Traditional Yemeni songs known as mahajil are a bridge between the past and the present. Chanted by farmers or fishermen, they evoke a sense of oneness with nature. Sung in unison at markets or weddings, the songs sound festive. The mahajil’s melodies unite Yemenis throughout history, drawing lessons from their ancestors’ trials and triumphs and forging common ground for future generations.
Mohammed Ali Mahroos, Taiz
In some rural areas, it’s not uncommon to hear haunting voices behind the trees in the sun’s early rays. They may belong to elderly neighbours in alleys or vendors at local markets, exchanging morning greetings. This type of mahajil is known as moulala, a favourite in Taiz. No subject is off limits as long as there’s no break in the poetic meter and a cross-generational context is clear. Hijriya, which lies in southern Taiz, is the source of this genre, though the age of its origins is unclear.
Moulala can be spontaneously sung in public transport, farmland, or any gatherings such as weddings, national or religious occasions. The lyrics usually touch on yearning and melancholy in love songs to one’s sweetheart or spouse. In fields and markets, moulala can be chanted to lift people’s spirits as they work together; in weddings or other family events, the lyrics are about love or praise of the venue and those present.
Ala li li li li,
Sha’ban 1 has passed, Ramadan has come,
and the feast is soon upon us,
so let us greet our loved ones.
Ala li li li li,
The rain is pouring, and clouds are trembling,
the rain is pouring, and clouds are trembling.
Whoever falls in love must bear pain.
Moulala can also be an individual or family practise. Bushra Abdel Ghaffar, an employee at a private company in Taiz, has fond memories of her late father’s singing.
“He would break into song whenever my mother served traditional food,” she said, adding that the thought of his lyrics still makes her smile.
Moulala has recently attracted several musicians who have reproduced some songs with a modern touch. By sharing them on social media, they hope to breathe new life into this cherished tradition that was largely lost to war.
1. The eighth month of the Islamic calendar.
Faiz al-Dhubaibi, Raymah
The growing season in Yemen lasts nearly eight months, starting with the rains of March, continuing through June as crops ripen, and culminating with the harvest at the end of October. The residents of Raymah, a rural governorate, still rely on agriculture and livestock as their sole source of livelihood. They chant in a daily ritual for each phase of the farming season.
“These songs remind us of all the efforts carried out by our forefathers as they adapted to the lofty mountains, cultivating these vast lands,” said Hajj Muqbil Mohammed Yahya, 79, a farmer from the district of Jabeen. “They ease the burdens of our labour and give us the strength to persevere.”
During the growing season, farmers in Raymah head out early, singing the morning’s mahajil as they make their way to the fields:
Morning of gladness,
morning of goodness,
to whomever seeks it.
You who are in search of livelihood,
seek nothing beyond well-being,
as livelihood comes from waterwheels and falling rain.
Morning of gladness,
you shine through, master of lovers.
Love is free, but a lover of two is a liar.
In his book Folkloric Arts in Yemen, poet Abdullah al-Bardouni says such mahajil convey the singers’ sensation of joy at dawn.
“It’s as though the brightness of morning shines through the sounds of the lyrics and merges with the farmers’ voices,” he writes.
When a man or woman begins to sing, everyone joins in with rhythm and harmonies that bring a boost of energy, easing the hard work.
In a late phase of the season known as ’allan, farmers clear the land, collecting grass (for fodder) that sprouts between the mountain paths and valleys after the rains.
“Farmers await this moment with great anticipation,” al-Bardouni writes. “It is a beautiful sense of longing that rivals or even surpasses the glory of attainment itself.”
It is this sentiment, he said, that lends delight to the essence of the songs.
Armed with tools, food, and drink, the farmers head to the fields in the autumn months to pick the grass from early morning to dusk.
“They have no escape except to sing,” said Mohammed Ali Yahya, 55, a farmer from Raymah. “That is why mahajil are coupled with ’allan like fishermen are linked to the sea.”
One of the farmers’ songs goes like this:
Oh burning sun in the sky,
praised be the lord who made your path,
with no need for food or drink.
