Home Previous Issues Music Heritage in Yemen The History of Yemeni Folk Songs: A Rich Past and a Dimmed Present

The History of Yemeni Folk Songs: A Rich Past and a Dimmed Present

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

Civilizations rise and flourish on a foundation of cultural and artistic pillars in all their colors and variations. In Yemen, there is a dazzling diversity of civilizations, all connected by a complete artistic civilization built on the musical scales of unique folk songs.

“Since songs are eternal and have no specific beginning anywhere in the world, folk songs in Yemen are as old as humanity itself, considering that Yemen is the cradle of many civilizations in different parts of the world. This is something that various studies agree on,” confirms Muhammad Sultan Al-Yusufi, a specialist in Yemeni folk songs.

Al-Yusufi tells Voice of Hope newspaper: “The sources and references that focus on the art of singing and music do not indicate a specific date for the emergence of the art of singing. However, most of them indicate that singing is as old as the Yemeni people and their existence on this earth. By nature, humans need to express their emotions, feelings, and thoughts. This expression can only be embodied through the practice of arts, including singing, dancing, poetry, painting, and others, which allow people to express their positive or negative feelings and help them get rid of any pressures they face.”

The Antiquity of Singing in Yemen

Al-Yusufi emphasizes: “Many pieces of evidence indicate the antiquity, precedence, and distinction of singing in Yemen. The richness and diversity we notice—in terms of melody and lyrics—in folk singing in different regions of Yemen are the best evidence of the antiquity of the art of singing in Yemen. This melodic richness, represented by folk songs and work songs, is evidence of the inheritance of these melodies since ancient times. They have become a vast repertoire passed down through generations, preserving a rich cultural heritage that expresses Yemen’s identity and history.”

Al-Yusufi points out the vibrant imagery carried within Yemeni musical heritage, reflecting the customs and traditions of the Yemeni people. Folk singing embodies the details of life with its joys and sorrows. In folk singing, we find a diverse range of song themes, such as wedding songs, farming songs, and religious and social occasions. We also find folk songs that embody many social issues, such as the art of “Mulaila” and “Mahajil” (a type of musical heritage), for example. These musical arts represent the solid foundation of the Yemeni folk songs we hear today, which are passed down from one generation of performers to another, and no one knows who created their melodies.

Characteristics of Yemeni Folk Songs

Folk songs in Yemen are distinguished by various artistic characteristics and features that have enabled them to endure throughout the different stages during which the arts of singing and its types have multiplied, as each generation has had its own songs. Yemeni folk songs have a high capacity for interaction and blending with new things, which has made them—despite their antiquity—present in every theater, especially the Gulf theater, which has taken much from Yemeni art.

Researchers interested in the history of Yemeni songs agree that the cross-fertilization of Yemeni musical heritage colors and its borrowing from each other, as well as its blending with nature, have enabled it to survive for so long despite the anonymity of most poets and composers. This gives folk songs a long historical dimension, taking them back to a time before the discovery of writing. Therefore, Yemeni songs have remained in people’s hearts and memories, passed down orally rather than written down.

Unity with nature is one of the most prominent of these features, as confirmed by the researcher Muhammad Sultan Al-Yusufi, who says: “Singing in Yemen is characterized by many features, whether in terms of melodic structure, modal and rhythmic specificity, or in terms of the content of this musical heritage and its various themes. Modal and rhythmic specificity usually arise from several factors, the most important of which are the environment of the artwork, the philosophy of the performer, and his interaction with musical instruments that resonate with his vocal capabilities.”

Al-Yusufi finds an explanation for this in Yemeni Muwashahat, saying: “In Muwashahat with inherited melodies, we find a melodic identity with which the listener feels that these melodies are kneaded with Yemeni nature. Our Yemeni music is not far from the known Arabic singing scales. We find scales such as Bayat, Rast, Huzam, Hijaz, and others, which Yemeni artist performs with their own feeling and impression.”

Kinds of Yemeni Traditional Songs

At a time when specialists divide Yemeni traditional songs into San’ani, Lahji, Yafi’i, Hadhrami, Taizi, and Tihami, researchers in the history of Yemeni songs describe this division as incorrect and see that Yemeni traditional songs have experienced a state of growth within each other. This belief leads them to divide Yemeni songs according to “folk singing” and “urban singing.”

They give the Yemeni countryside its own distinct and independent musical heritage with its emotional character performed on simple individual musical instruments. The artist, Nabat Ahmad, is one of the pioneers of this art in its advanced stages, starting her artistic journey when she sang for the first time on the stage of Saba Palace in the city of Taiz at the beginning of the 1970s.

Nabat Ahmad, known as the “Sultana of the Yemeni Oud,” comes from a Taizi family that guided her into singing when it was a male prerogative, accompanied by her sister Rawdha at the time, as well as artist Taqiya Al-Tawiliya and artist Muna Ali. Yemeni traditional songs have been enriched by many talented artists who leveraged technological advancements to bring traditional songs to the forefront of the artistic scene. The most prominent of those names are: Ali Al-Ansi, Ahmad bin Ahmad Qasim, Al-Sanidar, Nabiha Azim, Raga Basudan, Fathia Al-Sagheer, Muna Ali, Taqiya Al-Tawiliya, Afra Hazza, Fursan Khalifa, Abdul-Rahman Al-Haddad, Muhammad Hamood Al-Harthy, Badwi Zaid, Muhammad bin Muhammad Baswaid, Ibrahim Muhammad Al-Mas, Ali Abu-Bakr Basharaheel, Ahmad Obaid Qa’tabi, and many other names that cannot be mentioned here. Perhaps San’ani singing comes at the beginning of the colors of folk songs, and perhaps its importance among the other Yemeni singing colors prompted UNESCO to include it among the masterpieces of intangible world heritage, according to specialized researchers.

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