A Conversation with Yemeni Musician Muhammad al-Hejri

Interviewed by Rahman Taha

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Historical hums

There is oud playing in Yemen during celebrations and social occasions as well as at national events and private concerts. It may also be part of the ‎qat chewing rituals among certain social classes. The four-stringed oud was the main instrument to accompany singers in Yemen until the 1950s. Later, other instruments were added as the country increased its contact with the rest of the world, especially in the city of Aden, which had a prominent role in adopting and highlighting different styles of Yemeni singing from the 1930s until the 1960s. However, some Yemeni artists still play the oud solo on certain occasions. The oud has been associated with Yemeni singing, in its various styles, such as al-Sanaani, al-Lahji, al-Hadrami and al-Tuhami, based entirely on the melodic folk poetry known in Yemen as the al-Hamini poetry (in reference to the Yemeni city of al-Haminiyya) since the middle Islamic age.

Multiple names and a disputed date

Tarab, tarabi, al-tarib, qambus, qanbus, mezher, Gate of Heaven, oud Sanaani, Arabian oud and Hindi oud are just some of the names of this musical instrument dating back to the region’s ancient civilizations. No other musical instrument has stirred up controversy in Yemen among musicians, critics, historians and listeners alike. Perhaps the most important point of contention revolves around the name and origin of the instrument: is it a purely Yemeni creation or is it a Yemeni version of a foreign musical instrument keeping its original form without undertaking any development or addition? Despite the Yemeni dispute regarding the qanbus – which has a Yemeni specificity, as we will demonstrate here – the archaeological discoveries prove the existence of the Eastern oud instrument in several areas of the region. The oriental oud, for example, was found in Pharaonic Egypt approximately 3,500 years ago‎, and it appears several times throughout the history of Iran, India, Iraq and Syria. Yemeni archaeological inscriptions, one of which shows a woman holding an oud in a non-playing position, indicate that the ancient Yemenis have known the oud since before the first millennium BC.

The Yemeni qanbus

The qanbus is a one-piece instrument – the main difference between it and the oriental oud – with a sculpted body and neck. It was mainly made from the calabash tree‎. Later it was customary to make it from thin walnut wood – half a stem – with the stem cut longitudinally and the inside hollowed out to form the cavity. Only the head is carved from a separate piece of wood that supports the instrument’s pegs, fixed on it with a special type of glue called al-aqab, made from a cow’s legs. The chest of the oud is covered with a goatskin parchment, and on its right outer side rests the neck to which the strings are attached. On the skin of the oud’s body, a small piece of wood called ghazala (gazelle) carries the strings through the bridge to the end of the neck, attached to the instrument’s head. And there we find the keys (pegs) to which the strings are fixed. The number of pegs in the Yemeni oud is seven, three doubles and one singular, linked to four strings made from goat intestines.

What does Yemeni music need in order to reach international fame?

Basically, Yemeni music needs marketing. We know that music is marketed by artists. In particular, responsibility rests with those artists who reside outside of Yemen and the Arab region. It is their duty to introduce audiences to Yemeni art and music, even if it is only through a single song. Unfortunately, we notice that many Yemeni artists and musicians avoid presenting Yemeni art for fear of the audience’s reaction, that is, the audience that does not know this type of music and art. We, in Radio Yemen, have started from scratch in building an audience for Yemeni art, an audience consisting of Egyptians and foreigners residing in Egypt. Oftentimes, this audience did not know anything about Yemeni art or the Yemeni dialect in which the songs we play at our concerts here in Egypt are sung. Of course, we offer authentic Yemeni art that is neither distorted, nor over-produced. Thank God, now we have our own audience who love what we offer.

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

Muhammad al-Hejri

A tarabi and oud player from Yemen, and a composer and researcher in Yemeni musical heritage, Muhammad al-Hejri is also a student at the Higher Institute for Arabic Music in Cairo. He is a founding member of Radio Yemen, an artistic collective based in Cairo, dedicated to presenting the Yemeni singing heritage in its main styles, al-Sanaani, al-Lahji and al-Hadrami.

The beginning of al-Hejri’s journey began in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, where I often ran into him carrying his oud with him. He would tell everyone he met about his dream of learning to play the oud and study music in an academic program. And here he is today, leading a band of musicians from different countries united by their love of Yemeni musical heritage with its various rhythms. The band performs concerts in Cairo.


I recently met with Muhammad al-Hejri during a Radio Yemen concert in Cairo.

What is your objective in forming the Radio Yemen band?