Oh lightning that can ascend to your sky,
without fear of your light, or drowning in your clouds and waters
’Allan, ’ allan, after autumn, we seek God,
and those who seek God will go forth,
and those who seek the devil, may God not bring them back.
Since women play a crucial role in agriculture, it’s little wonder that half of Yemen’s musical heritage stems from them. Since most mahajil lyrics fit either gender, both men and women can chant the same songs that revolve around everyday life rather than individual circumstances.
However, some mahajil are sung only by women, others only by men.
According to Abdul Kareem Ghanem, a poet and researcher at the Yemeni Center for Studies and Research on Heritage, women’s mahajil tend toward self-mocking laments about suffering such as homesickness, life’s hardships, or abandonment by a lover, for example:
My beloved took his leave
before I could say goodbye.
May he go with God and return to me.
My beloved took his leave
and his leaving broke me.
Oh torment! after him, with whom will I sit?
How I miss him, after him, who is still mine?
Oh, this parting! How tears burst from my heart!
Such mahajil, along with others in Ahmed al-Ma’rassi’s book Folkloric Songs from Raymah, reveal the unique way Yemenis express their emotions past and present, along with hopes for a better future, a fruitful harvest with their fellow farmers, and joyous gatherings with their loved ones.
Fatima Bawazir, Mukalla
Fishing has been a vital source of livelihood in Hadhramaut since ancient times. Hadhramis have a long history of maritime navigation in the Arabian Gulf. Thanks to a few popular contemporary musicians, the sea songs, with their prominent place in Yemeni folklore, have survived.
Known in Hadhramaut as ahazijj, shilat, or zawamil, they are sung in short couplets, sometimes accompanied by a simsimiyya, a lyre-like instrument.
“These songs were traditionally performed with a dance called darbuka on the beach by fishermen after their return from sea,” said Salem Badhawi, 50, a singer from Mukalla.
Along the Yemeni coast, fishermen’s chants reflected the drama of humanity’s bond with nature and the struggle for survival.
“Mahajil formed a cornerstone of Yemeni colloquial poetry,” said Abdullah al-Bardouni, a renowned Yemeni poet.
“In terms of language, taste, and poetic meter, they became a fixture in the Yemeni canon.”
Yet most of this music all but disappeared by the end of the 1970s.
“This loss was due to the development of modern fishing equipment,” said Shareef Bin Dohri, 40, a fisherman and carpenter who specialises in large and small fishing boats. The songs had faded from tradition with a change in fishing practises.
But in the late 1980s, they enjoyed a revival when Yemeni singers such as Salem and Ali Said al-Musalli began recording them for preservation with their band, Folkloric Heritage, in the coastal city al-Shihr.
Each area has its own specific songs for setting out to sea. The very word for chanting, shila, is said to offer motivation and release. Here is one example:
Shila, ya shila
May God help us
Oh let us chant
Another may sing:
Oh sea, be afraid of God,
Don’t take the youngest among us!
You may have the two sailors,
Or three with the skipper,
Or four with the captain
who holds the rudder.
Oh humble boat,
Sail on, sail on.
Chanted in a rhythm that matches the rowing of oars as they slap the water, these ahazij or shilat boost the singers’ energy. With four or five to one boat, the fishermen work as a single unit. One form of ahazij called aroura might go like this:
I row out, seeking God
Seeking my share from God
My daily catch granted easily by God
All we have is from God
Oh my son, get up!
When the sails are unfurled in the morning, the fishermen sing:
Oh God, good morning!
Oh bird, God bestows blessings on you.
Other verses are chanted for catching al-ghadef, a small fish used as bait for larger fish, or when fishing a sardine-like fish called al-jadab in the local dialect:
Al-jadab says: “Take us, take us.
For Mukalla we yearn.
Mosawban, oh God Mosawban1.”
The men also fish for thamad, a tuna that is lucrative
in the domestic and foreign market. As they cast their hooks, they might chant:
Tuna, tuna, if fishers hunt,
Large fish they will catch
Whether from stern or bow
Heave up, heave up!
At day’s end, fishermen would chant a special tune to celebrate a safe return with their catch, with time to repair their nets. The lyrics touch on the idea of a shared destiny:
Thank God for safety,
Today we return safely.
1. Ancient God of fishing