The Aden Song

M. Murshid Nâjî & K. Mohammed Khalîl

In the first half of the 20th century the port of Aden was a tremendous melting pot of cultures and influences, the meeting point of Arabic, African and Indian civilisations. This contributed to the relatively recent emergence of a special musical style, the Aden song, the emblem of this cultural ferment. The style is essentially urban, i.e. singing with lute and percussion accompaniment.

This record presents the Aden song from its earliest beginnings to its maturity, from the creation of the Aden Club with Khalil Mohammed Khalil in 1948 right up to the present day with Mohammed Murshid Naji, the supreme master of the genre and a fervent adept of popular local tunes that he has adapted for the lute.


1Yâ sâ’ili ‘an hawâ al-mahbûb/You who are wondering about the beloved’s passion – 12’32
2‘Alam sîrî bismi llah al-rahmân/Walk now, o bride, in the name of God the Merciful – 07’42
3Yâ wakfaton li/O this scene I’ve lived through – 09’37
4Garîb bâb al-dunyâ/It’s nearby, the gateway to the Underworld – 09’53
5Arâk tarûban ka-l-mutayyami/I see you moved and preoccupied – 08’49
6Yâ Ibn al-Nass/O young man of means – 09’12
7‘Ayyaratnî al-shayb/The whiteness of my hair – 08’20
8Al-warda al-hamra/The red rose – 05’17

Interpreters and instruments

Mohamed Murshid Naji (singing and lute)
Khalil Mohamed Khalil ( singing and lute )
Jamil Abdo Ahmed (choir and percussion)
Hadeel Ali Ahmed (choir and percussion )
Adeeb Borhan Ahmed (choir and percussion)
Hussain Farid Hussain (choir and percussion)


The city of Aden

The port of Aden is wide open to other countries, other horizons; it has always had a libertine image compared to the interior of the Yemen which has remained very closed in on itself, and extremely attached to its cultural traditions.

Without going all the way back to the legendary Eden of the Bible, the city is undoubtedly very ancient. As its name indicates, the old town of Crater nestles inside the crater of a volcano that until very recently was not even linked to terra firma. Its water supply was brought in by a superb system of tanks known as saharij, that collected the rainwater as it ran down the slopes of the volcano. This system going back at least to the Sulayhid dynasty (11th C.) is a vestige of a time when the climate was much damper than it is now – the tanks are never full these days…

The English arrived in Aden in 1832, and the port subsequently became one of the major stop-off points on the trade route to India. For a long time it remained a dependency of the Viceroy of India. Aden is in fact several towns scattered in the folds and crannies of this spectacular volcano. As well as Crater, the historic town centre and the port, there’s also Shaykh ‘Uthman, the district inhabited by those who move in from the interior (incidentally, Mohammed Murshid Naji was their parliamentary representative for a long time), and which has developed on the land outside the volcano; then there’s Mu’alla, an industrial area that developed in the last part of the colonial period; Tawahi, the chic district that was also the ‘hot’ or ‘red-light ‘ district during the British period (it’s rather sleepy nowadays); and Khormakasar, the diplomatic district with its Soviet-type monuments from the Socialist period.

The port of Aden was one of the largest in the world, and in the first half of the 20th C. an extraordinary social and cultural life flourished there. Private schools for the local children, associations, political parties, a theatre all sprang up from nowhere… It was a bit like Beirut in the Indian Ocean: between two mosques, you’d suddenly come across a Hindu temple, or a Baptist church or the hall of one the zar African-style trance cults. With the arrival of independence, the music of Aden resembled the city it symbolised – a patchwork bearing traces of all the various rapid crises and upheavals brought about by the 20th century, together with a maelstrom of cultural influences from Egypt, Africa and India, all reflecting its history.

The first recordings of Yemeni music were made in Aden in 1938, on 78rpm records. At first Odeon was the only recording company in existence there, and it was foreign, but in the 1940’s a series of local companies sprang up. Musicians from Sanaa and the interior flocked into the city to escape the puritanism of the imams and take advantage of a hometown that would allow them to practice as professional musicians. In the 1940’s the Taj ‘Adani (Aden Crown) company proposed “Arab vocalists, vocalists from Aden and Lahej, Bedouin vocalists, vocalists from Shihr, the coast, Somalia, Sanaa and Aden’s most famous singers”.

The music here is of course urban, i.e. singing with lute accompaniment, sometimes with a violin and always with percussion instruments as well.

The Aden Song

This style of song has emerged relatively recently, compared to the age of other types of music in the Yemen. Its appearance is inevitably linked to all the clubs and associative groups that sprang up before the country gained its independence some twenty years later.

The Aden Club (Al-Nadwa al-‘Adaniyya) met for the first time in 1948. Its leading figures were Khalil Mohammed Khalil, a singer and composer, Mohammed Abduh Ghanem, a historian and poet, and Salim Ba Madhaf, a singer and man of letters. Rather on the model of the Nahda, the Arab Renaissance, this coterie was a meeting place for artists and men of letters, all city dwellers representing the different literary and artistic sources implicated in this search for a group identity, motivated by modernism and the challenges launched by the West.

