Sacred songs from Sanaa

Sacred songs from Sanaa

Association des chantres yéménites

Religious songs accompany different stages in the cycle of life – birth, marriage, funerals etc.; they’re also included in the celebration of certain religious festivals. The cantors sing a cappella and vary their repertoire according to whether the event is happy or sad. They can devote their performance to the chanting of pious texts, just as they can spend their time singing comic songs; this programme gives a clear idea of the full range of their talent.
The idea of founding an association of precentors from Sanaa goes back to 1975, a period when young volunteers could take lessons in the homes of the most famous cantors, but it was only in September 1990 that the Association finally came into being on a national level. It is the only one of its kind in the Yemen, and aims to preserve the national heritage of religious songs by collecting them amongst the old people of the community, teaching them to others and giving them new life and/or new forms.


1Adhân/Call to prayer – 2’33
2Bismillah/In the name of Allah – 3’52
3Yâ rabb sallî ‘alâ n-nabî/O God, I pray on the Prophet’s name – 2’38
4‘Alim al-sirr minnâ/Thou who dost know our secret – 7’50
5Al-tahmida/Poems of thanksgiving to God – 8’13
6Al-salâ tughshâ Mohammed/May my prayers protect Muhammad – 3’56
7Lî fî rubâ Hajir ghuzayyil/I have a fawn near Hajer – 4’15
8Sallî ilâhu al-samâ/Pray God in heaven – 2’58
9Yâ rabb sallî ‘alâ man halla bi-l-harâmi/ O God I pray for he who has dwelt in the sanctuary [of Mecca] – 2’30
10Al-sanâ lâh/The first glimmer of daylight has appeared – 7’03
11‘Alâ n-nabî wa-l-âl/On th Prophet and His family – 3’17
12Yâ rabb yâ musbil/O Thou who givest us the gift of rain – 6’26
13Al-ziffa/The wedding procession – 5’42
14 – Group of popular songs from Sanaa – 11’35

Interpreters and instruments

Ali al-Akwaa (singing)
Yahyâ al-Mahfadî (singing)
Abd el-Rahman Madâ’is (singing)
Ahmed al-Akwaa (chœur)
Taha ‘Amer (choir)
Yahyâ Shandaq (choir)


The art and methods of the Yemeni nashshad

In the Sanaa region, the munshidin or nashshadin are religious cantors or hymnodists specialised in all forms of paraliturgical chant to accompany social events and those that mark the different stages in the cycle of life – birth, circumcision, marriage, funeral rites, the consecration of a vow… They also sing to accompany certain religious festivals, such as that celebrating the birth of the Prophet, mawlid, or the Night of Destiny, laylat al-qadar, during Ramadan.

The nashshad usually officiate alone or in pairs. Their repertory varies considerably according to the occasion – on sad occasions, their main task is to recite the Koran, as well as legends about the prophets, or other pious texts; these are all “recited”, it would be a misnomer to say “sung”. On happy occasions, on the other hand, such as weddings, the nashshad give full rein to their musical talent. They have to contribute to what is known as the farah, in other words both the actual festivity and the pleasure and joy of the participants, i.e. the emotions that must be generated to make a success of the event. This is precisely why they also have the task of amusing and enlivening the audience, made up entirely of men, at such events; they tell jokes or sing comic songs where absolutely every topic of male humour is allowed, apart from religion…

The nashshad are in great demand and very well paid; they go from one wedding to another, and in the “high” season some of them even do two in one day to round off the end of their month!

The nashshad always sing a cappella, and are never accompanied by any percussion instruments; this reflects the totally negative attitude of the Zaydite school (a branch of the Shiites, the dominant sect in Sanaa) towards musical instruments in general. The wedding repertoire (well represented here) covers three main types of song:

