It is said that in the olden days when the musicians of the old town of Sanaa sang in the big drawing rooms with shrubs and greenery just outside, the voice of the most gifted singers would attract the robins, who’d come and settle on the stem of the hookahs, as though hypnotised by the murmur of the lute.
The singer here interprets some extremely fine poems written in classical Arabic studded with turns of phrase and other expressions in the dialect of the region around Sanaa. He accompanies himself on a small lute particular to the Yemen, known as the qanbus , whose origins go back to the earliest days of Islam. Musicians capable of playing these instrument are few and far between in Sanaa these days and Hasan al-‘Ajami is the only one who plays the qanbus according to the old traditional method. Ahmed ‘Ushaysh is yet another of the last representatives of this tradition. He sings and accompanies himself on a copper tray, the sahn mimiyeh, made of a special alloy and belonging to the same family as the gongs of South-East Asia.
01 – Qawma/Suite : Yâ bi rûhî min al-ghîd – Yâ mu’allaq bi-habl al-hobb – Yâ mudhhab al-khadd /Who is this girl – You who cling to the rope of love -You with the golden complexion – 18’21
02 – Qawma/Suite : Yâ mughîr al-ghazâleh – Yâ dawlat el-husn /O you who make the gazelle and the fawn jealous – O supreme one of beauty and power – 9’31
03 – Qawma/Suite : Qiff bî ‘alâ l-mas’a – Yâ dawlat el-husn /Stop halfway up the slope – O supreme one of beauty and power – 15’28
04 – Qawma/Suite : Min sihr ‘aynak al-amân – Hum yamna’û – Lâ tahjarû/La tahjaru/I beg mercy in the magic of your glance – They forbid – Do not abandon – 9’45
05 – Qawma/Suite : Ghayrî ‘alâ s-silwân qâdir – Akhdar limeh – Al-nâs ‘alayk aqlagûnî -‘Azîm al-rajâ/Anyone else but me would be capable of peace of mind – O dark one – People have got me worried about you – Thou the object of all our desires – 13’33
Interpreters and Instruments
Hasan al-‘Ajami (singing and qanbûs)
Ahmed ‘Ushaysh (singing and sahn mîmiyeh)
It is said that in the olden days when the musicians of the old town of Sanaa sang in the big drawing rooms with shrubs and greenery just outside, the voice of the most gifted singers would attract the robins, who’d come and settle on the stem of the hookahs, as though hypnotised by the murmur of the lute. “Sanaan singing” is a form of classical Yemeni music with its roots going far back in history as well as legend.
In Sanaa a musician is also a singer whose job is to highlight the finest poetic texts from Yemeni and Arab literature. Sung poetry of the homayni type is written in a very classical form of Arabic studded with dialectical phrases and expressions from the area of Sanaa. The homayni first appeared in the 16th century, under the influence of the Andalusian muwashshah, which in turn had been brought from Cairo by the poet al-Mazzah. For the first time ever, things were written down in dialect, giving rise to a body of Arabic literature specific to Yemeni culture.
The major poets of the genre are Mohammed Sharaf al-Din (d. 1607), a prolific writer whose turbulent descriptions of love and passion gave rise to an even more elaborate and ornamented style (see tracks 2 and 5), ‘Abdel-Rahman al-Anisi (d. 1834) and his son Ahmed (d. 1825, see track 3), to name but those few.
The homayni favoured the same classical themes as the Arabic ghazal: impossible love for an inaccessible beauty, as well as nostalgia, absence, and a very sensual feeling for nature. The poet (who incidentally is inevitably male) evokes his beloved almost every time by a masculine form, comparing her to a feature of nature such as the gazelle, a crescent moon, a branch of the balsam tree.
Sanaan singing is an art that demands a great deal from the soloists who approach it. The singer accompanies himself on a small lute particular to the Yemen, known as the qanbus (see below); unfortunately this is gradually being replaced by the oriental lute. This classical repertoire has been built up from various sources: Andalusia via Egypt, Sufi music during the dynasty of the Rasulids (14th-15th c.), Ottoman influences from the 16th-19th century. Each influence brought something new to be grafted onto the older layers, and so an entirely new form emerged where the typical Arab modal feeling is heightened and enriched by a unique sense of melody.
