Over the past few years, Yemen made headlines mainly due to political turmoil and humanitarian crises. A large segment of population found refuge in the neighboring countries, some settling across the Arab peninsula, others heading further to the four corners of the world. Equally Egypt has become home to many Yemeni individuals and families fleeing war and famine.
In the avalanche of news reporting on the situation of Yemenis in their own country, we often overlook the rich culture they hold, the centuries of heritage wrapped in architecture, arts and music. While many cultural treasures cannot be transported, it is music that has the power to move across political and geographic borders… In fact since last April, it has been brought right to our doorstep, with the band Radio Yemen.
Within a few short months, Radio Yemen performed to audiences in numerous artistic venues and intimate spaces across Cairo, enchanting with Yemeni music the increasingly growing audience, whether from the Yemeni diaspora or from among locals welcoming this interesting endeavor.
“Radio Yemen is a very untraditional band that plays very traditional music with a twist. Our mission is to recreate these old songs from both the north and south of Yemen and share them with new audiences all around the world, bringing the music of Yemen to bigger and bigger stages,” so the musicians introduce themselves on the band’s Facebook page. A four-member band, the formation is nonetheless going through some modifications and expansions.
But what is even more interesting is that Radio Yemen not only touches our auditory senses with unique music but also provides a visual delight, since during the concerts the musicians are dressed in traditional Yemeni costumes.
New, fresh and filled with passion, far from home, yet embraced warmly by its local audience, Radio Yemen managed to take big steps in a very short time. It was not long ago that the Egyptian singer Zeinab Aboutaleb met the Cairo-based Yemeni musician Muhammad Al Hejry in what they thought would be just an amicable exchange of creative ideas.
“We met just two and a half years ago,” Aboutaleb recalls how her interest in Yemeni music directed her to Al Hejry, a Yemeni oud player. Originally a graduate of the faculty of medicine in Cairo and a former student at Beit El Oud, Aboutaleb is also an accomplished singer with local and regional performances of traditional Arabic music, muwashahat and mawaweel, and a number of awards to her name, including one for the solo performance of the song Zay El Asal by Sabah at the Universities Arts Festival (2003) and another in 2009 for the solo performance of Om Kalthoum’s An El-Oshaq (About Lovers).
Zeinab Aboutaleb and Muhammad Al Hejry from Radio Yemen (Photo: courtesy of Radio Yemen)
In her creative discoveries she continues to challenge herself with a variety of new flavours, moving from the Egyptian heritage to the Indian, even Korean. It was when Aboutaleb landed on Arabian Gulf music that she realised that she must first address Yemeni musical culture as the latter has strongly impacted the whole region. As her passion grew, she started approaching members of the Yemeni community, making many friends on the way.
“A friend directed me to Al Hejry,” she reveals, adding how their first meetings sparkled with creativity and a common artistic language, how much she learned from those meetings and how much they enjoyed playing together. It was then that the duo, as yet unaware of what was happening, planted the first seed of Radio Yemen.
“I left Yemen four and a half years ago and came to Egypt three and a half years ago,” Al Hejry explains, drawing my attention to the duo’s precision with his half-year values. He adds that in the year between leaving Yemen and settling in Egypt, he tried his luck in Indonesia, Malaysia, Lebanon and Oman, but felt most comfortable on arrival to Egypt: “Though I’m far from my home and my family, it feels like home here. People are very easy going and welcoming.”
Al Hejry started his musical career in Yemen as a oud player and composer. His portfolio includes several performances across a variety of organisations, embassies and hotels in Sana’a, and an appearance during TEDx. One of his compositions was used as background music for a film produced by Red Cross Yemen. And since, as Al Hejry reveals, there are no higher institutes of music education in Yemen, he acquired his skill and knowledge from fellow-musicians and online resources.
Yet Hejry’s musical interest was not aligned with his family views on what a “proper man” should do for living.
“I come from a tribal Yemeni family, with my father being its sheikh. My closest family raises their eyebrows on my choice of music – they don’t interfere but nor are they interested in what I do. My further family totally rejects what I do, and some even make fun of my music,” Al Hejry explains, adding that his choices cost him alienation from the family and his origins; he found his own community of fellow creative minds. It was also as a loner that he left Yemen and eventually came to Egypt.
“I was determined to study music in Cairo so I enrolled in the Higher Institute of Arabic Music. I focused on studying and did not perform until my path crossed Zeinab’s,” he clarifies pointing to their first performances in a small coffee shop, where their bi-weekly concerts started raising interest of the customers. “This is when we thought of making a project that would further promote Yemeni musical heritage, to an even larger audience.”
