Archive for the ‘Yemen’ Category
Aden ranks as one of the strangest places I’ve been to in some time, and took me by surprise at almost every turn. Firstly it’s the landscape. The main part of Aden is called Crater, so called as it’s literally built on the crater of a long dormant volcano. Looming high above the city are great spools of volcanic rock, lending the place a yen of otherworldliness, almost as if one might be on a different planet. Legend goes that Cane and Abel actually founded the settlement originally. Either way it’s natural harbor has made it a desirable acquirement for several rulers across the centuries, be it various Yemeni Sheikhs, the Portuguese, the Ottoman Empire and then finally the British until their exit in 1967. Maybe it’s the weight of history that gives the place its slightly curious air.
Seaside or seaport towns, for me, always seem to have a somewhat melancholy atmosphere because of their enforced state of flux. People always seem to be preparing to leave or waiting for something to come in on the ocean tide. And Aden certainly felt no different. In fact, another thing that gave it it’s peculiar edge is that in many ways here was a town which you might find almost anywhere in the Middle East, but somehow squeezed into the decaying infrastructure of the last serious vestige of the British Empire.
Clearly at its height, it must have been a bustling place, with a thriving international community engaged in the ebb and flow of trade. Rimbaud had stayed here during one of his forays, and the comedian Eddie Izzard had also been born here. In 1954 Queen Elizabeth had stayed in the grand looking Crescent Hotel, that sits just across the square from Queen Victoria Garden. A grim statue of the plump monarch still sits in the now chained up park surrounded by plastic palm trees. The Crescent lies empty and now seems to be part of a military area. A soldier brandishing a gun made it clear that photos were not welcome. It’s a place that can only seem to dream of the echoes of its past. The old talk fondly of its previous glories. The young study and graduate, but can often find no work, opting instead to chew qat and play dominoes on the Corniche in the warm evening breeze.
After a non-descript breakfast, myself and friend and fellow traveller Vic, headed over to Al-Tawahi, the site of the old Steamer Point, where boats loaded up on coal, water and supplies en-route to India. As well as being an area of interest, according to the guide book, I had been tipped off that this might be a place to find records. We ended up at an antique store, full to the brim with artifacts from Aden’s past, presided over by a certain Mr. Al-Qubati and his sons. A couple of organs (The Roman Catholic Church round the corner appeared to have been bricked up long ago) projectors, typewriters, cameras, piles of sea shells, coins, stamps…all things that I suppose people traded in as they left. The few records he had weren’t in great shape, but were a curious collection of Cuban, Russian, Indian and Yemeni discs. He promised he could get some more for me tomorrow from a friend and after chatting with him and his son for a while, we continued on our amble round.
A mock ‘Big Ben’ was set up on a hill overlooking Tawahi. Cats squabbled in a trash can at its foot. A man with a large gun tucked into his belt greeted us we wandered around the quiet ‘Tourist Pier’. The only recommended bookshop was locked up and lifeless. Sensing that the slightly effusive guide book might be somewhat out of date, myself and Vic decide to go to the place, where, other visitors to Aden had warned us we would spend the bulk of our time – the old Sheraton, now known as the Gold Mohur.
Set next to a pleasant beach, and again, surrounded by that ever present volcanic rock, the hotel also felt somewhat at odds with its surroundings. But to our excitement, it served beer, a real rarity in Yemen, so we settled down to lunch and a couple of cold glasses of Heineken. I ventured out later for more record scouring, but came up with very little. My initial anticipation of finding a broader selection of Yemeni music than I had encountered in Sana’a appeared to have been misplaced.
The next day Vic and I decided to check out a couple more tourist highlights before going back to the shop in Tawahi. This entailed the famed ‘water tanks’, a form of ancient reservoir, apparently rediscovered in 1854 by a glorious sounding son of Empire, named Lieutenant (later Sir Lambert) Playfair. We also made our way to Seera Castle, which boasted a great view over the Gulf of Aden, as well as period graffiti carved into its stucco interior. One read ‘David Blake and Joan Rodie 11/6/62’. A more recent addition stated ‘Fuck Bush SHARON Terrorist’.