  • The mashrab (“where one quenches one’s thirst, where one takes inspiration”), a song in honour of the prophet Muhammad, where the soloist is given maximum support by those taking part in the festivity, replaced in this case by members of the group. This type of singing (which in a different context recalls the Christmas carols of the Protestants) is the expression of the social dynamics of the group represented by the choir, whose members take up the refrain in full voice. Their love for the Prophet is sung in every tone, every poetic form possible, and makes constant reference to the omnipresence of divine power everywhere in nature – the birds, the rain, storms, day and night. The melodic range of these songs is enormous. Some have been specially composed to accompany the wedding procession, or ziffa; they are particularly lively in tone and sung with brio. An example of this type is the Morhaban ma (track 13). Sometimes they even give rise to dancing.
  • The qasida, a single rhyme poem on a devout or pious theme, sung by a soloist to the same melody from beginning to end (an example can be found on track 4, ‘Alim al-sirr minna).
  • The tawshih or tathlith, a poem whose content is lyrical and non-religious, or mystical, often sung to three different tunes which more or less alternate the whole way through the poem. The melody of this type of song or chant places it in the same family as the secular repertoire known as ghina; certain rhythms stemming from the ghina are recognisable in, for example, Ya rabbu ya musbil or Li fi ruba hajer ghuzayyil (track 7), here taken up in choral manner in their entirety.

The record ends with three types of popular song sung in dialectical Arabic, that were introduced into the religious repertoire late on:

  • the bala, basically a sort of village poetry joust; in Sanaa it is used as a children’s nursery rhyme, especially during Ramadan when the children go from door to door begging gifts;
  • the razfa, a marching song of the Yemeni tribes as they set off on a campaign, now a satyric song in modern-day Sanaa;
  • the mahjal, a work song on a religious theme.

Jean Lambert, ethnomusicologist
translated by Delia Morris

The recordings

1-Adhan/Call to prayer – 2’33
Following the Zaydite tradition, it contains the mention: “Ayya ‘ala l-falah”/Let’s go! Onwards to Salvation!

2- Bismillah/In the name of Allah – 3’52

Mashrab Bismillah bismillah fi awwal dhikrina nabda’
Bi-l-mawla wa bi-r-rasul al-mushaffa’

“In the name of Allah, for our first mention of His name we begin
With the Lord’s name and He Who was sent to intercede for us”

3- Ya rabb salli ala n-nabi/O God, I pray on the Prophet’s name – 2’38

Mashrab Ya rabb salli ‘ala n-nabi
ma lah bargon bi-laylin dajiyya

“O God, I pray on the Prophet’s name
As many times as the flashes of lightning during a dark night”

4- ‘Alim al-sirr minna/Thou who dost know our secret – 7’50
Qasida by Jabir Rizq, a 19th c. mystic poet

“O Thou who dost know our secret, give us what we desire
O Thou to Whom those who call upon Thee do aspire
O Thou who art for ever living, Thou who dost continue for ever and ever”

5- Al-tahmida/Poems of thanksgiving to God – 8’13
A group of poems and prayers devoted to thanksgiving towards God

5.1- Mashrab Al-hamdu li-llah wa-l-shukru li-llah/Thanks be to Allah, a thousand thanks to Allah

5.2- Qasida Hamdan li-man istajab al-ni’am/Thanks be to Him who didst answer our prayers by sending His blessings

5.3- Qasida Na’am na’am wa-l-shukr/Yes, yes, and thanks to the Lord for His blessings

5.4- Prayer on the same theme

5.5- Prayer/du’a’ about the prophets

6- Al-sala tughsha Muhammad/May my prayers protect Muhammad – 3’56

Mashrab Al-sala tughsha Mohammed wa-s- salam
Wa-l-al el-kiram
Ma shaja tayr el-bishamah fawq ghusnin ‘ali

“May my prayers protect Muhammad and his family,
May they be as numerous as the songs from the bird warbling on the highest branch of the balsam tree”

7- Li fi ruba Hajir ghuzayyil/I have a fawn near Hajer – 4’15
Mubayyit by Mohammed al-Sudi (xvith century)

“I have a fawn near Hajer; its neck is upright, it breaks all hearts
It captured mine at sunset
Have pity for the loved one whose heart is aflame, for he suffers so!”