The repertoire is basically centred around complex rhythms strung together in a suite of dances, the qawma, a kind of nuba that goes faster and faster as it advances through the three main cycles:
the irregular das’a with 7 or 11 beats;
the binary wasta with 4 beats;
the sari, also with 4 beats, like the previous one, but taken at a livelier tempo.
The qawma is often introduced by an instrumental piece known as the fertash (“exploration”), partly improvised but in measured time, which immediately distinguishes it from the taqsim of the Near East (see track 3).
The oriental lute was virtually unknown in the Yemen until the beginning of the 20th century. The most common instrument was a locally-made ‘ud known as a qanbus in Aden, and a turbi in Sanaa (so called because listening to it provokes the tarab, the special musical emotion).
The qanbus was made by carpenters or the musicians themselves. Some beautiful examples have come down to us made of wood moulded into shape and sometimes studded with bone and ebony. From the coast of the Indian Ocean the instrument spread to Madagascar, the Comores and then into Indonesia where it is known as the qanbus, the gabusi etc. The number of musicians who know how to play it in Sanaa can be counted on your fingers and they’ve practically disappeared altogether in Aden.
The qanbus is hollowed out of a single piece of apricot wood or local tanab (Cordia abyssinica), covered with a goatskin that gives it its gentle but richly harmonious sound. It has four strings giving a range of one and a half octaves, and tuned in fourths. A feather from a bird of prey serves as the plectrum; such delicacy allows for great subtlety in the way the instrument is played. In the Yemeni style there are a great many techniques for the right hand. Its soft sound meant it was the ideal instrument to be played discreetly whenever music was banned, a frequent occurrence during the era of the imams. It is said that Qasim al-Akhfash, one of the great masters no longer alive, owned a folding qanbus with its two parts hinged together; he used to walk the streets wrapped in a vast coat with the instrument slipped discreetly in his inside pocket… Its small size also meant that the musician could dance whilst he played, something that is quite impossible with the oriental lute.
Most of the parts of the lute have an anthromorphic name. Thus the pegs are the “fingers”, asabi’, the neck is indeed a “neck”, ragabah, the soundbox is a “belly” or jofra, or even a “backside”, jahlah, the point where the strings are attatched is a “little penis”, zubbayba. This analogy with the human body (incidentally, we note in passing that it is once again male) was already present in the legend about the origins of the Arab lute. According to the historian Mas’udi, one of Noah’s descendants called Lamek was mourning his dead son when he got the idea of making an instrument with certain parts of the dead boy’s body. Thus the qanbus is an archaic form of the oriental lute, with its origins going far back in history, certainly right to the early days of Islam.
In spite of his young age, Hasan al-‘Ajami is the direct heir of some of the greatest masters of Sanaan singing, all of whom died during the sixties. Salih al-‘Antari who recorded some 78 r.p.m. during the thirties and completely won over the Yemeni public with his brilliant playing; Ahmed Fayie’, nicknamed “the mouse” because of his slight frame and humble bearing. He remained unknown during his lifetime because he did not leave Sanaa when music was banned by the imam Yahya. Hasan, himself the son and grandson of musicians, had the good fortune to hear both these musicians as well as his own grandfather whilst they were all still alive and he was still learning to play the instrument. Though this crucial period was shortlived, these people and their music had a lasting influence on Hasan that still endures.
Thanks to Hasan’s particular experience, every aspect of this rich tradition has been preserved. During the sixties the form of the ghina’ san’ani became more decadent, no doubt partly because the qanbus was being abandoned in favour of the oriental lute. Then followed a long empty period that lasted for more than thirty years before the authentic tradition miraculously re-appeared in the form of Hasan al-‘Ajami, who gave his first public performance in the Institut du monde arabe in January 1998.
