The city of Mukalla was treated to a rare event at the end of August: a concert featuring aspiring young musicians. After a long absence of songs played in public space, the sound of flutes, tambourines, drums and violins proved a delight for the audience. It was the culmination of a months-long effort to promote cultural expression in Hadhramaut.
The sponsor, an organisation called the Meemz Initiative, believes art can be a peaceful catalyst for change as well as a means to address urgent social issues such as human rights. The name is taken from three mims, the Arabic letter that corresponds to the English “m.” It stands for the three pillars of the initiative: Mo’asasa, or foundation (for community projects); Ma’had, or institute (to provide practical training), and Makan, a place for creativity to thrive.
Dubbed the Music Returns project, Meemz targeted 30 young amateurs, albeit men only.
We want to create an integrated artistic environment and a safe space for talented artists.”
“They were taught to transcribe music professionally,” said Shaimaa Bin Othman, 28, a founding member of the initiative. “Then they were trained to accompany musicians and bands under the supervision of a specialised committee.”
In the course of three-month workshops, the programme included the basics of music theory such as notation, singing, and group performances. (Meemz also offers training programmes for women; a prior beginners’ course was open to women as well as men).
This is all part of a larger drive to revive Hadhramaut’s cultural landscape, the chief aim of the Meemz Initiative since its launch in early 2017 by a group of activists.
“We want to create an integrated artistic environment and a safe space for talented artists to practise art, realise opportunities to earn income through their artistic work, and contribute to the development of a creative economy in Yemen,” Bin Othman said.
The Hadhramaut concert marked the birth of a new musical era in Yemen. Ali Naji Lhamdi, a lute player, was one of the programme’s proud participants. He performed eight pieces of Yemeni, Arab, and international compositions with the band during the closing concert.
“I am so grateful for this training,” Lhamdi said, expressing his appreciation to Haitham al-Hadhrami and Ahmad al-Ahmadi, who led the programme.
Al-Hadhrami is a lute player; al-Ahmadi is a musician employed at the state Culture Ministry. He drew from his experience to conduct the concert, showcasing his skills with seamless musical segués and sophisticated remixes, including new interpretations of works by Mohammed Juma Khan. Together with al-Hadhrami, he also presented various works by Yemeni musician Ahmed Bin Ahmed Qassim (1938-1993), who was known for his anti-colonialist lyrics:
The cry of ancient glory from the
mouth of the mountain will be fire
When were we ever slaves?
Lhamdi was especially pleased with Hadhram Blues, a piece composed and performed by the young amateurs themselves.
“The blues is a universal musical genre with a special form,” he said. “Everyone in our group composed a phrase in this piece, which we presented to al-Hadhrami. Then we put them together to produce this song.”
“Hadhram Blues is a sort of syncopated piece that is characterised by the disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythms,” said al-Ahmadi, “and that has a surprising effect on the listener.”
The collaboration came about after some training sessions one might call blues boot camp. Al-Ahmadi and al-Hadhrami encouraged participants to compose melodies that were later polished into a musical piece – a pleasant surprise for al-Ahmadi.
“Their performance was great,” he said, “and as a band conductor, I was amazed by the spectacular result on stage.”
Noha Bin Suhailan, a law student, found the concert deeply meaningful, especially since all the young performers were Yemeni. “Despite all the economic and social challenges amid the crippling obstacles of war,” she said, “they still have the passion to make a positive difference through art.”
A 7,000-year Tradition
Hadhramaut has a long lyrical legacy in the Arabian Peninsula. Singing in this area dates back to the Aad tribe that inhabited southern Arabia 7,000 years ago. Old myths refer to a duo known as Jaradatay Aad, two legendary women with beautiful voices. They were said to be the first to sing in Hadhramaut.
In al-Dan, the melody precedes the lyrics; in songs, the lyrics come before the melody.”
This region alone has four hundred different types of rhythms that vary by region. There’s a song for nearly every occasion or activity, from planting or fishing to wedding parties. For example, al-Dan al-Hadhrami is a fixed melody in which poets reflect their lyrics. The most well-known melodies include al-Reed, which is somewhat low-key; al-Hayqi, which descends from al-Hayq, the residents of Hadhramaut’s plains; and al-Habish, associated with a dance of the same name in Hadhramaut’s rural areas.
“In al-Dan, the melody precedes the lyrics; in songs, the lyrics come before the melody,” said Mohammed Anwar Abdelaziz, a lute player who serves as president of Hadhramaut Artists’ Association.
One of the most well-known performers of al-Dan was Abu Bakr Salem Belfkih (1932-2017). Raised in Hadhramaut, Belfkih, of Saudi origin, was influenced by the Hadhrami style. Salem modernised al-Dan songs by performing them with contemporary musical instruments. Among the most famous poets who composed works for Salem were Haddad al-Kaff (1910-1970) and Hussein al- Mihdhar (1932-2000).
A Golden Age Cut Short
Thanks to the state’s expression of interest in the arts, music in Hadhramaut enjoyed a major renaissance between the 1960s and 1980s. Schools offered music classes, as did the Ministry of Education’s Youth Welfare Authority and other institutions. The state also supported musical bands and an artists’ union. Music production abounded and Hadhramaut music records were distributed throughout the Gulf.
Mohammed Juma Khan (1903-1963), whose musical pieces also featured in the Meemz-sponsored concert, is considered a prominent pioneer of Hadhrami singing. He is credited with developing melodies and singing with Sultan bin Harhara and Shaykh al-Bar, two of Hadhramaut’s eminent musicians.
Mohammad Juma Khan played the lyre and qanbūs, a short-necked lute; he later learned to play classic lute under the guidance of the Hadhrami master Musallam Saadallah. At first, Khan’s singing was accompanied by three musicians on the tambourine, drum, and violin. He subsequently added the ney, an end-blown flute, to his ensemble.
Khan composed pieces that drew from his Punjabi origin, blending Indian rhythms and melodies with local music. According to contemporary musician Ahmed Mohammed’ At’out, Khan’s masterpiece, Leh Ya Dunia, transformed Hadhrami singing from a traditional style to a classical Yemeni genre.
Women’s presence in Hadhramaut’s music scene continued long after the Jaradatay Aad duo. Aisha Naseer (1901-1974) was known for works she composed with her husband, the poet Saeed Bakran. Fatima Mansour al-Shatri (1926-2003), a singer and composer who headed a band, was considered the first modern female lute player in the area. Today, Ammon Baakim is a popular artist who performs in various concerts and other events.
Art [is] a necessity, a means of social expression – not just something for leisure time.”
Hadhramaut’s musical terrain changed after the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. When Mukalla’s Music Institute ceased its support of aspiring young artists, the sounds of the city were reduced to traffic, everyday commerce, and, in more recent years, the blasts of warfare.
Meemz Initiative co-founder Shaimaa Bin Othman is keen to restore Hadhramaut’s lost musical momentum and raise its artistic profile.
“We focus on creating an art-friendly environment through art projects for change, most of which advocate for youth, women, children, and peace,” he said. “We want to change the way society thinks, so it regards of art as a necessity, a means of social expression – not just something for leisure time.”
By promoting the arts and raising social ambitions, the presence of the Meemz Initiative inspires hopes of a harmonious return to musical creativity in Hadhramaut.