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Challenges of Yemeni Heritage Song: Past & Present

Sawt Al-Amal (Voice of Hope)  – Hanan Hussein    

Yemeni folk songs are considered an important part of Yemeni heritage and identity. They constitute the structure of Yemeni society culture and a rich legacy of values and authentic history. They are a lively pulse of its culture throughout the ages. However, folk songs in Yemen have faced many challenges, especially during the period of armed conflict that affected all aspects of life. It led to a significant deterioration in folk art and affected its existence and continuity. Before the outbreak of the conflict, folk songs were present on various occasions and enjoyed a prestigious position in Yemeni society.

The colors of Yemeni folk songs and their topics vary between love, flirting, heroism, description, and mourning. They are characterized by their various sweet rhythms and beautiful distinctive poetic lyrics. Each province has a different rhythm and dialect, which is reflected in social occasions and official celebrations.

Artist and art critic Jabir Ahmad says: “Yemeni musical heritage is divided into two main types: ‘folk singing’, which constitutes the spirit of Yemeni society and is sung in occasions, crafts, and factional songs, and ‘traditional singing’, which is mainly singing Yemeni songs in Yemen. It is a complex style of singing that requires high skills from professional singers or skilled amateurs. This singing still holds a significant place in the Yemeni music scene.”

He adds: “We find that the song previously received wide and great attention from the community and relevant authorities, such as organizations and relevant government agencies represented by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. However, its status declined dramatically due to the difficult conditions that Yemen is experiencing, with citizens preoccupied with concerns of daily life, making music and arts seem like luxuries. Additionally, many archaeological and historical sites where musical events were held have been exposed to destruction.”

Looted Musical Heritage

As Abdul-Nasir Radman, Director of Intellectual Property at Abu Ghazala for Intellectual Property – Yemen Office, says: “Yemeni folk songs have suffered from neglect, especially in the Gulf singing field. Many of the lyrics and melodies of Gulf songs are authentic Yemeni heritage, but music production companies are content with labeling them as “from the heritage” or “From the folklore” without attributing them to Yemen. Furthermore, there are clear instances of theft of melodies or lyrics, or both, and attributing them to other poets and composers.”

The Prominent Role of Yemeni Artists

Researchers believe that traditional artists have played a prominent role in transmitting Yemeni culture and history to new generations through missions and holding external concerts. That is why the Yemeni song received great support from the country and society at the time, through the organization of many musical events and festivals, but later many traditional artists went abroad in search of better opportunities, especially with the deterioration of the living situation in Yemen as a result of the ongoing conflicts in various Yemeni governorates.

Difficulties

With the outbreak of conflicts in Yemen, the folk song faced many challenges, which led to its decline significantly, and there are a group of interested and specialized people who talked about the most prominent of these challenges.

Rafiq Al-Akwari, former Director General of the Yemeni Musical Heritage Center, says: “The Yemeni song in its various stages was subjected to robbery, theft, and loss; as some artists stole a traditional melody and attributed it to themselves, or some of them performed a traditional song without mentioning the origin of the song.”

He added, “There are some songs that, although they are not folklore, have been attributed to someone other than their owner unintentionally, such as the song “Sabuha” and the song “Wasari Sari Al-Layl”. These songs became famous and spread in some Arab countries and were sung by everyone. As they were widespread in society, some mistakenly thought that they were the heritage of that country, when in fact they are from the authentic Yemeni heritage.”

The art critic Jabir Ahmad explains that Yemeni singing suffers from many difficulties, perhaps the most prominent of which is the spread of musical illiteracy. This has led to terminological uses that have greatly damaged it, and the repetition of singing by professionals who lack the scientific musical knowledge of the secrets of this great art. Additionally, there is a scarcity of analytical and historical studies of ancient heritage art, making it vulnerable to the influence of qat chewers or sessions led by professionals lacking the necessary expertise to properly guide the singing scene.

He adds: “Among the difficulties is the absence of research and study centers that are supposed to carry out field survey mechanisms and census collection, which will enable them to do what is necessary to avoid the heritage risks that it suffers today from thefts.”

Jabir pointed out that theft is an almost universal phenomenon, and the problem lies in our country’s failure to confront this matter. This is where the great harm lies. Let us not forget the biggest challenge, which is violent conflicts, especially when they take on a civil nature. Their impact is doubled on the components of cultural identity.

Researchers believe that religious extremism and its prohibition of singing are the greatest enemies of the Yemeni folk songs. Additionally, the great modernization and renewal of folk songs pose a threat to the continuation of the traditional rhythm in its usual pattern, this distorts the folk songs and obscures its features. There is also a lack of awareness of the importance of the folk songs among some members of society, which threatens its identity and existence. Furthermore, the difficulty of accessing the required musical materials and tools, the scarcity of job opportunities for artists, and the lack of awareness of the importance of the folk songs among the new generation contribute to the challenges facing Yemeni folk songs and their sustainability.

