Yemen Update 33(1993):30-31

[excerpted from Yemen Times, 27 November 1991, p. 3]

Music in Yemen has gone through major changes in the second half of this century. The pattern and melody that survived the past centuries with considerable stability and consistency have suddenly lost their immunity to change. Traditional instruments have given way to modern ones, the themes are totally different, the rhythm is not the same, and even the word arrangements are not the same. What happened? To find out, we went to the oldest surviving national singer. Muhammed Mahmud al-Harithi has long been famous for his beautiful melodies. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Q: Could you tell us about your first attempts at singing?

A: That was so many years back during the times of the big war (WW II). I was an amateur singer in Kawkaban (about 40 kms. northwest of Sanaa, the capital). After the daily toil, I would go last fifty years.

Q: How would you evaluate the evolution of Yemeni music during this period?

A: There have been many dramatic changes. The most visible change is, as you know in the instruments. Whereas the kinds and numbers of instruments were limited to the oud and the drum that was carried by one hand, today there are at least several instruments which support one another during the song. The mizmarplayed a different role, that is why I did not mention it earlier. The second major change is in the rhythm. Out rhythm was traditional, very stable, and perpetual. Thus, even with different words, the beat and melody of different songs were similar. Today, almost every song is different, and within one song, the rhythm would change several times. The third is the word pattern. Old songs have a way of arranging words that is special to them. Modern songs are stuffed with words in any way they fall. Most of the linguistic beauty is lost. This is partly due to mass production by song-writers. All in all, I still prefer the old goodies, although the new songs also have their appeal. But remember that the value of a song is to be judged by the public. Thus, whereas old songs continue to have their appeal and people continue to buy them, many of the new songs barely survive one or two years.

Q: How many songs have you on record?

A: Oh there are so many I can't count them. But, I think between 250 and 300 regular (love) songs, and about fifty patriotic songs. Some eighty of my songs are on the market and people ask for them.

Q: What is the life of a Yemeni singer like?

A: Of course, more of our private life comes under the public eye, simply because people know us more. I hear people say that singers do not age. I hope they are right because I have well passed the legal retirement age. We have some special problems that impact the way we perform our songs. If we have some difficulties, it is immediately reflected in our performance because our job requires full concentration, and if the singer's moodis okay, then he/she will give the song his/her best. Of course there are some other differences, but by and large, our life is the same as any other job.

Q: Which singers have influenced your art?

A: I used to be impressed with many Yemeni singers. Specially al-Qa'atab and Ibrahim al-Mas of the old generation. At the Arab level there are many more, specially from the old school.

Q: Has anybody tried to bridge the gap between the old and new schools of Yemeni songs in a successful way?

A: It is a hard thing to do. But I can point out a few examples. Abu Bakr Salim did it with three songs, one of which was exceptionally good. I think it adds to the beauty of the song if you can combine the strong points of the old and new schools together. Among the new generation, Fu'ad Al-Kibsi has also done it successfully.

Q: Have you tried to document your career in particular, and the changes in Yenemi music history, in general?

A: I have recorded collections of all my songs which span the last few decades. But I am unable to document the history of music in Yemen. I think other parties, such as the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Culture, and the educational and research institutes can do that job better. I would be willing to help, provided that they have the interest. I think the officials are not interested in this kind of documentation. Actually I am gratified with your interest, and by the way, you are the only newspaper that came to me seeking to shed light on the history of music in Yemen over the last four or five decades.

Q: How does a singer earn his/her living?

A: Unfortunately, due to the lack of respect for author's (singer's) rights, the stereo shops duplicate our song sat will and pay no royalty or fee. They sell over eighty cassettes of my songs, and I have yet to see one riyal. This is a major source of income which singers miss out. Most singers receive a modest monthly salary and in return their songs are played over the official media free of charge. Personally, I barely eke out a living and you can see where and how I live.

Q: That means no special support from any source?

A: No. But, when I was very sick, President 'Al 'Abd Allah Salih has graciously given orders (about three years back) that the government pay for my treatment abroad. The real support I get is the appreciation of the public for my songs.

Q: Could you organize music tours and festivals?

A: I would love to participate in such events. But organizing them requires a lot of money and skills both of which are beyond me. If some party were to do it, I would be happy to participate.

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