International and local music at Yemeni weddings

Published on 21 October 2014 in Culture
Mohammad Al-Khayat (author)

Mohammad Al-Khayat

Yahya Enaba is a famous Yemeni singer and oud player who regularly performs at Yemeni weddings.  (youtube screen grab)

Yahya Enaba is a famous Yemeni singer and oud player who regularly performs at Yemeni weddings. (youtube screen grab)

When we speak of weddings, it goes without saying that food, decor, and music play a crucial role in keeping guests entertained.

At Yemeni weddings, the story is no different.

Talented artists are not hard to find in this country, where musicians such as Balqees Ahmed Fathi, or Rana Al-Haddad, constitute essential parts of people’s social and cultural life.

Dhaif Allah Al-Bada is a 27-year-old singer who performs at weddings in the capital and in other governorates, such as Dhamar, Taiz, and Amran. “All my songs are traditional. I mostly use the lute to compose these tunes, which I feel are true Yemeni art,” he said.

“Art is like an identity that must be preserved and cared for so that it’s not influenced by other cultural nuances,” remarked Al-Bada.

International influence

As of late, many wedding attendees not only dance to Yemeni melodies, but also welcome Western and Asian music.

According to Mohammad Al-Anisi, an artist who sings at weddings in the capital, songs he plays include “Hiya hiya,” which is originally performed by Cheb Khaled, an Algerian-French artist. He performs this song with his rapper colleague Majdi Al-Zyadi. Other songs include Indian ones like “Milne hai mujhse aayi,” from the Bollywood film “Aashiqui 2.”

In separate rooms, young men and women dance to not only English-language songs, but also to Spanish, French, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and several others. Understanding all the lyrics is not always possible, said Mukhtar Allawi, a self-proclaimed music enthusiast. However, “guests still hop to the beats perfectly.”

“It is not that Arab music is not appreciated, it’s just that international music is new and hip and people react to it enthusiastically,” said Mustafa Al-Saiaghi, a groom who played songs like Shakira’s “Hips don’ t lie” and Celine Dion’s ‘Titanic theme’ song at his wedding.

In a largely conservative society like Yemen, the image of men dancing to Shakira singing “yeah, she’s so sexy, every man’s fantasy,” might strike some as odd.

Yasmin Qaid, a young journalist in Sana’a, has been at several weddings dancing with her friends to Usher’s “Yeah” and Pitbull’s “Shut it down.”

When asked whether she knows about the sexual lyrics of both songs, she said no, explaining that although she speaks English she does not pay attention to what is said in those songs. The meaning of Usher’s chorus, “next thing I knew she was all up on me screaming: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” is likely to go unnoticed by the audience. Most people, Qaid said, do not even understand English.

Al-Saiaghi, who has lived in the US for a while, shows little sympathy for more conservative wedding guests that might dislike the English lyrics, saying “either they like it or they don’t.” He is not too worried about the songs’ content, arguing, like Qaid, that most people do not pay attention or do not understand the lyrics.

“I played music from foreign artists to break away from the routine and introduce something different. Also, some of my friends only dance to international music,” said Al-Saiaghi.

Showing his affinity for artists from both the East and West, Al-Saiaghi believes international artists are creative, have great voices, and produce music that resonates with a wider audience.

But not all Yemenis share his view. Many conservative families prefer to stick with local artists. “Weddings, universally, are a traditional custom, and introducing foreign music obscures its very purpose,” said Yousif Al-Salahi, a groom who snubbed the idea of having international music played at his wedding.

Despite his intransigence towards international tunes played at local weddings, Al-Salahi does not entirely dismiss music from abroad. “Many international artists are distinguished for their voices, but that does not make it okay to replace Yemeni music with tunes from abroad,” he said.

There is the odd exception, where music—Western or Arab—is not welcomed by the groom at his wedding. Ismael Ibrahim, who is not a keen fan of music, is of the idea that music itself is forbidden. A groom, he argues, should not start the first moments of his wedding with sins.

For Ibrahim, there are various other ways of expressing joy that include playing tambourines or using Islamic chants that are performed by Islamic chanters, with no instruments being used.

Ibrahim said when he got married he brought a chanter and a band without any instruments to celebrate the event, who were praising God and his Prophet Muhammad.

Combining Yemeni and Western tunes

“International artists have unique melodies that are sensational and creative. Their music entices both Arab and Yemeni youth,” Al-Anisi said.

At the same time, “the Sana’ani, Hadrami, or Lahji music is beautiful art, one of the best in the Arab world. Yemeni music is one of the most original forms for anyone who is interested in music and art.”

Despite the apparent challenges at hand, Al-Anisi finds innovative ways to bridge the Yemeni-international music divide.

“The growing appreciation for international music puts a significant dent on the popularity of Yemeni music. Therefore, I personally try to write Arabic lyrics that are suitable for foreign melodies and sometimes I use poets to do the same thing.”

English teacher Mustafa Abdulhakeem, who is 29 years old and works at the American French Institute in Sana’a, likes some songs of Egyptian singer Tamr Hosny. He finds traditional Yemeni music to be outdated. “Yemeni music is obsolete, we have to modernize it. Yemeni music must introduce international artists and use the same style, because that’s what attracts young men these days.”

“Music by international artists,” he added, “brings joy to the weddings and sets the mood for dancing, which is what’s missing in Yemeni and Arab music.”

“Unlike artists from other Arab countries who mix Arab and international tunes to become a roaring success, Yemeni music is confined to Yemen,” Abdulhakeem regrets.