The music of Yemen is slightly different from traditional Arabic music. It is predominantly vocal, and it does not use the maqam (melodic) modal system. Musical instruments have been discouraged and, in some periods of Yemen’s history, even prohibited. Nevertheless, both vocal and instrumental music continued to be enjoyed, often in clandestine conditions. The most compelling instrument of Yemeni music was the turbi (qambus). This is a skin-covered lute-plucked string instrument (much like a guitar). The turbi was often called a Kitab, or book, to avoid suspicion as prohibited music. Some were even built to be hidden in the folds of the musicians’ clothing while walking in the streets.
One of the most substantial aspects of Yemeni music is the ‘spoken word poetry. The rhythmic patterns of the songs set it apart from other Arabic music. The singing accommodates melodic variation and improvisation and allows, and encourages, group participation. The significance of poetry in Yemeni culture is best seen in Sana’a. Derived from various poetic traditions dating from the 14th century, this genre constitutes an integral part of social events, such as marriage and an evening gathering with family and friends.
The singer will sit among listeners who chew the qat, a narcotic leaf that is both hugely popular and legal in Yemen. The poetic staging thrives in wordplay and is famous for its emotional content. “With her eyes, she aimed her arrows carefully and hit my heart,” goes a famous Yemeni song of Sana’a about love at first sight. Though there are notable female singers, women restrict themselves to drums or handclapping.
The traditional songs of Yemen see a decline, and Yemen has since been resolute in preserving the musical heritage by recording over 300 Sana’ani melodies. Losing Yemen’s musical heritage is seen an erosion of one’s identity. A musician states, “If you don’t have a past, you don’t have a present.” Check out some music we post through our stories. What do you think of them?