My goal is to spread Yemeni music, not songs. This is what I do as a Yemeni oud player; I play traditional Yemeni rhythms as well as pieces that I composed. So it is related to the dissemination and expansion of Yemeni maqams and rhythms, as a musical school with its own specificity and earning its appropriate place alongside other Arab music schools, such as the Egyptian and the Iraqi. In Radio Yemen, I present pieces that I composed at different events and for occasions we hold as a band in Egypt, as well as presenting Yemeni traditional songs. We are always keen on wearing Yemeni folk clothing and documenting Yemeni songs with their original lyrics. We also work on presenting Yemeni art around the world in a style and performance that is closest to the Yemeni spirit. We show Yemeni folk music in a different way from how it is predominantly presented. For example, the Jews of Yemen abroad only use their Yemeni voices, whereas the instruments are Western. All this represents our attempt at spreading Yemeni heritage in a city like Cairo, which is considered one of the most important capitals of culture and arts in the Arab world.

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

Since the establishment of the band, you have been busy with activities and the concerts you performed in Cairo. What is the reaction of Egyptian, and Arab, audiences to Yemeni songs and music?

In general, the Egyptian audience is not familiar with the art and music of Yemen and is uninformed about much about our country. But despite their lack of knowledge of lyrics and rhythms, the Egyptian audience admires the joy and dancing spirit of Yemeni music. We know this from audience comments about our concerts. There are also people who have become so impressed with Yemeni music that they ask for specific songs they have heard and liked during concerts. Although they might not know the meaning of the lyrics, they memorize the melody, rhythm and style. We also have a non-Arab audience in Cairo and in Europe.

Who was the inspiration for Muhammad Al-Hejri to turn to playing the tarabi and the oud?

With regard to the oud, I was influenced by many artists, including the renowned oud player Naseer Shamma, the musician and researcher Munir Bashir, the great singer and player Faisal Alawi, who has an authentic Yemeni spirit in playing, and other great Arab and Yemeni artists.

As for the person who inspired me to play the tarabi, it was my fiancée, Basma Hashem.

Why does your tarabi instrument have six strings?

In general, the tarabi is made of four strings. But in recent years some artists have added a fifth one. The experience of playing the tarabi is wonderful, regardless of the number of strings. However, I added a sixth string to my own instrument as a kind of experiment by which I avoid restricting myself to playing songs; in other words, in order to make it easier for me to play techniques and musical pieces without singing outside the musical Folklore School of Sana’a. So far, this has worked out fine.

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

What are the points of convergence and divergence between tarabi and oud in terms of sound and playing technique?

The tarabi and the oud have the same tuning and almost the same left-hand fingering measures. Yet, there are little but fundamental differences between them. For example, in terms of sound, the voice of tarabi is more melancholic, because of the effect of the leather in it.

As for the playing technique, it refers to the musical school of each piece, and has nothing to do with the instrument itself. However, if we talk about the popular Sanaani technique of playing the tarabi, it is completely different from the rest of the oud playing schools. The classic Sanaani technique helps in bringing more grace and quality to the melody. The feeling of the sound when playing the tarabi with the classic Sanaani style sounds prettier than the sound of the oud played with the same technique. This is because of the strings’ elevation on tarabi instruments.

It is similar to the hammering sound on the guitar when the string is knocked over and over with the same finger. You strike the measure with your finger using the hammering technique, which creates a greater resonance on the tarabi; or rather, in the tarabi with its current measurements and the height of the strings off the neck, which is considered quite high compared to the oud. This makes playing with this technique difficult, but simpler and more influential in the classic Sanaani playing. The tarabi was made to be a Sanaani musical instrument that accompanies singing.

So the tarabi with its classic design with four strings is limited (it was intended to accompany the singers when performing Sanaani songs). Do you think that adding a string or two to the old/classic design of the tarabi helps to move to a different experience outside the framework of Sanaani singing?

Originally, and according to the information that was available to me, the tarabi was made to accompany the singing. I don’t know if we have documented pieces of music from history. Unfortunately, our antiquities are stolen, and nothing important in this regard reaches us from our heritage. In Egypt, for example, the archaeological relics proved that the ancient people used to play musical pieces that had an Egyptian identity and specificity. In Yemen, to the best of my knowledge, the tarabi instrument has not appeared in any archaeological inscription so far. Based on that, we cannot be certain about whether the tarabi was made to solely accompany the singer, or whether it was also used in playing musical pieces. In case it was used to play music, I expect it was on a very limited scale.

The tarabi is freer and not restricted to simple melodic sentences. In other words, singing is limited to melodic sentences, while music is not and presents itself on its own without accompanying the human voice. Therefore, the music is wide and rich in melody and has many melodic sentences ranging from the lowest to the highest octaves, and this requires the existence of at least a fifth string. The tarabi instrument with five strings may be empowered to perform musical compositions with a Yemeni, Eastern or Western character, but with a sixth string, it will help in performing different types of music outside the framework of the Eastern musical school.


Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha


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Rahman Taha

A freelance Yemeni photographer working in visual arts and cultural management. He works and resides in the UK. Rahman has been a photographer for 10 years, and his work has been exhibited at the National Museum Sana’a, the British Museum in London, and the Arab House in Madrid. He has participated in joint exhibitions in various cities, such as Taizz, Beirut, Copenhagen and Detroit.

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