Prior to climbing up to the Castle, we went past the fish market which had just received an astonishing catch of various sharks. A young man dragged a bloodied shark corpse across the tarmac before hurling it into the back of a truck filled with ice. One of the fishermen, noticing our inquisitiveness, offered to pose with some of his haul, and sat astride one shark whilst cradling a recently deceased hammerhead, as one might a docile pet. He then demanded money and became increasingly agitated, so we offered a few hundred rial and left, before the commotion attracted too much attention.
Back at the shop, the man had been true to his word, and he produced a small box packed with 45s. To my slight disappointment there were almost all Indian, but I decided to go through them all anyway, out of politeness if nothing else. One of the first I dropped the needle on, quickly proved my initial reticence incorrect.
On the Soundway compilation ‘Sound of Siam’ we had included a great track called ‘Fai Yen’, which stylistically had more in common with Bollywood music, although it was sung in Thai, and was part of an old Thai movie soundtrack. To my amazement, this Indian 45, (also from a movie) appeared to be the original. It had exactly the same backing track, but with a different vocal take in Hindi over the top. This implied there must be some sort of trade connection between the Bombay/Bangkok movie industries in the 70s, which I would have to investigate further. Needless to say, it was odd to find this missing link in southern Yemen. I’ll post both versions when I get home.
In addition, there were some lovely ghazals, and a killer track by Asha Bhosle, so it was a nice little haul in the end. Mr Al-Qubati and his son were lovely, and even threw in a few more records for free. I left them sat outside their shop in the afternoon sun after bidding them farewell and thanking them for their help. The father seemed content to dwell on his memories, but I hope the younger sons can keep this fascinating shop going.
Whilst Aden was not really how I’d imagined, it begged the question as to what other idiosyncrasies and experiences might be had elsewhere in this unique country. Nothing is quite what you’d expect, and it seems cocooned in it’s own strange timelessness as the world continues to turn outside.
It’s nice to be back in Sana’a again, although returning again to anywhere, you realize that the blank slate anticipation that accompanied you the first time has been replaced with expectation and a search for familiarity. I’m looking forward to seeing and experiencing certain things again, and am perhaps no longer as surprised by spectacles that caught my eye back in November. So, when I stepped outside of my front door and looked down the street to see a group of young men in red and white keffiyehs getting into an SUV, with AK-47s casually slung over their shoulders like shopping bags, I initially didn’t bat an eyelid. Something that might have caused alarm almost anywhere else (even Pakistan) didn’t at all seem out of place here. Chances are they were tribesmen, or the bodyguard detail for a wealthy local as opposed to militants, but still it’s surprising what you end up getting used to.
Needless to say, one of the things that I was certainly anticipating was the chance to rummage through the Old City to see if I could turn up any more vinyl gems, so I texted Salim the day after I landed. He called an hour later, welcoming me back to Sana’a and assuring me that some new stock had been turned up. It was nice to wander again through its narrow streets, dodging past jewelry hawkers, henna sellers sat crossed legged on the ground and the smells of incense, grilled meat and the sweet sting of qat. It was good also to see Salim and his crew, and after a round of handshakes, the search began.
The first shop turned out to be one I’d checked back in November, but for some reason never returned to. The owner dug out a small pile of 45s from inside a cupboard. Records are never on display here – they always seem to be dug out from a back room, from a small bag under a counter, or, in one instance, from a hole in the roof of the shop! There were a number of nice 7s in the proffered pile, the stand out being a vocal track, accompanied by a clanging, metallic rhythm beaten out on a copper tray, or sahn nuhasi, a tradition specific to Yemen. The unique percussion leant the track an otherworldly drone. I’ll post it up here when I return to Bangkok.
After a couple of other stores, we settled on what would be the final stop of the day. It all started promisingly enough. To mine and Salim’s surprise the owner pulled out a large box packed with 45s, all in brand new, unplayed condition. It turned out it was the old stock from a shop in Taiz, near the Red Sea port of Mocha.
