Yemen - Traditional Music

Historically, Yemen has been the most populous region of Arabia, and an important seat of culture. Geographically, it is the highest & broadest end of the Hijaz, facing Ethiopia across the Red Sea, and maintaining sea contact with India and even Indonesia. The central plateau, at over 6000 feet, continues to support a rich & conservative culture. A fascinating array of music can be heard in the rare anthologies.

The most significant individual style of art music in Yemen is based closely on poetry, including both classical Arabic poetry as well as that of Yemeni poets over the past centuries and up to today. Performance style consists of a solo singer with accompaniment (typically 'ud). Along with the basic combination of voice & 'ud, there can be percussion instruments to highlight the rhythms in subtly expressive ways. Many variants on this style exist in Yemen, and as a historical form, this was the specifically Arabic musical style which first made a world impact during the early Islamic Empire. The styles in Yemen are especially fluid in rhythm, with a wide variety of metrical patterns derived from poetic language, and articulated without strong rhythmic accents.

This is especially true of the largest single style, that of Sana'a, the capital. An anthology of vocalists recorded recently in Sana'a:

The Music of Islam, Volume 11
Music of Yemen - Sana'a Yemen
Celestial Harmonies 13151

Despite the conservatism, one can hear some outside influence in the accompanying instrumental improvisations. The songs remain compelling, nonetheless, and the presentation contains valuable discussion & orientation.

Two more traditional individual recitals, also from Sana'a:

Yémen - Le chant de Sanaa
Hasan al-Ajami / Ahmed Ushaysh
Institut du Monde Arabe 321029
Yémen - L'Heure de Salomon
Mohammad al-Harithi
Institut du Monde Arabe 321032

The former is particularly strict in a traditional sense, with one singer using the original Yemeni style of 'ud (as opposed to the generic Arabic 'ud which is now ubiquitous), and the other an intriguing copper tray evocative of Indonesia. The latter is a contemplative recital, self-accompanied on the 'ud. These two recent releases have effectively transformed the discography of Yemeni traditional music.

Besides the style of the high plateau around Sana'a, one particularly compelling anthology has been released for a region in the south:

Yemen - Songs from Hadramawt
Auvidis Unesco (Musics and Musicians of the World) D 8273

The styles here are more angular & animated, but still possess the special grace which makes singing of poetry in Yemen so compelling.

Some other items in the modest Yemeni discography are mentioned in the individual files.

To Near-Eastern music menu.

T. M. McComb
Updated: 24 October 2003