Hasan al-‘Ajami is the only Yemeni to play the qanbus according to the traditional method. His style is quite different from all the others, similarly he has a very distinctive style on the oriental lute which he also plays superbly. The nuances in his playing are produced by his right hand, the one that holds the plectrum and can thus vary the strength of his grip; whereas with his left hand, a gentle touch with no plucking is more often than not quite sufficient, thanks to the natural resonance of the instrument.
Ahmed ‘Ushaysh is yet another of the last representatives of this tradition. He sings and accompanies himself on a copper tray, the sahn mimiyeh.
This tray, made of a special alloy, belongs to the same family as the gongs of South-East Asia; it accompanies a solo singer or an ensemble of singer and lute (see tracks 1 & 2). It rests lightly on both thumbs so as to give the maximum resonance, and is struck with the other eight fingers. As the main percussion instrument it gives rise to innovatory rhythms, for instance the irregular cycles of 11 beats are stretched into 14, 17 or even 20 beats. Since there is no melodic instrument to support the voice, the gaps between the words of a poem are often filled with meaningless syllables (la-la-li, dan dana etc.) – knowing exactly how and when to do this is quite an art in itself.
Like Hasan al-‘Ajami, Ahmed ‘Ushaysh made his first public appearance at the concerts held at the Institut du monde arabe in January 1998. Unfortunately he passed away shortly after his return to his homeland, so these recordings are a unique historic testimony, a moving trace of his voice now silent for ever.
1- Suite/qawma composed of Ya bi ruhi min al-ghid – Ya mu’allaq bi-habl al-hobb – Ya mudhhab al-khadd /Who is this girl – You who cling to the rope of love -You with the golden complexion – 18’21
1.1- Ya bi ruhi min al-ghid/Who is this girl
Poem by Ahmed al Qarah, 19th c., singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
“Upon my soul, who is this girl as slender as a crescent moon?
Her beauty has banished my soul and my reason
A beauty without equal amongst beauties
And I who have no equal amongst lovers
When I spoke to her of union, she asked: “What’s that?”
And what do you want from it?
I told her: It’s a visit you would make to see me in the dark of night
You would honour my house with your presence
She said: Union with you is impossible
My parents would never allow it
If my father and my brothers got to hear about it
They would have but one thought in mind: to kill you and me too
So I said: In God’s name, I’m not afraid of the struggle
And you too, don’t be afraid, if it’s me at stake
I fear neither arrows nor blows from the spear
Only the piercing glance of your eyes, they alone can kill me
I said: What’s your name and where do you come from ? She said: Gazelle,
And my forefathers come from the Orient 
The Orient of Allah, land of bountiful plenty and beauty
Full of virgins like me!
So follow me to my country in order to fulfil
Your dearest wish, and be united with me
I said: May it please God! and tears ran down my face
How could I leave my parents behind?
She said: Let your heart dictate to you, since love is there
Make up your mind, and if you can’t, get out of my way!
So transfixed with fear, I said:
O you who speaks so well of legitimate magic 
Can you not see, o Gazelle, that I have become a mere spectre
In this love I have for you that obsesses me so
Let us pray, let us pray, just as God waters the mountains
To the east, the west and the north
That our Prophet be saved, our supreme example,
Let us pray a thousand prayers for his salvation!“
1.2- Ya mu’allaq bi-habl al-hobb/You who cling to the rope of love
Poem by Ali b. Ishaq, 18th c., singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
(This song begins at about 8’15)
“You who cling to the rope of love, if you are satisfied
With beauties like me
Don’t try and keep your distraught heart from feeling passion
And don’t say: What price will I have to pay?“
1.3- Ya mudhhab al-khadd/You with the golden complexion
Poem by Qasim al-Amir, 18th c., singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
(This song begins at about 14’35)
“You with the golden complexion, tell me, the rosy apple in your cheeks, how much is it ?
