Gospel music, Polish Jazz and Russian Propaganda
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.