Qasidas on Cassettes

by W. Flagg Miller (Anthropology, University of Michigan)

Yemen Update 39(1997):25

As an AIYS fellow, I went to Yemen from June1994 -May, 1995 conducting pre-dissertation fieldwork on folk poetry and audio cassette culture in Yafi', a mountainous region north of Aden Having heard cassettes of Yafi'i poets sparring to musical accompaniments in Sanaa, Aden, and Sai'un before even arriving inYafi', I decided to investigate the role of cassettes in the production of poetry in Yafi' and the impact of the technology on culture in Yemen since their flourescence some thirty years ago. After renting a house in Lab'us, the principal administrative center for Upper Yafi', I began interviewing local poets and residents about trends in poetry as well as about the rich historical and cultural background of the area.

In addition to collecting poems and anecdotes about the major Yafi'i poets of the past, I began to focus specifically on the lives and works of the two most popular Yafi'ifolk artists alive today: the prolific cassette-poet Shayf al-Khalidi and the musician Husayn 'Abd al-Nassar. These two have cooperatively produced an uninterrupted series of cassettes &emdash; at an average of one cassette every three months &emdash; since 1979, a record that to my knowledge is approached by only one other pair of poets from Dhamar. There are at least two factors that distinguish the underlying orientation of this series from that of other folk-poetry cassettes First, this series has increasingly featured satire poetry(hija'), known in the colloquial as bid'-wa-jawabpoetry, in which one poet composes a qas�da and then sends it to a second poet who responds with the same meter and rhyme. The challenges and retorts, hilarious jests, and incisive social and political commentaries of these poems make them extremely popular among audiences. Second, the 'Abd al-Nassar series features poetry that is exchanged between poets from regions all over Yemen and especially the prominent tribal regions between Sanaa and Aden, the respective capitals of former North and South Yemen. The effect of such a sustained, extended, popular dialogue &emdash; one impossible without the cassette medium &emdash; is that of a plurality of tribesmen qua citizens, all from different regions and all debating about the same issues. Correspondingly, the themes, styles,semantics, and lexicons of this inter-regional exchange tend to reflect transitions from more parochial folk poetry to a more widely accessible, popular poetry. One of the most recurrent themes in this poetry has been the state of the nation and related issues and events

A third distinctive feature of this cassette series is that most of the featured poets, while of rural and tribal backgrounds, spend significant periods of their lives in heavily urbanized areas and abroad in neighboring Gulf countries. The musician Husayn 'Abd al-Nassar, for example, lives permanently in Abu Dhabi and produces and distributes cassettes from there. While the poets whom he features often maintain literary images as illiterate shepherds fully immersed in rural life, they are using the latest media and communications technologies to facilitate the production of their identities as tribesmen. Ultimately, the more urbanized,cosmopolitan themes and producers of this cassette series make it a fruitful site for comparison with more traditional poetry that is not produced for cassette distribution.

In addition to conducting research into the content of Yafi'i cassette-poetry, I have been interviewing cassette-outlet owners and distributers mostly in Aden in order to get a sense of the entire production process, the market, the legal issues involved, consumer preferences, etc. One of my central goals will be to theorize how developments in the recording industry over the years has influenced not only poetry but, more generally,cultural and political discourses and related transformations in local and national identities.

Search Site

Search Library Collection