Musically, I had picked better examples from other sellers, but the fact that they were in such pristine condition was unprecedented. All was going well until I’d made my selection and we started to discuss the cost. Citing a customer from Bahrain who had been happy to part with $30 USD per record, he wanted to know if I’d be willing to pay the same price. Naturally I said no, as this was much more than what I’d paid elsewhere – it seemed unreasonable. After some bargaining and a call to the boss, the best he could offer was $20. I purchased just one and left. It was all amicable enough, but just a tad awkward.
It seemed a shame to leave the rest, but I knew I wasn’t prepared to meet his price. Here was the most ridiculous of scenarios – a man with apparently over 1000 records, no means to play them, and an odd take on business acumen. He was like a character in a parable.
Maybe he’ll change his mind, maybe he won’t. Salim said he’d go back to speak to him again, as well as check a couple more contacts. He was annoyed at the exchange and apologized, but I tried to reassure him it was no big deal. It all goes into the pot of experiences, one way or the other. Off to Aden tomorrow – a port city for the Arab Peninsula and part of the old trade route for the British East India Company had to have something interesting stashed away in its awkward corners.
First upload from my Yemeni trip – beautiful, sparse oud-led number. There’s not a lot of female vocal tracks that I came across, but this is melancholic and haunting. Will post more info about the artist and track info, as I do more research. Enjoy…
This track is from the south, and isn’t unlike the wedding sounds I heard in the streets of Sana’a on my last day. Great percussion, and great call and response from the ladies!
One of my fave tracks from the ‘Ethiopian Elvis’ Alemayehu Eshete. Great arrangement, great vocals, great everything!
‘Sout Tohama’ proved to be pretty reliable, and I picked up a few 7″s on this label. This was the pick for me – treacle slow, but it’s something about the yearning vocal that gets me. If anyone can shed any light on the subject matter, then please post comments.
Gritty Yemeni blues – found 3 other tracks on this label, all in the same style. Some of the rawest tracks I picked up in Sana’a
Another bad Alemayehu, this time on the ‘Amha’ label, run by Amha Eshete (no relation) who pioneered the independent Ethiopian music industry in the last days of Haile Selassie.
Endings and goodbyes. A last meal with Adebe – he had hoped a friend was arriving from Addis with some more shekla, but this had not materialised. Instead he handed me some special ground chili, expertly prepared by an old Ethiopian woman he knew, and said if his dad turned up some more records, he’d happily forward them to me. More unexpected kindness.
We talked some more, and he said he had spoken to his mother on the phone and she had cried throughout the whole conversation. This caused an uneasy silence to settle on our discussion, as he looked at the floor briefly. ‘I think I will have to go next back year,’ he eventually stated. It seemed like he was willing to take his chances. I wished him the best of luck, and he said the next time we eat Ethiopian food it will be in Addis – I sincerely hope this is the case.
The next day, I go for one last trawl through the Old City. Salim and his now three strong crew of ‘finders’ seemed to have scooped up what was left of the local vinyl, and I skipped through these last piles. In addition to some more nice Yemeni 45s, these included a series of badly scuffed Egyptian LPs, an entire Russian language course, and an exotica LP, with a cliched ‘Arabian’ theme – the best title on the album was ‘Rebecca from Mecca’. You get the picture…
I asked once more about the James Brown album. Still the asking price was $150 – the younger shop assistant said it was at his elder brother’s insistence. I probed some more, wondering how this price tag had been arrived at – I tried to explain that it would probably remain on this wall forever, if there was no possibility of a reduction.
“Yes,’ he admitted, ‘it’s been there for three years already! But I think my brother paid a lot of money for it. And now he is trying to make it back!” This admission was followed by some laughter from Salim’s friends. At least it now made a sort of sense, even though it was a hopeless endeavor.
I leave with Salim to buy some gifts, and look around the Old City for one last time. We go to the Jami’ al-Kabir, one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world, apparently built after a direct order from the Prophet Mohammed himself. We walked to the top of the old caravanserai, where merchants would stay over night, their animals occupying the lower floor, whilst their rooms overlooked the stone atrium. It gave a beautiful view over the city – save for the satellite dishes, and metal water tanks, I doubt this view had changed much in nearly a millennia.