8- Salli ilahu al-sama – 2’58

Mashrab Salli ilahu al-sama’
Ala lladhi haz el-jamal el-asma
Taha alladhi gad sana
Wal-al ma tayr el-ghusun ghanna

“Pray God in heaven
For he who radiates the most sublime beauty
Muhammad who didst found our tradition
Pray as much as the bird does sing”

9- Ya rabb salli ‘ala man halla bi-l-harami/O God I pray for he who has dwelt in the sanctuary [of Mecca] – 2’30

Mashrab Ya rabb salli ‘ala man halla bi-l-harami
Mohammed al-Mustafa al-makhsus bi-l-karami

“O God I pray for him who has dwelt in the sanctuary [of Mecca]
Muhammad, the Chosen One, He who is endowed with generosity”

10- Al-sana lah/The first glimmer of daylight has appeared – 7’03
Mubayyit, lyrical poem by Mohammed Sharaf el-Din (16th century)

“The first glimmer of daylight has appeared
It has robbed my eyes of the sleep of the just
Perfumes and scents have wafted forth
And drowned my soul in tears”

11- ‘Ala n-nabi wa-l-al/On the Prophet and His family – 3’17

Mashrab ‘Ala n-nabi wa-l-al
Sala al-ghani al-mughni
Ma wabilon hattal
Aw ma hamar al-muzni

“In the name of the Prophet and that of His family
Pray to Him Who is rich and Who doth enrich
Just as every shower He causeth to fall
And every cloud that is pierced”

12- Ya rabb ya musbil/O Thou who givest us the gift of rain – 6’26
Qasida with tawshih, by Ahmed al-Mufti (19th century)

“O God, O Thou who givest us the gift of rain
Thou who dost bring forth all that is missing
Thou who causeth the dawn to break, then darkness to fall
I ask Thee, on the Prophet’s name, to let all those present and all those absent meet again
Our friends, people of loyalty and protection, are far away and run into peril
We remember them constantly, it would be wrong to forget them
I can feel no pleasure since they left on their journey
Since they did up their luggage, I have not had a moment’s sleep
How I do suffer, how I do long for them!”

13- Al-ziffa/The wedding procession – 5’42
Suite of several mashrab for the wedding procession of the bridegroom

13.1- Morhaban ma/Welcome

Morhaban ma
Morhaban bi-badr al-tamameh
Ya hilalan
Bada fi junh ez-zalameh

Welcome to the perfect full moon
O crescent moon
Emerging from the heart of darkness”

13.2- Morhaban ya nur ‘ayni/Welcome O light of mine eyes

“Welcome o light of mine eyes
Welcome O forefather of Hussein”

14- Group of popular songs from Sanaa – 11’35

14.1- Al-bala/A nursery rhyme for Ramadan

A round sung by children when they go begging money from the neighbours during Ramadan.

“I begin with the name of Muhammad, that he may intercede
And spare us from Gehenna, from its fire and brimstone
And I name Ali, whom God did raise and whom He endowed with beauty
And his two sons, martyrs both, but tonight it is you who gives the gift!
Ah, if I were a bird, I’d perch on the roof of our house
And I’d listen over and above the bubbling of the narghilehs
Ah, if only my cousin could have a turban or a shirt!
He would don it on Thursday or Friday evening
Ah, if only my cousin could have some snuff to take!
I’d give some to the sheikh and the other notaries in my drawing room
The sheikh who celebrates Muhammad’s name that He might intercede
And spare us from Gehenna, from its fire and brimstone”

14.2- Ya muslimin/O Muslims

Razfa/lecherous song
– Ya muslimin ya ‘ibad Allah ana al-hayim
Wa-na -lladhi taht shubbak al-hakim nayim
– Usbur tusabbur ‘ala nafsek wa-illa mutt
Lawma yubidayn hamamat al-hawaya guf
Aw yijma’ Allahi ma bayn ad-difa wal-huf
Aw yijmad al-ma’ ‘ala salwa al-nakhleh ezra’tuh

“O Muslims, O servants of Allah, I am bathed in tears
It is I who sleeps beneath the governor’s window
– Be patient now, you’ll learn to live with your feelings or you’ll die of them
Be patient, wait till the pigeon lays its eggs in mid-air
Till the water that irrigates the palm-tree starts to freeze”

14.3- El-hamdu li-llah/Praises unto Allah
Mahjal/work song

Al-hamdulillah khaligan
Alladhi ya’lam bi-ma la na’lameh
Al-wahida farad es-samad
Sabhanahu ma akrameh Hamdan

“Praises unto Allah, the Creator
He who knoweth that which we know not
The Only One, the Unshakeable One
There is none more generous than He”

  • Reference : 321.035
  • Ean : 794 881 640 027
  • Main artist : Association des chantres yéménites (جمعية المنشدين اليمنيين)
  • Year of recording : 1998
  • Year of publishing : 2001
  • Music style: Music of Sanaa
  • Country : Yemen
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe