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Dân[1] and Humankind: How Al-Shihr Revived Its Arts

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

 

“O’ Suad, wear your gown of joy then come and meet me

I have returned to you and I pray that returns will be my eternal ritual.”

Hussein Abu Bakr al-Mehdar

 

Al-Shihr is a coastal city that overlooks the Arabian sea. The city’s al-Dhaba petroleum port has usually been the main, if not the only, topic of conversations about al-Shihr in the last two decades. While al-Shihr indeed enjoys economic importance and strategic significance, it also has a cultural heritage that is just as important.

Born in al-Shihr, the famous Hadhrami poet Hussein Abu Bakr al-Mehdar called his city Suad (Joy), as we saw in the poem excerpt at the beginning of this piece. Suad was also the name that appeared in Arab historians’ and geographers’ books since the mid-7th century. This Hadhrami city, located 46 kilometers away from Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut, is considered one of Yemen’s most important to the rest of the world. Historically, al-Shihr has been a central exporter of arts, culture and local products like arts and crafts, fabric and incense. For over 1,100 years, the city has also made significant contributions to the Islamic civilization in the Arabian Peninsula and in South East Asia.[2] Hadhrami music is a significant contribution to Yemen, neighboring countries and beyond.

A golden era for prominent poets and artists

Arts and cultural production in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), 1970–1990, was one of the state’s priorities – it intended to support arts and culture in the same manner it did the social sciences and humanities. From its establishment and for the following two decades, the progressive socialist state institutionalized folklore and modern music, dance as well as theater groups and substantially encouraged radio and television drama production. All of this support created a climate for arts to flourish. And al-Shihr was no exception. In that period, al-Mehdar’s collaboration with the one of the greatest singers and composers of all times in Yemen and the Arab world, Hadhrami musician Abu Bakr Salem Balfaqeeh, constituted one of the most important music partnerships in Yemeni and Arab recent music history.

In addition to al-Mehdar and Balfaqeeh’s collaboration, which created a one of a kind musical school, al-Shihr gave birth to a number of musicians and writers such as BaShraheel, al-Malahi, Sae’ed Nae’em, Mahfouth bin Buraik among others. Like the rest of the PDRY’s governorates, Hadhramaut participated in several international music events and academic exchange programs. That golden era was not accidental; rather, it was a result of the PDRY’s structural and political will to support the arts. For instance, music classes were mandatory and taught by specialists in all levels of basic education. Additionally, the state Office for Youth Affairs used to follow up with promising talented young people and provide them with further training and opportunities to perform in various arts and cultural events which were very common at the time. Not only were events  financed by the state, but there was also a great public demand for such music and arts events at the time. Professional institutions such as Mohammed Juma’ah Khan’s Institute for Arts in Mukalla provided classes in music, fine arts, folkloric and modern dance that were taught by Soviet experts as well as national experts who received their higher education in arts abroad.

With such an organized structure, political support and consistent transnational collaboration, the state significantly contributed to creating a generation that appreciated and mastered arts academically and professionally. Until today, television and radio archives stand witness to that golden era.[3]

Suppression and retreat

The accomplishments of that era were violently suppressed by the extremist right wing’s alliance with the regime that won the 1994 war post-unification. Extremists were empowered to eradicate the accomplishments of the arts and modernity in the name of fighting atheism and infidelity. This war on art led to a retreat of the general arts climate in the country, a retreat that is still tangible to this day. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, that gained victory in 1994 with the help of radical Islamist extremists, shut down all arts, music, theater and cinema institutions shortly after the war. Furthermore, vicious campaigns were launched against all forms of the arts, portraying them as anti-Islamic. The developments took a toll on arts teachers who lost their jobs when their classes were removed from school curricula. School theaters were destroyed and excluded from future architectural designs. Consequently, an entire generation was incited against arts and music, alongside artists and musicians who were constantly demonized in extremists’ sermons and recordings. Thus the political climate eventually had a great influence on young people, who lost touch with the cultural and artistic productions their mothers and fathers had enjoyed.