Yemen had one last surprise for me, though. As we finished our tour, we ran into a wedding procession. In addition to the noise of the crowd, a radio microphone was picking up the burr and whine of what looked like a bamboo flute, whilst a percussionist pounded away on a metal hand drum. This was not the metallic scittering of the dumbek ,heard in music throughout the Arab world, and into Persia and Turkey. This was something more robust, more definite. The music was blasted through the streets through an old metal tannoy.
Then there was the dancing, the odd twirl, dervish-like, the Jambiya (traditional Yemeni curved knife) blades flashing in the sunshine, once, in fact, almost lacerating the cheek of a careless passer by. As the rhythm thundered the dancers dropped, dipped and circled as the crowd whooped in approval. There was nothing implied about the movements – they were executed with exuberance and purpose. All the while the drummer played and the crowd clapped.
Finally a group of women, faces and bodies hidden in a sheen of black, save for smiling eyes. They hollered and shrieked, and it was unmistakable. The same shrill calls I’d heard in the music of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, uttered as the music reached its happy crescendo.
In some ways, this was what I’d wanted to hear captured on record. A small cultural semblance that the Arabian Peninsula had once sat snugly in the Horn of Africa’s crescent, maybe at the time of Pangea; that the small barrier of the Red Sea hadn’t stopped a musical exchange between countries and continents. Difficult to quantify, sometimes impossible to prove, borders thankfully become fluid when it comes to such things.
A call from Salim. More records had been turned up, and I should come and check them out at my earliest convenient. Salim of course is not merely being altruistic. I give him a small fee for his record finding, so it’s understood there’s a fiscal undercurrent to his updates.
I head over to the Old City in the evening. I doubt I’ll ever tire of its labyrinthine streets, crowded spice markets and gingerbread architecture. We head to one of the shops, to be met with a man who had a nervy shiftiness, possibly due to the impossibly large wad of qat he’d crammed into his left cheek. He pulls out two large hessian sacks stuffed full of records. As he decanted the contents onto the counter, it soon became apparent that this was mostly Soviet era vinyl, be it Russian editions of Paul McCartney LPs, endless classical records or tiresome propaganda, such as my personal favorite, ‘My Boundless Motherland’. Despite the slightly anachronistic feel of hunting for things that are deemed obsolete by others, the types of records you’ll find in certain countries will often point to an important skein in the nation’s recent history.
The USSR was quietly present through Marxist elements in Yemen’s National Liberation Front, (as well as aspects of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism) which had partly forced the exit of the British in southern Yemen in 1967, an additional blow to the country’s trade links following on from the Suez crisis. Southern Yemen contains the crucial regional port of Aden, and this part of the country became a further arena for Cold War machinations. The north and south split was only resolved with the unification of the country in 1990.
I’d encountered a similar musical selection in Hanoi, bolstered by East German rock, jazz from Czechoslovakia, and, rather pleasingly, some excellent Cuban music on the state owned Areito label. One could imagine a faithful Vietnamese cadre being rewarded for his commitment to the Party, with a tour of other countries where the Soviet revolution smoldered on. Perhaps he had bought them back as mementoes.
Back in Yemen the nervy qat chewer looked disappointedly as I passed over most of what he had. The condition was either atrocious, or the music itself was. There were a couple of nice curios. One was a Polish record, The Novi Singers ‘Rien Ne Va Plus’ which contains the excellent, ‘My Own Revolution’. Odd as it was to find this here, it at list fitted into this Soviet profile.
Not so an obscure Gospel album. I can’t quite remember the band, but it was something like ‘The Hilman Street Choir’. How on earth did this record crop up here? You’d have thought either the Islamic conservatives or the godless Communists might have objected! I explained to Salim and his friends what it was and how surprised I was to find a record extolling the virtues of Jesus Christ in the capital of Yemen.
As the record played, familiar rhythms and American blues motifs shifted around as the choir described ‘trusting in the Lord’, having ‘the faith to get over’, or ‘needing Him each day’ – familiar themes in the Gospel pantheon. ‘This is great,’ said Salim. He seemed to have a good ear for music. A few days ago I’d given him a CDR as a present, containing music from Pakistan, Ethiopia and Thailand as well as some Sun Ra for good measure, which had apparently provided the welcome soundtrack to a qat chewing session! He had additionally developed an eye for potential record faults, and twice had spotted a hairline crack in the vinyl as I was considering a purchase.
