The music of Yemen shares its general melodic and rhythmic structures with the maqamat of other Arabic-language music throughout the region but developed along a different historical path because unlike most Middle Eastern nations, Yemen had a port, Aden, that was an important stop en route to the “Far East.” The music of Yemen kept one eye turned on India and Indonesia even while it fully embraced musical advances from Cairo and Beirut.
Vocalists of are of the utmost importance in Yemeni music. Yemeni lyrics emphasize poetry and whatever instruments are present at a performance are there to support the vocals. In the northern highlands, Muslim imams took a hard line on musical instruments (we learned why some fundamentalist Muslims consider music “haram” in our Saudi Arabian message), so in those areas the singer became even more key. In Israel, Jewish vocalists of Yemenite ancestry, like Ofra Haza, had no such prohibition. Haza blended Yemenite music with modern instruments and song structures to create a dynamic and wildly popular rootsy pop-folk. In class we sing her version of “Tzur Manoti,” an ancient Jewish devotional text that Haza first sings with its traditional Yemeni (minor key) melody, then
turns into upbeat, major key, danceable fun. [Watch Haza in two different performances of “Tzur Manoti,” the first with backing instrumentation, and her head uncovered, and the
second, a capella and wearing a head scarf. Perhaps the former was a performance
in Israel and the latter was a concert for a Yemenite Muslim audience…? In both, Haza and her costumed and very animated performers dance the Yemenite step, also known as the Temadi, which is one of the most popular steps in Israeli folk dance. You too can learn the
The most formal yet widely adored performer of Yemeni musical poetry is the nashad, a singer with a high-pitched voice who leads a chorus in call and response compositions, going back and forth between demonstrating vocal artistry and eliciting participation
by the group. Nashads play an important role in Yemeni society by providing the musical soundtrack for Yemeni life events like weddings and funerals. Nashad music (the term that refers both to the form and the performer) seems to be adapting as Yemenis become more connected to global music, growing into modern sounds while still retaining its traditional meaning. Some nashads for us to hear: A very catchy nashad for children, especially those with big pencils | A formal nashad performance with a chorus | Individual nashad Naby Al-huda | A little boy aspiring to become a big nashad.
While music in Yemen does play an important role at public events, most Yemeni musical experiences happen a bit closer to home. There is a particular tradition in Yemen of spending the afternoons and evenings with family members and friends in a room at the top of the house, one with a lot of windows, talking about philosophy and art, playing instruments, singing, and certainly chewing qat (introduced above). The most prevalent music at these gatherings takes the form of homayni, a type of lyrical poetry that originated in the 14th century. (Homayni performers in San’a have developed a distinct vocal style that has become as “Sanaan singing.”) After hours of philosophy, homanyi and qat,
the session usually ends at dusk with a quiet, contemplative hour of personal reflection, known as “the Hour of Solomon.” Lights stay low and all are quiet. Those who are religiously observant say their evening prayers. Then, all qat-chewers, still deep in thought
about the state of their lives, return to their own homes to sleep well, rise well, make it through another day, and return the next evening to their friends, to the Hour of Solomon and, of course, to qat. (Listen to Mohammad Al-Hardithi perform houmayni poetry while accompanying himself on the oud, from his album “The Hour of Solomon.”)
In class we’re going to try to replicate this tradition–the qat-free parts of it, anyway. We’ll talk philosophy, sing a bit, then become very thoughtful and still.
More about Yemeni music:
National Geographic’s Yemeni musical overview | More about homanyi and Sanaan singing | Yemenite-inspired music is popular in Israel–definitely check out the band Yemen Blues, in which “East Meets West”
In class we’re going to listen to:
— Ahmed Fathi: “Darb Al Akdar”
Ahmed Fathi is “King of Oud!” (At least according to his website.) Fathi was born and raised in isolated North Yemen where he demonstrated musical ability from an
early age. Eventually he was able to join the “High Institute of Arab Music” in Cairo, and since then he’s been sharing Yemenite oud music with international audiences. Fathi blends Yemenite folk with orchestral arrangements, creating a modern and fluid yet still
More about Ahmed Fathi:
About Fathi’s performance at New York’s Kennedy Center | Fathi performs “Love and Peace” | When you visit Fathi’s website, watch out! He’s pointing right at you
— Al-Yaman: “Si-Raa”
Al-Yaman is band based in Prague that fuses Yemenite sounds with electronica to forge a neo-Yemenite-progressive-dance-pop. Singer Ashwaq Abdulla Kulaib, a Yemeni native, fronts the group, fusing her talents and musical sensibilities with those of a respected line-up of international musicians.