Armed Conflict and Heritage

Rafiq Al-Akwari explains the impact of conflicts in general on heritage, saying: “In the case of armed conflicts, art in general is negatively and positively affected, including lyrical art. On the one hand, conflicts lead to a deterioration in the security and economic conditions in the country, which negatively affects artistic production and its spread. The conflicting groups also try to distort or erase the arts of other groups. On the other hand, conflicting groups try to adhere to their cultural identity, including artistic identity, as narrowly as possible, by organizing artistic events that express their culture and history.”

The artist Jabir Ahmad also points out that the reason for the widespread popularity of folk songs outside Yemen is due to the undisciplined behavior of some artists, whether they are from the Arabian Gulf or Yemen. This spread is the result of using sound technology and instruments that provide the highest level of purity and dazzling that attracts the listener, and what makes matters worse is the absence of any institutional role to reduce this.

Successful Experiences

To find ways to preserve musical heritage in Yemen, Yemeni activists dedicated a ” Folk Song Day “, and adopted it on the first of July of each year, to renew and preserve musical heritage, and holding several festivals and events at home and abroad and spreading the Yemeni folk song with its various types and rhythms to the world.

Laws to Preserve the Musical Heritage

In the context of the laws that guarantee the preservation and protection of heritage, Abdul-Nasir Radman mentioned a set of laws that stipulated the protection of Yemeni heritage. He says: “The Yemeni Copyright Law No. 12 issued in 2012 stipulated the exclusive ownership of Yemeni folk songs to the Yemeni country. Article 56 stipulated that popular folklore or folklore expressions are considered public property of the country, and the ministry undertakes to protect, exploit, develop, and support it by all legal means and methods.”

Article 57 states that “the Ministry shall exercise the moral rights over the popular folklore or expressions of folklore and protect them from any distortion or alteration, in coordination with other relevant authorities, as added by the text of the law.” “Whoever uses or exploits the popular folklore or expressions of folklore must properly mention the source as determined by the regulation.” Article 58 also stressed that “the popular folklore or expressions of folklore may not be exploited except with a license issued by the Ministry.”

Treatments

Rafiq Al-Akwari believes that there are a set of treatments and theories to preserve the folk songs. He says: “Folk songs are widely spread in Yemen and are still transmitted through generations with a wide audience. To preserve them, it is necessary first to document and archive the songs, and then create an official inventory to guarantee ownership rights with international authorities.”

As for Nizar Ghanim, who is interested in the musical heritage field, he points out that there are a set of proposals that would help preserve the musical heritage. This includes joining efforts by various parties, including international organizations to save folk songs from extinction. He suggests forming a committee to support folk songs, identify their needs, and develop an action plan to preserve it.

He adds: “It is necessary to support, empower, and encourage artists financially, and to work on spreading awareness of the importance of musical heritage, especially among the new generations. The media and social media should also be directed to spread awareness about folk songs, their history, and their culture for Yemenis as a whole.”

Abdul-Nasir Radman explains the importance of preserving the intellectual property of the musical heritage in Yemen; He says: “The Ministry of Culture must inventory all Yemeni folk songs (melodies and lyrics) and announce them to the public as part of Yemen’s intangible heritage, by creating comprehensive databases or repositories for traditional songs, including information about their origins, lyrics, melodies, and their known variations. The database can also serve as reference points to identify and track cases of copying or copying without proper attribution.”

He adds: “It is important to build the capacity of human resources in the ministry in the field of intellectual property, and the means of enforcing intellectual property rights, especially in the digital space, and to take legal measures and judicial procedures against violators inside and outside Yemen, and to develop mechanisms to monitor and detect cases of copying or unauthorized copying of traditional songs.”

“Working with law enforcement agencies, copyright offices, and relevant authorities to enforce legal provisions, and taking appropriate action against non-Yemeni parties involved in such practices. This may include issuing cease and desist notices, pursuing legal action, or seeking international cooperation for cross-border enforcement,” according to Radman.

As Radman mentioned, awareness campaigns on the intellectual property rights of Yemeni folklore and folklore expressions should be carried out in cultural, artistic, and popular circles, and awareness should be raised among the public and musicians about the importance of respecting and recognizing traditional forms of expression. Organizing awareness campaigns, workshops, and training programs to encourage a culture of respect for traditional songs, and to enhance the understanding of intellectual property rights concerning traditional knowledge and cultural heritage.

He pointed out the importance of cooperation with international organizations, neighboring countries, and relevant stakeholders to enhance cooperation in protecting and managing traditional forms of expression and exchanging experiences, best practices, and legal frameworks to ensure a coordinated approach to protecting traditional songs across borders.

Traditional songs in Yemen are currently facing difficult confrontations and tremendous obstacles, but despite that, they are still able to face difficult circumstances with all firmness to preserve the heritage of an ancient people and its history and multiple civilizations, which had different joyful and occasional rituals. However, it still needs continuous support to save and preserve it from extinction. This can be achieved through collective efforts involving the people, the state, and cultural organizations.

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