The role of the new generation in art revival

This retreat did not continue for long. Like many other cultural climates around the country and the world, Hadhramaut’s centuries old love for music is an integral part of the local culture. Hadhramaut is al-Dân’s place of birth as well as numerous poets, composers and singers, not to mention that it is the citadel of the Sufi, farmers and fishermen’s oral tradition and al-Wa’al as well as al-Qanees theater festivals. Ironically, and amidst the heyday of Islamist extremism, many Muslim reciters used traditional melodies with spiritual lyrics but without involving any instruments that would have provoked religious authorities.

In the past two decades, the internet has become a window for Yemenis to reconnect with their heritage. Social media platforms, especially YouTube, allow young people to discover a world of local music that they did not know existed as it was hidden from them for three decades during Saleh’s rule. In light of this newly acquired connection with the past, people in al-Shihr began retrieving their local music traditions. Maestro Mohammed Ba’amer and Abdullah Baruq proposed a music training project to the local Office of Cultural Affairs, and indeed they organized a basic music training workshop. The 15 day session took place last year and trained 15 young people on the basics of music note reading, oud, violin and the organ’s basic chords. As soon as the workshop was announced on social media, a large number of young people applied with great interest as they had not had such opportunities before. Baruq told us: “We have sensed great danger in the lack of recreational activities that young people can use in their free time. This initiative is our contribution to fill this gap and help young people find comfort and productivity in music rather than resorting to drugs and extremist militias.”

This is not the first workshop in Hadhramaut. Young musician Haitham al-Hadhrami has previously led a music training workshop for 67 young women and men from different age groups. What is new about this workshop in al-Shihr, however, is that the organizers succeeded in involving the Ministry of Culture and gaining their support. In fact, shortly after this workshop, the local Office for Cultural Affairs organized a similar workshop in Mukalla led by the musician al-Ahmadi as well as another workshop led by Maestro Ba’amer in the Cultural Hall in the city of Shibam last December.

Artwork by Maha al-Omari

Continuity needs support

In order for initiatives like this to continue, formal and institutional support is needed from entities such as the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. It is crucial to keep in mind that the instructors are not always available, not to mention that all of those who volunteered to teach did so without any financial compensation. The absence of proper infrastructure forced the organizers to use basic classrooms instead of proper music halls. Despite this, young people who managed to learn to read music notes and play short compositions found a new passion that they would like to pursue. The passion we saw in the participants, who were very eager for more classes given how much they learned in such a short time, should be reason enough to find support for such projects to run long term.

Ammar Adlan, a musician from al-Shihr, told us that the unavailability of specialized music schools is one big obstacle that faces many aspiring musicians. Oud player and composer, al-Hadhrami, added that not only is there a lack of professional music training institutions, but that most music instruments are also unavailable, and when they are, young musicians and students cannot afford their very high prices, even when they are of poor quality. A musician, Hisham Abdullah, notes that young people keep asking for the means to discover and develop their talents, but their requests are often ignored.

Stories of these recent initiatives undoubtedly bring so much hope. At the same time, there is a fundamental role that the state must play when it comes to arts and cultural politics. It is time to have a cultural institute named after Abu Bakr Salem Balfaqeeh, for instance. This new generation that is passionate about music is also in need of Mohammed Juma’ah Khan’s Institute for Arts, which was shut in 1994, to reopen its doors. It is also time to establish a faculty of music in the University of Hadhramaut. Al-Shihr, with its long and rich music heritage, can perhaps be the seed for the future we aspire to.

_______

 

[1] Dân is a traditional music genre in Hadhramaut, South Yemen. It usually consists of a mixture of oral traditions, farmers’ and camel shepherds’ chants accompanied by vocal and instrumental percussion.

[2] Hardy-Guilbert, Claire. “Thirty-Fourth Meeting of the Seminar for Arabian Studies.” In Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 20-22 July 2000 31, 31:69–79. London: Archaeopress, 2001.

[3] Alviso-Marino, Anahi. “Impact of Transnational Experiences: The Case of Yemeni Artists in the Soviet Union.” Arabian Humanities 1, no. 3 (2013). https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.2229.

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Nabhan bin Nabhan

A civil society and cultural activist.

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