulogizing President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who had been a source of hope for Yemenis before being assassinated. This song, even today, is repeated as commiseration for the difficult conditions that Yemenis live through. Through it, and in a tone that is both sorrowful and rebellious, al-Murshidi and the poet who wrote it, Sultan al-Suraimi, diagnose the tragic reality of Yemenis.
Al-Murshidi as a Composer
Al-Murshidi was not just a performer of music. He was a man of knowledge and cultural awareness. He used music to express the visions, aspirations, and hopes of Yemeni society, as well as to narrate its vicissitudes and the transformations. He had a high musical awareness and culture, as well as rich performance characteristics.
Almost every single one of al-Murshidi’s songs have become hits because his was a voice that was loved, and people would eagerly wait for the next release. Al-Murshidi always brought his own unique perspective to everything he sang, whether it was an old Yemeni song that he sang while playing the oud, or a new song that he composed and set to music for the first time. Because of the popularity of his composition, and his unique style, many singers asked him to compose for them. This led to him composing for other artists of his generation, as well as artists that came after him. Among the most famous artists that he composed for are: Abdulkareem Tawfiq, Awadh Ahmad, Muhammad Abdoh Zaidi, Muhammad Saleh Azzani, Taha Farea, Abu Baker Skareeb, and Essam Khulaidi. In the wider Arab world, his compositions were sung by Fahd Ballan and Mohammed Abdu.
Al-Murshidi’s work in composing music was a part of his deep awareness of lyrics, heritage, and identity, as well as his attempts at renewal.
Singing in Different Yemeni Accents
In addition to his pioneering role in singing in what was known as the Adeni style, al-Murshidi also sang in all Yemeni singing styles, like the Hadhrami, Lahji, Yafae, and Sana’ani.
He worked to break the barrier of singing in the different Yemeni accents, and he contributed to helping Yemeni society see the beauty of some of the lesser known accents. He sang the song Wa Zainab Qirin the accent of the Tehama region, a song from the coastal region that is sung by fishermen. He also sang Imsiri Ala Imsiri, which is a Bedouin song that was written by Ahmad al-Jabri, a poet, as well as Shabouk Ana Wamirfaq Bukrah, which was written by Judge Ali al-Ansi. There are also the songs that he sang in the Sana’ani accent. In this way, al-Murshidi embodied the unity of Yemeni music.
Al-Murshidi’s Written Work
In addition to his compositions, al-Murshidi authored a number of memoirs in which he documented his music career and experiences. He also included, in these books, old Yemeni songs and popular Yemeni singers, as well as presenting his ideas on the renewal and development of Yemeni heritage and the importance of Yemeni musical production. Al-Murshidi commented on artistic issues, including Yemeni rhyming triplets and al-Humaini poetry, as well as the difference between folk singing and traditional songs.
His written works have become references for students of song in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. Among his works are Folk Songs, Yemeni Singing and Famous Singers, Pages of Memories, and Songs and Stories.
Al-Murshidi was known for having a connection with the words that he sang, and not limiting himself to singing songs written by a single poet. Any words that he believed deserved to be sung were the key to creating a connection to a poet, and that is why he sang the works of many poets who were active during his time, as well as those who were not.
Because of the expansive horizons of al-Murshidi and his singing in the many different types of Yemeni music, the list of poets whose poems he sang is long. The most famous of these poets are: Muhammad Saeed Jaradah, Ali Abdulaziz Nasr, Ibrahim Sadiq, Lutfi Jaafar Aman, Abdullah Hadi Subayt, Abbas al-Muta’a, Ahmad Fuad Negm, Yazid bin Muawiyah, Ahmad al-Jabri, Ali Muhammad Ali Luqman, Hussein al-Mihdhar, Ahmad Fadhl al-Qamdan, Ahmad al-Saqqaf, Yahya Omar, Ahmad Shawqi, Abdulrahman Thabet, Ali bin Ali Sabrah, Nasser Sheikh, Muhammad Saif Kabshi, Mahdi Hamdoun, Mutahar al-Eryani, Saeed al-Shaibani, Nasser Humaiqani, Ahmad Bu Mahdi, al-Qurashi Abdulraheem Salam, Sultan al-Suraimi, Tamer Nasr, Ahmad Obad al-Husseini, Ali Aman, Najeeb Aman, Abdullah Sallam Naji, Muhammad Abdullah BaMatraf, Ahmad Shareef al-Rifai, Fareed Barakat, and Wadee Aman. Abdullah al-Baradouni was the last poet that al-Murshidi composed, and he sang his poems in ‘These melodies and chords from the land of the Queen of Sheba’.
Al-Murshidi’s voice has etched itself, exceptionally, in the collective memory, and he was, and remains, a part of the nation, echoing throughout its history and across its soil:
Abu Ali said, “I belong to a land and an idea.”
Ample, and there has not been anyone like me, nor will there be.
I say it in truth, not obligated or forced,
I love my land and will not give up even an inch,
And its letters from the Y to the M and then the N.
Mohamed Faid al-Bakry is a Yemeni writer, poet, and researcher. He holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University. Mohamed is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of discrimination in Arab proverbs. In addition to published poems and literary, intellectual, and political articles in Arab and Yemeni magazines and newspapers, he has produced a number of unpublished studies and poetry collections. He is a member of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.