Record-Hunting in Yemen

The Guardian, April 09, 2012

It was the most unlikely place to find a copy of James Brown's The Popcorn. Pinned clumsily to a wall in one of the many antique shops in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, hung the creased sleeve of a rare LP that contains some of Brown's funkiest moments. To stumble across it here defied logic, but was, it turned out, the kind of inconsistency that is happily commonplace in Yemen.

I have always collected records; for me, it's one of the most reliable ways of interacting with new situations, surroundings and people. I realise this is anachronistic in an age of torrents and high-speed downloads, but it is inspired by one simple fact: there is still so much 20th-century music that lies undocumented. By day I work as an NGO consultant, and over the years have trawled the streets of Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta and Rangoon, often with my portable turntable in tow, looking for vinyl. As well as new music (and old), it has led to conversations and experiences that would otherwise have alluded me.

Everyone has heard of Yemen, but lately not a lot about its music or culture (the resignation of President Saleh in November last year and subsequent violence have, naturally, dominated the headlines). But the country is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the Near East and stakes a claim, along with Ethiopia, to be the birthplace of coffee. Aden, on the south coast, was once one of the busiest sea ports in the world. In Sana'a's old city, with its ancient box-like architecture and labyrinthine back streets, there are jewellery hawkers, henna and spice sellers; there is the smell of incense, grilled meat and the sweet sting of qat, the privet-like leaf that acts as a slow-release amphetamine when chewed.

I knew nothing about Yemeni music, but began by asking shop owners if they had any old records; within a short time I had made contact with a small circle of locals keen to help, frankly amused by my fixation.

The best examples of local music I found were the 45rpm singles, often in a sorry condition. These featured hypnotic melodies, usually played on the oud, backed by percussion and topped off by heartfelt vocals that drew on Yemen's long poetic tradition. On a first listen, they reminded me of old blues records. The heavy percussion and rhythmic string-picking in some of the songs belies the fact that the east African coast is only 20 miles away across the Red Sea; in many ways, Yemen is closer to countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia than to its peninsula neighbours, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

One track I found, Ya Man Dakhal Bahr al-Hawa [Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?] by Fatimah al-Zaelaeyah, is accompanied by drumming on a copper tray (a sahn suhasi), a sound that starts to take on an almost industrial feel as the groove evolves.

The male/female duet Mushtaq, by Bobol al-Hejaz and Soni Ahmed, is a sensual rumination on love and life, with an arpeggiating oud melody and a wonderful, head-nodding rhythm.

Wahed Mozawag by Mohammed Hamood al-Awani has all the joy and exuberance of the local wedding music – which I was lucky enough to witness, running into a traditional procession one afternoon.

As well as the Yemeni and other Arabic discs, I found plenty of vinyl from the old eastern bloc. Soviet pressings of Paul McCartney, Polish jazz and Russian-language courses or propaganda LPs (My Boundless Motherland was my personal favourite) cropped up with some regularity. (The USSR was present through Marxist elements in Yemen's National Liberation Front, which partly forced the exit of the British in southern Yemen in 1967; this area of the country became a further arena for cold war machinations.) In Aden, once a fuelling stop for the East India Company, I found a large pile of Bollywood EPs. Yemenis occasionally make the journey east, so possibly these discs had been stowed away on a return trip.

Most of the Yemeni songs I came across were about love; the poetry that inspired them would often be recited during qat-chewing sessions. Astounded by qat's ubiquity, I spent one evening chewing through a small bag of the plant, whilst listening to my recent vinyl purchases, hoping to find a portal into the national psyche. I can't say that happened, but I did experience a dual feeling of being entirely relaxed yet entirely alert for the duration. Qat is not just a narcotic – it's an arbiter of disputes, and a conduit for community discussions. It is also, shockingly, a consumer of 80 percent of the country's water. (This fact alone would appear to give weight to the misgivings of the stuffy scientist played by Ewan McGregor in Lasse Hallström's forthcoming Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, in which a government employee helps a local sheikh realise his dream of introducing fly-fishing to the country. With Yemen's propensity for curveballs, one could never rule out such a project.)

Sadly, I had to leave James Brown where he was: the owner wanted an unrealistically high price for it. But I did get my turntable out and play it for him and his friends. Clyde Stubblefield's thunderous rhythms rattled around the shop, and were met with smiles, nods and an admission that this was the first time they had heard such music. It was a nicely surreal moment, and one that James Brown will now always summon to mind for me.