Abdulrahman al-Amri: The Bulbul of the Sana’ani Chanting Art

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

When we talk about inshad (religious chanting) in Yemen from the early 1980s to today, Abdulrahman al-Amri is the voice that has surpassed all others in this genre.

I first saw him in the 1980s on television, in black and white, chanting Rab al-saba al-mathani (Lord of the seven oft-repeated verses). I was nine-years-old, and Abdulrahman was roughly 13. I stared at the television, astonished by his voice, and I wondered where the voice that I failed to mimic effectively came from. I was too young to understand most of the words, and preoccupied with this child who had a voice that was so unusual in my little world.

I saw him in person for the first time in the early 1990s, outside the television screen, at the wedding of a well-off relative. At the time, al-Amri was the most paid munshid (chanter). Although there were other chanters, al-Amri was constantly booked because many grooms wanted to ensure that he would perform at their wedding procession and grace their special night with his presence.

At the wedding, I pondered his small hand holding the microphone as he chanted with all his breath. I was moved to the point of goosebumps.

I did not try to approach him, because he was famous and appeared on television. In my childish belief, I thought that he did not speak as we did, that chanting was his form of communication, and all he wanted to say was said through his chants.

Abdulrahman al-Amri was born to be a singer. He started chanting at the age of four and appeared on the television programs ‘Kalam Mawzoun’ and ‘Arab Sat’, as well as Sana’a Radio in 1984.

Al-Amri chanted like a bulbul, without knowledge of maqamat or vocal ranges, and not knowing which range his voice belonged to. I believe he was not interested in this knowledge, because with such a voice, he would not think of limiting himself within a certain range, because he was able to sing across all ranges. In fact, he was not even aware of the musical scale, because why would a bird need a scale?

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

Al-Amri visited his uncle Mohammed every afternoon during his maqeel (afternoon qat session). Mohammed knew the talent his nephew possessed and would ask him to sing. Whenever al-Amri sang, he was careful to record his breathtaking performance with a tape recorder and then play it to him afterwards. Later, he would give him an encouraging pat on the shoulder and congratulate him on his talent, which was beyond his eight years. His uncle was unlike his father, a dedicated farmer who could not conceive of a future for his son beyond agriculture, and where the beauty of his voice would have no role in the sowing and harvesting seasons. For his father, farming was a way to live and make a living.

Al-Amri was born in Sana’a in 1973. He received his elementary and secondary education at Gamal Abdel Nasser School, which was located close to his home. He was the most famous student in the school at the time, and still resides in his family home.

As a young boy, he studied the Quran under the late reciter Mohammed Hussein Amer, as well as learning grammar and fiqh. Amer was also his first patron.

A few months ago, during an interview on Yemen Shabab with Ayoub Tarish, a well-known Yemeni musician, the host asked him which was the most beautiful voice he had heard that had left an impact on him. Ayoub’s answer was “The voice of Abdulrahman al-Amri”.

I finally met him again when a friend invited me to join him at a gathering. Knowing that I was an admirer of al-Amri, he surprised me with his presence. That was 14 years ago. That first meeting led to many more meetings and a friendship that continued to grow every day. Over time, I got to know Abdulrahman-the-person versus al-Amri-the-singer. Abdulrahman in reality was more than the sum of his voice. The lighthearted everyday Abdulrahman is a different Abdulrahman than the one standing in front of television cameras. Abdulrahman the rebel lies behind the serene Abdulrahman one listens to at weddings. As a friend, I discovered in him a man whom one can only know through long companionship. I was able to understand him, and delve into his thoughts and appreciate his view of the world, people and life.

Abdulrahman is not only a chanter but also an intellectual, musician, linguist, composer and poet. The late poet Abdullah al-Bardouni called him  “The poet of graves”, because of his dark poems. He was also a friend of the late poet Ibrahim al-Hadrani, who wrote a song for him called La Atab La Atab (No reproach), which was later sung by Fouad al-Kibsi.

Abdulrahman al-Amri is well-known in Arab speaking regions, especially Egypt, where he performed songs by Umm Kulthum. He also participated in concerts across Europe, including Italy and Britain. During the Yemeni Festival in 1998, he was invited along with others such as musician Mohammed Hamoud al-Harthy and poet Abdullah al-Bardouni, who was unable to attend due to health reasons; al-Amri recited his poems on his behalf.

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

In Egypt, and beyond, people love and revere Umm Kulthum to the extent that they do not believe  anyone can master her songs. And so, when al-Amri stepped on stage at the Egyptian Opera House, the audience expected an ordinary performance, but to their surprise it was beyond their expectations. The audience listened, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised in surprise when he sang al-Ward Jameel, which at the time was a newly released song, broadcast by the official Egyptian channel.

Abdulrahman believes that inshad accompanied by percussion instruments, an ensemble or notations, leads to the decline of this unique form of music. The chanter only needs his own voice when performing the muwashshah (girdle song) or Sana’ani music, while percussion creates a risk that the song fades behind the instruments. This is why many of al-Amri’s pieces include the Oud, but none of his work contains other percussion.

