Bilquis Fathi: Yemen’s new musical export
Bilquis Ahmed Fathi is the daughter of renowned singer Ahmed Fathi. She lives in the UAE where she has launched her singing career with the songs Masa’ala Sahla and Diwan al-She’ar as well as collaborating with some of the great voices of the Arab world.
Who is Bilquis?
My name is Bilquis Ahmed Fathi. I’m the eldest daughter of the renowned singer Ahmed Fathi and although I hold a masters degree in business administration, I am working to become a professional singer myself. I love all aspects of art and I love singing in any language.
We know the artistic roots you have through your father; did Ahmed Fathi raise and prepare you to be an artist, or was it your own talent that pushed you to sing?
Both. My father discovered my gift while I was young and he kept exploring my vocal tones by provoking me with his lute and playing keys that I loved and was moved by.
He trained me extensively on songs and religious chanting. He believed in me and polished my talent from my early years, but he never forced me to take a certain path. Rather, he allowed me to choose the future that I wanted for myself. I took it slow for a long time until we both decided that, after the long period of practice, I could enter the music world. So I admit that it’s both my gift and the good preparation by my dad that contributed to my career.
In recent years, we noticed that there have been many TV programs that introduce young artistic talents, some of whom succeed through sheer luck instead of real qualifications. Have you ever thought about participating in such programs that would have introduced you earlier and faster to a vastly larger audience?
There is no denying that talent programs are a dime a dozen although many of the participants vanish as soon as the program ends. I didn’t have the chance to take part in any of them because I was too busy working on my bachelor, then masters, degrees and dedicating my self to those over the past few years. Such programs go through lengthy processes such as preparation, training, voting and so on so it was out of the question until I finished school.
Is music a life career for you, or do you want to keep it as a talent alongside working in your field of study?
When I started singing on the radio, I considered it a pastime. However, the critics’ and experts’ acclaim and spirit-lifting opinions of my songs made me take the matter more seriously, so I decided to try professional singing after finishing my studies. I performed two new songs that were received well and made me more determined to become a professional, rather than remaining an amateur.
Do you feel that being Yemeni, from a somewhat reserved society, hinders or advances your music career?
Yemeni society is conservative, not reserved. Yet Yemenis know Yemen’s musical arts well. Yemen is the source of many civilizations and cultures that have given the world their arts. People in Yemen are not only conservative in their customs and traditions, but also in their selection of the music they listen to.
We can’t help but noticing our embassy’s poor performance, and the failure of official media, when it comes to promoting many Yemeni talents. It’s just sad that you are better known in the Gulf States than in Yemen. Do you have any plans to promote yourself in Yemen?
I wish that the publicity of Yemeni artists would improve because they are their country’s ambassadors abroad. Once news of my fresh works was released, young Yemeni artists started to contact me through Facebook offering to publish the news on Yemeni websites.
Of course, I have my own promotional plans and I intend to visit Yemen when the current situation becomes more stable in order to know my audience more closely. I also plan to visit universities there and talk to students.
Tell us about your experience with ‘melodies ambassador’ Mr. Faiz al-Saeed, H.E. Sheikh Hamdan (Fazza’a) and the great Abu Bakr Salem. Was this your first collaboration with outside songwriters and composers?
It was a priceless experience that I hold with pride. I believe it has added much to my life thanks to Allah then to the support of H.E. Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and my noble-minded friend Faiz al-Saeed.
I recorded a number of their songs early this year. Fazza’a’s enthusiasm for Abu Bakr made him talk me into adding my voice to the song Diwan al-She’ar so that two Yemeni voices would join in a song with a Yemeni tune – it was a tremendous honor to sing with an icon like Abu Bakr Salem whom I consider as both a father and a teacher.
Does it bother you when your success is and may continue to be attributed to your father Ahmed Fathi?
Never. I take great pride in bearing my father’s name. Ahmed Fathi, the human who had dedicated himself to serving art and the lute; the loving father who wants me to be my best at all levels. But there’s a point overlooked by many; numerous big names depended on their great ancestors in the music world, but they did not last long because they lacked real flair. My father’s name has helped me in drawing a halo of respect and sophisticated art around me, but my skills also have supported that name I hold dearly.
Have you received any offers from known music companies? Or are you still waiting for your opportunity?
Yes. Many offers have been made from major record companies, but the problem is the monopoly years; they request a minimum ten years, which I believe to be too long. So you can say that I’m waiting for the right offer from the right company. I’ll keep you posted!
It’s vexing that Yemeni folk songs are both unrecognized and marginalized and their role in developing music in the Gulf is ignored. We notice that many Gulf songs claim to be “folk” without mentioning that it is Yemeni folk. What can you do to change this?
No one can deny or ignore this matter because even the least musically cultured people understand that the word “folk” means Yemeni folk.
There is a piece of information that I’d like to share with you; there’s no categorization that prefers Gulf music to Yemeni music because they both share the same accent, measures, rhythms, string instruments and even customs, traditions and colors and as I see it, there’s no difference between the two schools.
In your opinion, who is serving and promoting Yemeni music?
Anyone who sings Yemeni folk songs serves the genre, especially famous musicians in the Arab world.
Several Yemeni singers abroad have dedicated their works to the Gulf style ignoring the necessity to revive Yemeni folk music, while Arab artists have sung Yemeni songs and made a splash. What do you think?
It’s not possible to generalize. But if we scrutinize, we will find that the music employed is a mixture of Yemeni and Gulf styles. The artists who have sung Yemeni songs include Mohammed Abdu (an artist of all Arabs), Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Abu Bakr Salem.
Do you believe that Yemeni songs could be introduced as world-class music?
Any type of music can be world-class after the melodies are treated and recomposed. Speaking of which, I was enchanted a couple of days ago by a UAE band performing Ayyala folk music. Members of the band were old men who both sang and danced. The black-and-white video clip dates back to the mid-seventies, but it was processed and a symphony was added in harmony with the dancers’ movements. The effect was astonishing! We can apply the same to Yemeni classic music, something that I intend to do soon.
There’s a fixed negative mental image of Yemen and Yemenis in the world. Can we expect you to prepare an international work that deals with this problem, which affects all Yemenis abroad?
Life has its positive and negative sides, that is for sure. It’s the negative that usually paint a reputation, but Yemenis also have a good reputation abroad as well. I aspire to perform international and humanitarian art works that do not side with any country or people in particular, because the message that we hold should be general, not specific. I’m planning to perform a piece of art that would prove to the world that Arabs, not only Yemenis, are not what many keep imagining them to be.
What do you say to Yemen?
Yemen now is in a phase of awaking and it has the desire for change at all levels. We are certain that all the difficulties Yemeni’s suffer will change for the better so that Arabia Felix will be happier than ever before. I promise to visit soon and celebrate with my audience in a way that Yemen has never witnessed before.