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Reviving Yemen’s Musical Heritage: Lack of Support for Youthful Initiatives

Sawt Al-Amal (Voice of Hope) – Haneen Al-Wahsh

Yemeni civilization is based on a rich and unique musical heritage that is different from other forms of Arab singing. It has maintained its distinctive and unique character, mostly as a ‘Tarab’ style, despite the neglect it has suffered, which has led to its erosion and confiscation.

Yemeni musical heritage began as Tarab and chants for lyrical poems that were received by an artist who played the Oud solo, then composed and sang them at events such as weddings, and they were passed down by grandparents at their parties. The rapid pace of modernity has created a significant gap between today’s generation and the past generation within a short period of time. This gap has left Yemen’s musical heritage vulnerable, leading to potential theft, plagiarism, or even its disappearance and neglect. Consequently, Yemeni folk songs are sometimes falsely attributed to artists and poets from outside Yemen.

The majority of young people blame and hold the government agencies responsible for preserving, documenting, renewing, and developing the heritage, while this report sees that the responsibility is shared and that there must be a youth movement towards issuing and inspiring folk songs, and contributing to their revival and dissemination, and creating a collective taste that is proficient in appreciating poetry and traditional singing, in addition to the responsibility of academics who specialize in studying this rich musical heritage with its various types and arts that are not limited.

Youth initiatives aimed at reviving the popular musical heritage are rare in Yemen, and with the emergence of some of these initiatives, they remained individual and on a small scale and did not achieve the desired results for many reasons.

Reviving & Renewing Folk Songs

In Taiz, the governorate that has been the cultural capital of Yemen for years, some initiatives have emerged aimed at renewing folk songs, the most prominent of which is “Mashaqir” initiative, which was launched in mid-October 2020, and its founders described it as, in addition to reviving the musical heritage, aims to renew it with a modern flavor that keeps pace with the aspirations of the audience and restores the presence of the folk song. However, this was not the direct goal of the initiative, according to the statements of those involved, and they saw that this came intending to revive the value of peace and love that folk songs carry and easing the social atmosphere.

The rising artist, Hagir Numan, headed this initiative. With her announcement of it, she expressed her frustration over the lack of support or resources to establish an integrated musical team for the project. Specialists believed that the revival of folk songs itself must be preceded by a real excavation process and methodological studies, in addition to the presence of great artistic expertise that preserves the spirit of the past and protects it from erosion or distortion.

“Mashaqir” initiative, which gradually disappeared from the scene with its slow and late return, was followed by another youth initiative in 2021, which its founders called “Tihamiyat Project”, which aims, according to the announcement of the initiative, to document Tihami songs and present them to the public through modern means of communication. The rising artist Abdallah Aal Sahl was the pioneer of the initiative, and it achieved good results, especially with the wide popularity of some songs, such as the song “Wujoon”. But the initiative quickly subsided; for remaining outside the circle of interest of the public and private sectors in the country.

Challenges & Solutions

At the beginning of 2024, a young man named Sam Al-Buhairi announced another initiative in Taiz called “Shuddu Yemeni”, saying that the motivation behind the initiative, which aims to revive the musical heritage, is what his work as director of “Mayun Foundation for Artistic and Media Production” imposes on him. It is an interest created by the absence of specialists in Yemeni songs, which made them, in his view, vulnerable to theft and erasure from the minds of the generation.

Al-Buhairi said that caring for the musical heritage is a type of preserving the national identity, as it is a cultural treasure that distinguishes peoples and societies from others, and he emphasizes, saying: “That is why my graduation project from the university was the “Shuddu Yemeni” project, but I faced many challenges, such as the absence of specialists and researchers and their scarcity, the lack of authorship, and the difficulty of obtaining an archive dedicated to Yemeni songs. These are, for me, the greatest challenges facing the initiative in its way to revive the traditional song.”

Al-Buhairi believes that the absence of journalists familiar with art is also one of the challenges, as well as the lack of any government direction or interest that makes working on this job an individual matter that is quickly doomed to decline.

He adds: “The weakness of musical culture among society and the new generation is the last of these challenges and problems that limit the success of any youth initiative. Yemeni singing, which began orally and then as Tarab, has remained conservative in its environment and has not received the popularity it deserves when it was produced.”

For his part, Bilal Ahmad – one of those interested in musical heritage – believes that one of the possible treatments to confront the extinction and theft that the old Yemeni song is experiencing is to create a real government approach that adopts the rehabilitation of a team of specialized researchers, in addition to rehabilitating musical and singing groups, the first of which undertakes the tasks of prospecting and purification, while the musical groups undertake the presentation of the colors of traditional Yemeni singing to the public.

He pointed out that there is a missing link between the Yemeni song and the Arab audience, and he suggests that the reason is that the local channels and media are behind this; they maintain their local character without addressing the external audience in any of their programs, and they do not care about the traditional Yemeni song, and if they show it, it is in a transient image, according to his description.

Bilal Ahmed believes that the presence of local channels specializing in art and broadcasting Yemeni and Arab songs to attract Arab viewers and using modern promotional means are all possible treatments for exporting the Yemeni song abroad instead of exposing it to external theft.

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