I described to them being invited to a church in Virginia, where I’d gone on a journalistic assignment, and that how music such as this would underpin the entire service. Within Islam, only Sufism employs music in the same fashion – the majority of Muslims in Yemen are either Sunnis, or Zaydi Shias. I’ve no idea whether my description made any sense, but at any rate, the sound of this revolving black disc, churning out otherwise alien sounds was a nice backdrop to our conversation. The whole thing seemed like a neat summation of 20th Century ideologies segueing into the 21st. The ebbing shadow of Communism, quickly supplanted by the creeping threat of Islamic extremism, an expression of American Christianity sitting uneasily in the midst of it.
In the ensuing days, I spoke to Adebe a couple of times on the phone, and he confirmed that his father was sending over a small package of vinyl. It got confusing. Twice he said he had something for me, and twice he cried off at the last minute. I wasn’t sure what this meant; possibly some complex face saving exercise. I felt disorientated, unsure what the signs were telling me.
On Thursday morning, I receive a text inviting me to lunch and to check out what he had. The Community Centre boasted the nicest looking Ethiopian restaurant in Sana’a. Others I’d checked were slightly hollow affairs, sometimes selling only one or two dishes. This felt more like going to someone’s home.
When I got there, he again apologised as, due to the Eid holiday, his father hadn’t been able to send anything, but it would arrive in the coming days. I felt a little disappointed, not to mention puzzled by this odd charade, but determined to try and abate any uneasiness, underlining that it really wasn’t a problem. That fact he was willing to help at all, was greatly appreciated. Food was ordered and we chatted some more.
His story was a little complicated and I wasn’t sure I totally followed it. The youth associations sounded like charities, but for one reason or another, they had become politicised, siding with the opposition party so that he had ended up on some sort of blacklist. He’d left and had never returned, despite his parents and siblings still residing in Addis Ababa. I had heard tales of the Ethiopian government’s draconian reaction to dissent, so on the surface at least this was a plausible scenario.
Regardless of the details, the upshot is a tale replicated the world over of separation due to the unpredictable ebb & flow of politics. His family would dearly love him back, but know that it still isn’t safe, so he stays in this strange limbo, belonging to a community of sorts, but rootless. Hopefully one day he can make it back home. He was trying to make a go of a shop on the 2nd floor, selling Ethiopian VCDs, and bootleg movies.
But as we were finishing our meal, something odd happens. A man walks in with a taped up parcel and hands it to Adebe. It was suddenly a bit like being in a bad play.
I look hopefully at the parcel, and Adebe confirms that this is the promised package. Why it had suddenly arrived at this precise juncture, I never found out. It was a curious concoction – Jim Reeves, Cliff Richard, War, Tlahoun Gessesse, and three singles by the ‘Ethiopian Elvis’ Alemayehu Eshete, including, much to my surprise one of my personal favourites, ‘Ney-Ney Woleba’, a raucous piece of Ethio-funk, switching between hyperactive rock ‘n’ roll and a groove in 6/8.
I visited Addis a few years ago on an assignment for Songlines magazine, and interviewed musicians Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and Alemu Aga, the player of the ‘Harp of King David’, the begena. Even at that point vinyl artifacts from Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Age’, were not exactly easy to come by. Most of what I found came from personal collections of people I met.
Adebe apologised that there weren’t more, but this was all his father could turn up. I told him no apology was necessary, not least because of all the trouble he’d gone to in assisting me with my strange request. And what his father had found was not only excellent music, but the vinyl itself wasn’t in bad condition either. Once I get back to Bangkok, (which will give me access to a decent record player), I shall post some clips.
As I checked them on my turntable, Adebe said he’d never heard or seen vinyl, and was surprised to learn there was music on both sides. He had assumed they were like big CDs. I asked him what he thought of the music. He didn’t seem sure, opting to smile and say nothing instead.
Another mitigating factor in the scarcity of the records was the fact that, according to Adebe’s dad, the Ethiopian government was offering cash for people’s old music. Maybe it will form the basis of some sort of national archive, but who knows. We settled up and I packed away my things, as I briefly considered whether I was a preservationist or a profiteer. Whatever the reason, there would now be four less pieces for the government’s collection.
