Playlist #32: Yemeni Music from the 80s Curated by Natik Awayez

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube and Spotify.

This special playlist of Yemeni music is curated by singer, lyricist, musician and composer Natik Awayez and gives rare insights into the music presented. Having spent most of the 1980s in Yemen, Awayez fell under the spell of the country’s colourful musical styles, and forged solid bonds with the music and the land. 

For this playlist he has carefully selected pieces from different genres of Yemeni music, to offer a taste of the musical richness present in the country during the 1980s. From Hadramawti, to Adani and Sana’ani, unlock an ocean of music to enjoy and explore from an area that is culturally underrepresented and whose people are currently suffering great hardships.

Starting off the playlist, we are ushered into the intimate world of wedding music, or zaffe, in this case carried out by one of the pioneering singers of Yemeni folklore songs, Taqiyya Al Taweeliah. Originally from the capital Sana’a, Al Taweeliah’s talent challenged the views of her family and conservative society, making her one of the country’s most famous singers and a staple at every wedding and other social ceremonies. Taqiyya also played on the sahn nuhas صحن نحاس  or copper plate, a form of a percussive instrument played gently with the fingertips to accompany the rich poetic lyrics of Sana’ani songs.

Her contemporary Nabat Ahmad was said to be one of the first Yemeni women to play the oud, especially following the September 26th Revolution. In her song “Fi Hifth Rabbi Ya Msafer” she sings for the loved one who’s going away and is playing her oud, a sight rarely seen in Yemen before.

While the previous two singers came from the more conservative northern Yemen, Amal Ko’dol came from the socialist and relatively more freethinking southern Yemen that hosts a rich and mixed cultural heritage due to its proximity to Africa, and ship routes to India, Indonesia and beyond. This allowed the musical styles of Yemen to absorb influences from these regions, while still preserving a unique local flavour: holding within them elements of revolution, love for their country and the nature of the ruling regime in the South that allowed for a wider freedom of expression artistically. Ko’dol’s is a demonstration of the Adeni musical style, which is part of the wider Hadrami style characterised by close ties to poetry and incorporating trans-geographical rhythms and influences.

Awayez’s selection showcases Sana’ani music which developed in the middle ages and was linked to the ruling elites of the period. This style relies on more classical instrumentation and melodies without much change over time, and incorporates repetition as a method of unravelling three mellow rhythms. Faisal Alawi’s “Hawa El-Ghanj” is an example of this style. He is considered one of the most famous singers from Yemen whose skills on the oud were prodigious; he contributed to the incorporation of Yemeni music in wider corners of the Arabic-speaking countries, specifically in the Gulf.

Two of his works are included here; “Zaman Wallah Zaman” and “Hawa Al-Ghanj”. The former shows a gathering where men and women take turns dancing, clapping and singing together;  an ecstatic musical performance accompanied by the piercing ululations of the women in the room. The latter is a more complicated piece exhibiting great oud mastery and rhythmic variations present in Yemeni music. The difference between the two pieces portrays the difference in the social role of music. Where the music played during social occasions like weddings are more upbeat and easy flowing, the music used in a makhdara (the joint gathering to relax and chew qat) calls for contemplation and thinking.

The brilliant Sana’ani singer, composer and oud player Ahmad Fathi spent a lot of his time in the South of Yemen before leaving for Egypt. A highly esteemed musician in the Arabic-speaking world, he poured his intellectual knowledge into his works. In the music of Mohammad Saad Abdallah, we can sense a rhythmic flow marrying percussive elements and poetic lyrics. His early immersion in local styles of Tarab allowed him to integrate the styles found in and around Aden, alongside the Laheji style which goes back to the 19th century. The Laheji style exhibits percussive and singing arrangements that reflect on folk traditions surrounding the city of Lahej. This genre witnessed a rise in the 1950s and 1960s amongst intellectuals, educators and creatives who provided the creative fuel for the newly established theatres, TV, radio stations, and films – introducing innovative Egyptian and Indian cinema to the region.

The musical temperament in Karama Mersal’s song ‘Katha Telqeen Yaldunia’ captures a different mood, that of the ancient region of Hadhramaut. The music could be described as bluesy and melancholic, perhaps due the proximity to Africa and Afro-American rhythms. Karama dived into the depths of that genre through his masterful compositions, and his raw voice. Working with one of the most important poets of the modern era Hussein Abu Bakr al-Mihdar, the two also worked with Abu Bakr Salem. Salem, who with his riveting voice was also known as the ‘Father of Khaliji music’ also comes from Hadhramaut, but later settled in Saudi Arabia. His song ‘Ma Alena Habibi Ma Alena’ is taken from more recent years. However the musical and lyrical genius of the 80snever falters as the singer and his orchestra urge the beloved not to care for what people say; the two lovers sway on the waves of words and dock their love on the beaches of love.

In this playlist we have also featured Abdallah Rweished’s “Ghayar”.  A prominent Kuwaiti singer who boasts a discography of over 30 albums, the song is included to show the light and quick strokes of the esteemed Yemeni oud player Aboud Khawaja and his ensemble. Khawaja’s style is reflective of his upbringing in a  traditional musical family. Set in Kuwait, Rweished and Khawaja’s performance demonstrates the paramount influence of Yemeni music on music in the Gulf.

This selection is topped with “Atheem Alshan Yasser Li Maradi” by Mohammad Morshed Naji, an esteemed ethnomusicologist and musician who had a profound influence on Yemeni folklore. It is worth noting that his mother was of Somali origin, which characterised his particular breathing style while singing. Natik Awayez’s “Aden” ends the playlist, as he sings the story of escape amidst flying bullets and orphaned songs. The song is taken from his debut album Manbarani; produced by Egyptian multi-instrumentalist and composer Maurice Louca, this work has Yemen as the spirit hovering over all compositions. 

You can enjoy Natik Awayez’s debut album HERE

At a time when the only images emerging of Yemen are those of war and strife, it is important to remember and cherish the rich cultural history of the country, preserved through its music and songs. Savour every second of this masterfully curated playlist that immerses you in Yemen through a different angle, through the eyes of an insider.


What are MARSM Playlists?

Marsm’s bi-weekly playlists take on the musical history, trends and upcoming productions from the music scene in the Arabic-speaking countries. Each playlist focuses on a new theme, showcasing both underground and established artists – from the more dance-able to the most experimental – and everything in between.