H. al-Ajami & A. Ushaysh
The Association of Yemeni Singers
Between the older classical music and the modern al-jil pop music performed to a techno beat, the casual listener might get the impression that most Arabic music is Cairo based. So praise should go to the Paris-based Institut Du Monde Arabe for seeking out local, traditional and folk genres of Arabic music.
Relatively little recorded Yemenite music is available on CD. However, the history of classical Yemenite music, homayni (sung poetry), goes back to the 14th century. Poetry was written down in dialect. Musicians set the verses to seven and four beat rhythms accompanied on the qanbus, a form of the lute particular to the Gulf area. Homayni became synonymous with Sanaan singing, the urban style practiced in the Yemenite capital.
It is a Yemenite custom in Sanaa to congregate in the heat of the afternoon in a window-lined, upper-floor living room in someone's residence. Seated on cushions that line the walls, Yemenite men chew the leaves of the qat plant, a mild herb that alters one's consciousness. A singer accompanies himself on the lute as the participants engage in animated discussions of art, philosophy and local news. As sunset approaches, the effects of the qat reach a high point. Conversation ceases. An air of contemplation washes over the participants. The music takes on a deep listening mood. In Sanaa, this is known as "the hour of Solomon."
Homayni singer and lutist Mohammad al-Harithi re-creates such an afternoon's repertoire on The Hour of Solomon. The program begins with an invocation of time, place and those present "By God, This Place Has So Many Beautiful Things." The melody is set to a lively 11-beat rhythm. He then moves to a piece that contemplates the beauties of nature, "O Gardens Of My Beloved Homeland" and one of lost love, "My Heart Has Been Entrapped By Her Beautiful Eyes." These two themes are typical of classic homayni poetry. The pace of the program has slowed down over the first three songs and now we've reached "I Have, Besides Hajer, A Fawn With It's Neck Raised," a plaintiff melody with few words that is a favorite during Solomon's hour. As the sky darkens, it's not hard to imagine al-Harithi singing "The Brother of the Lunar Star Appears At Nightfall," a mystical religious poem. The program is fleshed out by a devotional prelude (the Hour of Solomon ends as the call for evening prayer is heard throughout the city) and an 11-beat poem-song that is tacked on at the end (although it is probably delivered earlier in the afternoon). In terms of musical skill, vocal color and variety of material, this is my favorite of the three releases.
On Sanaan Singing, lutist and singer Hasan al-Ajami performs on the qanbus, the original Yemenite version of the lute. Compared to the modern lute, the qanbus has a smaller resonating sound box, which gives the notes more of a banjo-type color. Al-Ajami uses a plectrum in his right hand that controls and varies the tone of the instrument. His playing is more inclined to underscore the vocals than to show off in virtuoso passages. Ahmed Ushaysh accompanies al-Ajami on the copper tray. This totally traditional Yemenite percussion rests on the thumbs. The tray is lightly struck with the other eight fingers giving the effect of someone playing the 11, 14 and 17 cycle beats on the cymbals. (Ushaysh unfortunately died shortly after the recording was made).
The program on Sanaan Singing consists of series of suites that closely reference the classical Andalusian muwashshah. Themes are similar: sensual descriptions of nature and laments for inaccessible love. As a representation of the traditional Yemenite repertoire, you probably can't get much better than these recordings. There are Yemenite instrumentalists like al-Harithi and Ahmed Fathey with more virtuostic skill. But then, neither one of these masters is playing the qanbus.
Sacred Songs From Sanaa presents songs sung without instruments, as is traditional in much of the Islamic world. The singers (nashshadin) perform solo or in pairs. A male chorus that responds to the solo lines in unison accompanies soloists. In Yemen, the nashshadin perform at religious ceremonies and life cycle events. Like the hazzan (cantor) in the Jewish tradition, the Yemenite nashad is expected to generate the appropriate mood of the sacred text during religious events. However, during life cycle events such as marriages, the nashad is expected to vocally embellish, embroider and delight the (all male) audience with his vocal prowess. He is even allowed to introduce popular material into the program.
The Association of Yemeni Singers aims to preserve the Zaydite (branch of Sufi) heritage of religious songs. The program on this CD consists of paraliturgical poems, calls to prayer, praise poems, wedding songs, a nursery rhyme sung by children as they go door to door during Ramadan and even a courting song in which a woman tells her impatient suitor that she'll go with him when "the pigeon lays his eggs in mid-air or when the water that irrigates the palm tree starts to freeze." Because of the lack of instrumentation, the religious songs on this CD tend to lack a great variation of color and dynamics. By the time one gets to the non-religious songs on the latter tracks, the non-Arabic audience may become a bit restless. The secular songs are a bit more lively, reflecting a more basic folk music shape. - Aaron Howard
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