It soon became apparent to me that, though I might well find more Yemeni music bearing the east African tinge, it didn’t seem likely that I’d find any actual records from the continent. But I figured, with a sizable Ethiopian expat population here in Sana’a, I should perhaps ask around. However, as I would discover, the stories of expatriate Ethiopians, Eritreans, Tanzanians and Somalis living in Yemen are often intertwined with darker truths.
One afternoon I take a wrong turn on the way home and end up walking past a building with a sign saying ‘Ethiopian Community Centre’. Showing curiosity, I was beckoned in by the doorman, and enter a courtyard where several men are sitting around eating and chatting. Figuring this might be serendipity I go in and ask the owner if he knows of anywhere I might be able to find Ethiopian or Eritrean music. They have CDs for sale upstairs, but the idea of finding original shekla, (as vinyl is called in Amharic), sounds remote. Nevertheless, one man, Adebe, seemed to think he might be able to help, as he was sure his father has a collection of records.
We get chatting and it turns out the centre has not long been opened, although he himself had been residing in Yemen for around four years. He had left the country he told me, as he had been involved in what he termed ‘youth associations’, as well as being a member of a Pentecostal church. The implication was that he had fallen foul of the authorities and had to leave. He had endured a 36 hour boat ride from the Somali coast. In addition a friend of his had died in Somalia due to an explosion. Suddenly my requests for records, of all things, seemed pathetic and insignificant. I can’t imagine being forced to leave the UK, escaping from Plymouth in a small craft, winding up 36 hours later perhaps somewhere on the coast of western Spain, where I’d have to chance my luck, throw in my lot with other exiled Brits and attempt to build a new life for myself.
This isn’t meant to sound frivolous, as this is the regular plight of hundreds of east Africans who enter via Yemen, trying to cross the porous border into Saudi Arabia in search of work. There are of course settled communities in Yemen, and some have intermarried over time, but walk the streets awhile and you’ll notice it’s almost always young children with African features who are begging, alongside their often barefoot siblings. If you fall through the cracks here, you’ll fall very hard indeed.
A couple of days later I’m given another lead, for a place called ‘Tango Music’ not far from the Old City. I briefly entertained the fantasy that maybe this was run by a relative of Ali Tango.
Tango, following the lead of Amha Eshete, was one of the conduits for the independent Ethiopian music industry for that brief period in the 70s before the crushing quasi-Communism of Mengistu and the Derg. He was a Yemeni expat who had set up the Kaifa label and a record store, releasing key works by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed and Hailu Mergia. If the shop in Sana’a was in any way connected with him, who knows what I might find. I was given the street name and the point of reference that it was ‘near’ the Egyptian Airlines office.
In another country, ‘near’ can take on multiple possibilities. It could be ten minutes walk, or maybe even 5 minutes drive. I plod fruitlessly up and down the busy street, almost all of the shops are locked and shuttered it still being Eid. I walk down a side street that stinks of urine and spot a sign for an Ethiopian restaurant called ‘The Merkato’. Further up, in a closed shopping mall I see the ‘Khaled Music Shop’ with tell tale Amharic script on its painted shop front. I laugh to myself.
When you DJ, playing obscure records, or impressing people with your set list so that they’ll come and ask for titles, even if it might be for sale, maybe at that precise moment people think you’re ‘cool’, the all-knowing music selector, an expert perhaps.
I can only imagine that if the same crowd could see me wandering up and down this dusty street in Sana’a, or perhaps hunched over a box in Bangkok covered in dust, or maybe even being treated with disdain trying to negotiate a good price in Ho Chi Minh what they’d think then. I suspect pity, as opposed to any sort of admiration, would be their first thought. I love record collecting – always have done, and I obviously don’t expect your sympathy. But in these moments you can sometimes feel like a fated character in a Greek myth, cursed by the gods to wander the earth searching for something that might not exist.
