Yemenis fear for their musical heritage

09:51, June 24, 2010      

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"With her eyes, she aimed her arrows carefully and hit my heart," goes a famous Yemeni song about love at first sight, a poetic tune that has doubtless served as a backdrop for many long Sanaa afternoons.

Holding a pear-shaped oud, an Arabic lute, the singer will sit among listeners who have gathered after lunch to while away the hours chewing the mild stimulant qat, a narcotic leaf that is both hugely popular and legal in impoverished Yemen.

The tune is one of a collection of traditional songs of the Yemeni capital that UNESCO in 2003 declared a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," said to be at risk of disappearing as younger generations turn to pop music.

Yemen has since moved to record and preserve the city's musical heritage, and over 300 Sanaani melodies and their words have been recorded, said Rafiq al-Akouri of the Yemeni Center for Musical Heritage, which led the project.

"Sanaanis say the melodies are difficult, difficult to learn. But they are beautiful, especially the words," Akouri said.

Qat sessions are often the setting for Yemen's ancient tradition of sung poetry, dating back to the 14th century and which many fear may die out as few younger Yemenis want to master what is a demanding art.

Listeners at such sessions can make for a lively audience, singing along, clapping out complicated rhythms and heckling. But sometimes they may just sit and listen to the stories being told in the music.

Yemen, home to a deeply conservative Muslim society, has been slow in opening up to the rest of the world. Around 70 percent of its 23 million population live in the countryside, much of which consists of impassable mountain ranges and desert.


Instability and corruption have prevented significant foreign investment outside Yemen's declining oil industry, and globalisation has had little visible impact in a country where more than 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

Yemen is trying to cement a truce to end a civil war with Shi'ite rebels in the north, quell separatism in the south and fight a resurgent regional al Qaeda arm that has made the country's impenetrable terrain a base.

But the growing number of satellite television channels and the Internet also means Yemenis are increasingly exposed to foreign influences. Tastes have gradually become more diverse, with Western or more modern Arab music gaining in popularity.

Some traditional instruments, such as the turbi, a traditional Yemeni lute, or the sahn, a metal plate that is used as a percussion instrument, have already died out or are on the brink of disappearing.

"Unfortunately this generation now is only running after video clips and explicit songs ... there is no one to transmit their heritage to them," said violin player Abdulbasit al-Harithi, who leads Yemen's National Music Ensemble.

"The result is the disappearance of a culture," he added.

But not all young Yemenis are turning their backs on their country's musical traditions, even if now many are motivated primarily by commercial interests, looking to earn their keep by playing at weddings and other festivities.

"Many artists now are doing it solely for the income, but there are some passionate people," said 25-year-old Imad al-Suwaidi, who works in a shop selling musical instruments and himself plays the oud.

Suwaidi says most of his friends prefer modern music and shares the fear that the gradual loss of Yemen's musical heritage will lead to an erosion of identity.

"Of course I worry about it," he said. "If you don't have a past, you don't have a present."



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