Keeping it Rial
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.