Bordering with Saudi Arabia, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab Peninsula, facing a potential civil war brought about by tribal skirmishes in the north, a seccessionist movement in the south, and the ever shadowy presence of Al-Qaeda in the east. Music wise one might expect it to be dominated by Arabian pop music, particularly that coming from Saudi and Egypt. But look at a map, and its western most point nearly touches the Eritrean coast. The near presence and possible influence of east Africa got me thinking that maybe here might be some little known musical hybrid, perhaps captured on vinyl or cassette. Either way it was something I’d need to investigate.
It would have been good to record my experiences tracking down music in Pakistan and Thailand in the present tense, but I never did, and can now only recall the process with the crystalisation of hindsight. I shall refer back to key episodes from both countries over the course of this blog, as well as put up sound clips.
However, five days since arriving in Sana’a, I’ve decide to write about this in real time. Maybe my searches for records will result in something, maybe they won’t. A brief correspondence with resident author Tim Mackintosh Smith suggested that I would more likely find music in the port city of Aden on the southern coast. I shall try and get down there during my stay, but for now, I wanted to see what Sana’a might hold.
The old city of Sana’a (Bab Al Yemen) is one of the most unique places on earth I’ve had the good fortune to visit. It’s unique, boxy architecture dates back around 700 years, and to walk its narrow streets brings on the feel of stepping back into another era and time altogether.
Shortly after arriving to rummage through the many antique shops, I fell into a conversation with a young man called Salim. In different cities I’ve been to there often seems to be a Salim. Young, confident, friendly and possessing a grasp of two or three European languages gleaned from constant conversations with strangers. In another place, with different opportunities, he’d probably be studying international business or linguistics, looking forward to a fiscally rewarding future. But he’s here in Yemen. So he helps at his friend’s shop, trying to drum up trade from the few tourists and aid workers that are passing through town.
I tell him what I’m looking for, and, to my surprise, he immediately says he knows a couple of shops. Quick conversations with bystanders ensue, and I’m suddenly following him up a cut through lined with shops selling antiques, knick knacks and other ephemera. I’m welcomed outside one such shop, and quickly ushered in. Sure enough, from somewhere behind the counter the owner fishes out a dusty plastic bag, stuffed with an assortment of 45s, some from Lebanon, some from India, others from Yemen, even a slightly scuffed Neil Sedaka 7”!
Eccentric as I’m sure it sounds, I never travel anywhere without my portable turntable, and it’s for such moments as this. When titles and artists are written in either Arabic, Thai or Urdu script the only test is to listen, so I quickly go through the proffered pile. There were no big surprises, but some great examples of bluesy Yemeni folk, with sombre oud, sparse percussion and a searing vocal. Too much of it was overproduced in the Saudi style, with orchestral sweeps muddying the music’s simplicity. The best, (for me at least) were the singles from the south of the country, which had more drums, and an exuberant sheen. The vocal style, particularly its crescendos, seemed more in keeping with Yemen’s neighbours to the west, as opposed to further north toward the Peninsula’s interior. Another shop I went to yielded a tin box of vinyl from a house clearance, and again, it was the simpler music stood out.
Word quickly spread that were was a foreigner looking for old Arabic records, and a small stream of teenagers were soon popping in and out of the shop I’d settled into for the afternoon, bearing piles big and small. Most were in terrible condition, and I had to gently explain that scuffs, gouges and marks wouldn’t just disappear after a brisk rub with a shirt sleeve.
The real surprise of the day was that looking round the shop I noticed they had a copy of James Brown’s ‘The Popcorn’ LP, a great instrumental record containing some of Brown’s funkiest moments. Sadly, they wanted a staggering $150 US for it, which I hastily explained I wouldn’t be prepared to pay.
Still I wondered whether the assembled crowd had even heard of the Godfather of Soul. I took my headphones out of the socket, so that the music could play out of my machine’s small built in speaker. I slipped on the LP and the shop soon filled with Brown putting his band through its paces. The young Yemenis listened grinning. It turned out they had never heard such music in their life. ‘The Popcorn’ (especially the cover bearing a close up of two nubile female thighs strutting their stuff!) seemed to get their collective thumbs up.
To be honest, as much as I love finding music, it’s moments like this that I perhaps treasure more. Getting to briefly connect with a culture, which, as an outsider, you’d never usually get to do, and finding some previously unthought of common ground.