Al-Amri covered many songs, including a song by musician Yahya al-Arouma called Lilah ma Yahwih Hadha al-Maqam (To Allah I Dedicate this Maqam), which is a renowned Sana’ani Hamini piece. Al-Amri did a cover of the song with a personal twist, and manipulated ‘Arab al-Sawt’ in a technique unique to his voice. I also witnessed him perform at the home of Nizar Ghanem. The session was recorded by a guest from New Zealand who was interested in Yemeni heritage.

Other covers include Yemeni songs by Aboud Khawaja, along with songs by Umm Kulthum, with the most famous cover being El-Hob Kolo, which he performed in an open session on Mukalla beach. Fans later circulated his performances and his voice echoed through social media, although he had little interest in copying or publishing any recordings himself as it was of little importance to him.

Al-Amri disappeared for a period and stopped performing. However, his voice was never forgotten. He later appeared on television with a new piece called Da’ ma Sawa Allah w’as’ala (Let go of all but Allah), written by the late poet Jaber Rizk. In no time his audience remembered him, because his voice is immersed in the veins of time and engraved in the grooves of memory, and chanters like him are unforgettable.

Al-Amri’s return, Da’ ma Sawa Allah w’as’al, was a challenge he took upon himself. The chant demanded a lot of skill and talent, because the structure of the poem was different to those performed by chanters, and did not follow the classical meters of most Arabic poems. Jaber Rizk did not write his poems according to the two symmetrical hemistich structure, called ‘sadr and ‘ajz’, as is customary. Each verse had not two, but six to eight hemistichs, as seen in this poem, and in the muwashshah, A’alem al-Ser Mena. Jaber Rizk was a poet who sought to modernize the classical meters of Arabic poetry and developed his own meters, which he published under the title Zahr al-Bustan fi Gharib al-Alḥān.

Al-Amri passed the challenge in this chant and surpassed all his fellow chanters by putting his own personal imprint on the piece. His performance is memorable to the degree that the poem hardly comes up without his mention.

In 2010, he appeared in an interview on Yemen TV. During the show he performed Yemeni muwashahaat and chants, as well as some Egyptian songs, among them Dha’a Hobak.

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

He then reappeared in the vocal ensemble Labaik Ya Watani which was initiated by the Ministry of Culture, and included Yemen’s most known chanters in 2017.

Al-Amri’s earliest recorded interview took place in the late 1980s. He was interviewed by Abdul Malik al-Samawi on Sana’a Channel more than 35 years ago. During the interview, al-Samawi asked him to elaborate on vocal performance, and his response was, “Some people think that chanting and singing are the same. This is a big mistake, because chanting carries a sense of ascending, and singing belongs to Tarab.”  Much of what he said during that interview gave an impression of a man wise beyond his years, even though he was only 14 at the time.

Shortly after he was invited to the morning program ‘Sabah al-Reda’ on al-Lahdha Channel. During the show, he performed Salwa Galbi, a poem by Ahmed Shawqi, and the Egyptian song El-Hob Kolo, in addition to excerpts from Yemeni chants. The recording of the episode quickly circulated across social media to a growing number of listeners who were enchanted by his voice.

The most recited chants by al-Amri in concerts and private gatherings include: La Atab La Atab, Da’ ma Sawa Allah w’as’al, Ya ilah al-Ebad – al-Abd Waqif a’la al-Bab, Rab Hosn al-Makhtam Shanak al-Karam, Alam al-Ser Mina, Rab al-Saba al-Mathani, Ya Bade’e al-Samawat Ya Ne’em al-Wakil. At funerals, he recites the muwashah, al-Sabr Host al-Fata wa al-Sor, and poems by al-Ma’arri, Ghair Mujdi fi Milati wa’ E’tekadi, and Mohammad Sayid al-Kawnayn.

Although Abdulrahman al-Amri is an important pillar of Yemeni inshad, he shies away from the limelight. Fame is not on his agenda, because he wants to maintain his ability to perform free from any obligations of fame, work or otherwise. So he decided not to take up any employment and remained unmarried. He sees himself as a free bird singing whenever he wishes without instructions or requirements by others.

It may come as a surprise for many to learn that al-Amri does not have a smart phone, and does not have a Facebook account or YouTube channel. However, well-known as he is, there are several private and public pages on Facebook in his name, but he has no knowledge of them nor of who runs these pages. Regardless of al-Amri personal life and the nature of his relation to modern media, his voice is a valuable symbolic and artistic national property.

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Abdulmajeed al-Turki

a Yemeni poet and Journalist. He works in al-Thawrah newspaper. Al-Turki published in 2004 his book of poetry ‘ The Confessions of Water’. In 2016 he published two poetic collections: the first is ‘ I am like that’ and the second is titled ‘ The Book of Dying’.

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