Aboutaleb adds that they were soon joined by friends playing music: the Cairo-based tabla (darabouka) player Marshall Bodiker from the USA and a multi-instrumentalist performing on tabla in the band, Maria K.
“We didn’t mean to create a multinational band, it just happened. Maybe it was easier at the time: four of us playing Yemeni music, fusing it with Egyptian music and rhythms, enjoying our Yemeni outfits…” What Aboutaleb believes to be such a spontaneous combination has in fact only underscored the uniqueness of Radio Yemen.
It is also important to mention that Al Hejry performs on both the Egyptian oud and the traditional Yemeni oud known as El Torbi. Unlike the Egyptian oud, which is pear-shaped, El Torbi has a thinner body of wood, partially covered with leather. El Torbi usually consists of four strings and the newer models can be five-stringed. In a YouTube video in which Al Hejry presents the El Torbi, he mentions that his oud is a custom-made and consists of six strings, making it the first such instrument. A characteristic element of the Sanaan music (one of main Yemeni musical traditions), El Torbi’s sound is very unique for solo performances, and it creates beautiful shades with other instruments such as guitar.
Maria K. and Zeinab Aboutaleb from Radio Yemen (Photo: courtesy of Radio Yemen)
With its unique qualities all the way through, Radio Yemen is managed by both Aboutaleb and Al Hejry who share the artistic and organisational responsibilities of the band. As Al Hejry explains, he is behind the choice of many repertoire elements to which Aboutaleb adds her important artistic voice, topping it with better awareness of the venues where Radio Yemen can perform.
Al Hejry briefly walks me through the band’s repertoire, starting by pointing to four main colours of Yemeni music, and which Radio Yemen performs: “The first one is Sanaan singing and music (linked to Yemen’s capital), which is the oldest singing tradition of the country and similar to mowashah. Another one is Hadrami music: it has a lot of rhythmic patterns influenced by those of Africa and India, and it is close to Arabian Gulf music. Lahji music is very cheerful in its rhythms and melodies while Adeni music is probably closest to Egyptian hearts as it absorbed a lot from the Egyptian as well as the Indian musical heritage. Adenite is a very open culture.”
Among the highlights of Radio Yemen’s repertoire are compositions representing each of the Yemen’s music colours. The band performs Ya The Tbon Al Hussieni by Faisal Alawi (Lahji music), Al Hob Wal Bon (Love and Coffee) by Ali Al Ansi (Sanaan music), Bashel Hobak Ma’e by Abo Bakr Salem (Hadrami), Mahal Ma Ya’ejebak Roh by Mohammed Saad Abdullah (Adeni). In addition to the Yemeni repertoire, the band also adds some Egyptian heritage and is soon to reveal original composition at a concert at El Sawy Culturewheel on 20 October.
“We hope to grow while trying to attract a larger audience and more media to our concerts. We promote the musical heritage of Yemen, showing that this beautiful country is not only about war and humanitarian crises. We have a message of centuries-long values to spread; it is our passion but also a big responsibility,” Al Hejry says as he registers growing interest in the band.
With Al Hejry’s support and their Radio Yemen project, Aboutaleb seems to have found her calling. Humbled by the reception of the audience, she hopes to do even more. “I really hope Radio Yemen can reach beyond Egypt. We have to promote Yemeni culture for its wealth and beauty. It is a culture that is very close to many nations’ hearts and definitely resonates well in Egypt,” she says, adding that "several people and bodies have helped Radio Yemen grow, including Molouk El Saeeda for Traditional Clothing which provides costumes for the band and Ahmad Mohamed Sakran, general manager of the Studio Vibe for Developing Arts where we hold most of our rehearsals."
With all the passion and hard work, it is very possible for Radio Yemen to realise their dreams soon. As the band is developing, the upcoming concerts (10 October in Room and 20 October in El Sawy Culturewheel) will see Radio Yemen modified and enriched with more Yemeni musicians. Six musicians will take the stage: Muhammad Al Hejry (oud, Yemen), Zeinab Aboutaleb (vocals, Egypt), Abdulhalim Moheb (bongos, Yemen), Marshall Bodiker (tabla, USA), Ramzi (riq, Yemen), Abu Essam Moheb from Yemen, and possibly other artists.
Radio Yemen band (Photo: courtesy of Radio Yemen)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: The sound of Yemen