Iskander Thabet: A Monument in Modern Yemeni Music History

Yemen Update 36(1995):13,21

The following interview appeared in the Yemen Times, September, 1994.

Yemeni music has undergone several major transformations - in content, tune, tools used, and even language. Given the evolution and the limited research done, little can be pinned down to give a definition and identity to Yemeni music. Yet,there are some music giants who can serve as important reference points. Iskander Thabet, 70, is one of them.

Mr. Thabet comesfrom a Sheikh Othman (AAdeni) family that is attached to music. His father and elder brother were both singers. He himself began singing at the age often. This year, he marks the passage of half a century of singing. During this time, he has entertained generations who have fond memories of him. But even more, his enthusiastic and emotional anti-Imam and anti-colonial rule songs became a moral boosting factor in the fight for freedom (in the South). He is indeed a monument in modern Yemeni music history.

Yahya Yusef Al-Hodeidi of the Yemen Times interviewed him to mark his fiftieth year of singing, and filed the following report:

Q: Could you tell us a little bit of your beginnings as a singer?

A: I am lucky because my father and elder brother were singers. Thus I got an early start. I started playing the ood at the age of ten. It was all in the family. At 16, in1940, I travelled to Cairo and joined Halwan High School on a scholarship from the Arab Reform Club. I continued my education at the Arts College (University of Cairo), followed by specialized studies at the Arab High Musical Institute. I presented my first real song through Radio Sawt Al-'Arab (Voice of the Arabs) in Cairo in 1954. This station beams its programs to all over the Arab World;thus our people in Yemen used to follow it. I remained in Cairo improving my performance before I returned to the homeland in1961.

Q: You made a real contribution to drumming up support for the revolutionaries against the Imamic regime(in the North) and British rule (in the South). Could you share with us more details?

A: First, let me say that I was an active member in the Yemeni Union - the body which brought together the revolutionaries - in Cairo. The martyr Muhammed Mahmud Zubayri was our leader. Second, with respect to my enthusiastic songs, I presented many pieces. I can list some of the more famous ones:

"Al-Yaman" is one of the early songs glorifying the nation and lamenting its sad conditions. "Oh Tyrant,Why All This Oppression" was another song which really irritated the Imam. He instructed his ambassador in Cairo to protest to the Egyptian authorities and asked them not to air that song. "A Thousand Salutes to My Nation and Soldiers" was a song addressed to men and women fighting for the independence of the southern part of the homeland. It was banned during British rule of Aden. "O Traveller from the Shores of the Nile to Wadi Tuban" is another anti-colonial song which became very popular with the public.

I presented many other songs which psyched up the public and fighters and gave them a moral boost. I think that my songs, as well as those of others, have played a crucial role in rallying the people around the cause of the nation.

Q: Your songs have been, by and large,classified as part of the Adeni School. Could you explain to us the various schools of music in the country?

A: It is hard to speak of schools of musician Yemen, but we can speak of colors or shades in the rhythm. In this way, we can speak of the Adeni color, the Hadrami color, the San'ani color, the Tihama color, the Lahji color, etc. Some of these have certain special features. For example, the…an'¡n£ songs tend to be classical. But let me point out that as the level of communication and contact has increased,these colors are increasingly being fused into a new product that we call Yemeni music. This fusion process is being done by the young artists.

Q: Speaking about the new breed of singers, let me ask your opinion on the modern song?

A: I am afraid I do not think highly of the very modern songs. I think the basic aesthetic value of the song is lost in favor of the rhythm. The new songs focus on the rhythms that make for physical action or movement, which they call dancing. The beauty of the words, the metaphor, the lyric, the dreams, the longings, etc., are lost. All you have is drum-beat that triggers body movement. Often the words are very cheap, and sometimes outright carnal. The modern songs have lost the sublime aspects of this art.

Q: What are the problems that you faced in your artistic life?

A: I did not suffer from any problems which singled me out specifically, but I can speak of the problems that artists often meet. I can mention, to start with, the absence of the highly backward nature of the organizations responsible for interacting with singers. The radio and TV stations, the Ministry of Information, etc., do not have sufficient appreciation for artists. In the West or even East, for example, singers and artists are idolized. Here in Yemen, to record one song, you are made to wait around for hours. This happens all the time. Another thing to mention is the market. We do not have a large enough market, to start with. But even this small market is subject to illegal recording and piracy of rights. Thus, the revenue one gets is a small fraction of the income.

Q Speaking about piracy, many Yemeni singers complain that many of their sings are being stolen by the Arab Gulf singers. Could you elaborate on that?

A: This is true. There are many Yemeni songs that are taken over by Gulf singers. And since they have better access to a more powerful media, the Yemeni songs are identified with the Gulf singers. I personally have lost songs this way, and I can easily prove that. Other colleagues have also lost their songs to Gulf singers. We do not have the mechanism to rectify this problem. The government is not interested, and there is no syndicate or other body to stop this piracy. If there is somebody that is interested, I can right away give a long list of stolen songs.

Q: What was your feeling during the last war in Yemen?

A: I was saddened, of course. It is sad that our nation should fight with itself. I dream of a strong,unified, and prosperous Yemen. I do not understand why we should fight among ourselves. I am happy that the agony was short-lived,and that the unity of the country has been preserved. I pray that we will deal with the aftermath of the war in a civilized way that reflects the wisdom and good nature with which our forebears have been famous.

I think the unification of Yemen is not only a local achievement, it is also an Arab and Islamic pride. That is why safeguarding it is of paramount importance to us, the Arabs and Muslims.

Q: I heard you were sick. What are you medical treatment plans?

A: Yes, I suffer from a health problem. I have been advised to travel abroad for medical treatment. I have approached President 'Ali 'Abd Allah Salih (through Mr. 'Abd al-Aziz'Abd al-Ghani) on this matter. He has graciously helped with a cash donation of YR 150,000 as well as tickets for my travel. I would like to use this occasion to thank the president for his positive response to my appeal.

Q: Any last comments?

A: I would like to thank the Yemen Times for what it writes. This paper covers various aspects of Yemeni life- not just the politics. I read the paper regularly, and I am often pleasantly surprised with the articles. And since this issue of the paper is going to come out on September 26th, I would like to use the occasion to convey my warm felicitations to our people on the anniversary of the Revolution. I wish many happy returns to all.

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