In the early days of its existence, the Club accepted every genre of music played or performed in the city, but during the 50’s certain members broke away to create another nadwa at Lahej, and others did the same in the Hadramawt and the area of Yafi’. The model spread; and these new beginnings illustrate the variety and size of musical and cultural activity that flourished in the British colony during the 50’s, before independence.

Adenites began to realise they had a specific cultural identity. To use Khalil Mohammed Khalil’s terms, what was needed here was the deliberate creation of a special musical style belonging to Aden and Aden alone; its basic elements should come from the different cultures to be found in this terrific melting-pot. Kahlil’s own origins are a perfect illustration of this mixture – his grandfather was a sailor from Egypt, who’d arrived in Aden in the late 19th century. He set himself the task of studying the Yemeni lute, known as the qanbus, then married a woman from Aden and founded a line.

The Aden song therefore attests to the search for a national identity that went on in the 20th century, providing the basis for the Yemeni song of the future.

Mohammed Murshid Naji and Khalil Mohammed Khalil accompany themselves on the Arab lute or ‘ud. They are also accompanied by percussionists on a daff (a tambourine with cymbalets) and a darbuka (a goblet drum).

Jean Lambert, ethnomusicologist
Translated by Délia Morris

The recordings

1- Yâ sâ’ili ‘an hawâ al-mahbûb/You who are wondering about the beloved’s passion – 12’32
traditional words
music and vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

2- ‘Alam sîrî bismi llah al-rahmân/Walk now, o bride, in the name of God the Merciful – 7’42
traditional Bedouin wedding song
music and vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

3- Yâ wakfaton li/O this scene I’ve lived through – 9’37
words: Mohammad Sa’îd Jarâda
music and vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

O this scene I’ve lived through, that I can’t forget
That night, she had me dancing
Under the lights, in a dazzling white robe

4- Garîb bâb al-dunyâ/It’s nearby, the gateway to the Underworld
followed by Dâr al-falak dâr/The star turns – 9’53
words and original music: Abû Bakr al-Mihdâr
vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

The star turns
Soon I’ll be changing homes
And I’ll build my house in another village
But there’s only one choice for my heart
The town of Shihr
It’s the only possible choice
It welcomes whoever loves it
And makes him proud.

5- Arâk tarûban ka-l-mutayyami/I see you moved and preoccupied – 8’49
traditional words and music
vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

This long poem comes from a lovely legend, where a king entrusts to his minister the task of arousing some life in his dumb young son, who seems unmoved by the pleasures of life. The minister craftily arranges a seemingly chance meeting on the banks of an oued between his own daughter and the prince, who, as expected, falls in love with her. When the minister meets him, he questions him about his encounter with the words of this poem.

I see you are moved and preoccupied like one who is enslaved
[By passion], as you wandered in the shadows round the tents
Were you struck by an arrow or pierced by a glance?
It looks very much like you’re lovesick!

Then miraculously, the prince begins to speak for the first time in his life, directly in verse, referring to the passion stirring within him:

On the river banks I saw a turtle dove
And I languished with regret and despair.
And the minister’s daughter and the king’s son were married…

6- Yâ ibn al-nass/O young man of means – 9’12
traditional words and music
vocals: Mohammed Murshid Nâjî

7-‘Ayyaratni al-shayb/The whiteness of my hair – 8’20
An old poem in mawwâl form; traditional

‘Ayyaratnî al-shayb wa-huwa wiqâru
Laytahâ ‘ayyaratnî bima huwa ‘âru

When I offered whiteness as a gift to my hair,
it gave me a dignified mien
Ah! if only it’d been able to offer me
What it’s not seemly to offer!

leading straight into
Ahibbek yâ ghâlî/I love you, o my dear
words: Ahmed Sharîf al-Rifâ’î
music and vocals: Khalîl Mohammed Khalîl

8- Al-warda al-hamra/The red rose – 5’17
words: Masri Effendî
music and vocals: Khalîl Mohammed Khalîl

The red rose
On the brunette’s breast
If you could see her beauty
She goes to your head like wine
The red rose…
A rose and its thorns
Have ensnared me
All I want is to meet her
And when I’m there in her presence
The red rose

I’m obsessed by her
The red rose
The red rose…
A rose and its shadow
I see her in my dreams
I’ll only be satisfied
When I’ve plucked her
She’s my hidden passion
The red rose
She’s my joy each day
The red rose
The red rose…

  • Reference : 321.047
  • Ean : 794 881 707 522
  • Main artists : M.M. Naji & K.M. Khalil
  • Year of recording : 1998
  • Year of publishing : 2002
  • Music style : Music of Aden
  • Country : Yemen
  • Country of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Mohamed Murshid Naji ; Mohammad Sa’îd Jarâda ; Abû Bakr al-Mihdâr ; Khalîl Mohammad Khalîl ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Mohamed Murshid Naji ; Mohammad Sa’îd Jarâda ; Abû Bakr al-Mihdâr ; Masri Effendî ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

Available album: Buy here