For I wish to heal my spirits with the dewy moisture from your lips
I shall make a balsam of it to calm the beating of my heart
It will soothe my racing pulse and quench the fiery heat of my emotion.“
2- Suite/qawma composed of Ya mughir al-ghazaleh – Ya dawlat el-husn /O you who make the gazelle and the fawn jealous – O supreme one of beauty and power– 9’31
2.1- Ya mughir al-ghazaleh/O you who make the gazelle and the fawn jealous
Poem by Mohammad Sharaf al-Din, 16th c., singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
“O you who make the gazelle and the fawn jealous
Here is my soul, be fair with me and come to me now
Can you not see how the tears flow from my eyes
Because of your disdain, what a state I am in!“
2.2- Ya dawlat el-husn/O supreme one of beauty and power
Anonymous poem, singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
(This song begins at about 7’12)
“O supreme one of beauty and power
I lay my supplication before you
You have treated me with disdain
And do not deign to listen to my inner pain.“
3- Suite/qawma composed of Qiff bi ‘ala l-mas’a – Ya dawlat el-husn /Stop halfway up the slope – O supreme one of beauty and power – 15’28
3.1- Qiff bi ‘ala l-mas’a/Stop halfway up the slope
Poem by Ahmed ‘Abdel Rahman al-Anisi, d. 1825, singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
“Stop halfway up the slope, at the door of peace
And give rein to your feelings in the darkness
Compose your lines of verse along the path of mysticism
And hide all vice with a veil of modesty.“
3.2- Ya dawlat el-husn/O supreme one of beauty and power
Anonymous poem, singer: Hasan al-‘Ajami
(This song begins at about 13’30)
4- Suite/qawma composed of Min sihr ‘aynak al-aman – Hum yamna’u – La tahjaru/I beg mercy in the magic of your glance – They forbid – Do not abandon – 9’45
4.1- Min sihr ‘aynak al-aman/I beg for mercy in the magic of your glance
Poem in classical Arabic by Kamal al-Din ibn al-Nabih, Syria, 12th-13th c. singer: Ahmed ‘Ushaysh
“I beg for mercy in the magic of your glance
You have killed him who bears both sword and talisman
You are dark like a keen-pointed spear that would seem to have eyes
And if those eyes were not so dark, they’d be teeth!“
4.2- Hum yamna’u/They forbid
Anonymous poem, singer: Ahmed ‘Ushaysh
(This song begins at about 5’)
“They forbid me to let my gaze fall
On your beauty, can you not see that?“
4.3- La tahjaru/Do not abandon
Anonymous poem, singer: Ahmed ‘Ushaysh
(This song begins at about 7’38)
“Do not abandon the man who is a lover for you
When he has not committed a single error, God is his witness… “
5-Suite/qawma composé de Ghayri ‘ala s-silwan qadir – Akhdar limeh – Al-nas ‘alayk aqlaguni -‘Azim al-raja/Anyone else but me would be capable of peace of mind – O dark one – People have got me worried about you – Thou the object of all our desires – 13’33
5.1- Ghayri ‘ala s-silwan qadir/ Anyone else but me would be capable of peace of mind
After a classical poem attributed to Ibn al-Farid or Baha Zuhayr
singer: Ahmed Ushaysh
“Anyone else but me would be capable of peace of mind
Any other young man in love, of betrayal
But when I’m in love my thoughts are impenetrable
And only God knows my secrets.“
5.2- Akhdar limeh/O dark one
Poem by Mohammed Sharaf al-Din, 16th c., singer: Ahmed Ushaysh
(This song begins at about 3’10)
“O dark one, why are you so loath to meet me?
O dark one, I’m enamoured of your gaiety and your hips
O dark one, you’re eluding me, how long is this going to go on?
O you with your ebony skin, my thoughts follow you everywhere.“
5.3- Al-nas ‘alayk aqlaguni/People have got me worried about you
Anonymous poem, singer: Ahmed ‘Ushaysh
(This song begins at about 7’55)
“People have got me worried about you, o little gazelle
They mentioned your name and asked me questions
I said: What name is this, introduce me!
It’s the name of someone I’ve never set eyes on.“
5.4-‘Azim al-raja/Thou to whom all our desires do turn
Anonymous poem, singer: Ahmed ‘Ushaysh
(This song begins at about 11’30)
“Thou to whom all our desires do turn, I beseechThee, by Thy power
And by Thy fine names, by the sacred Table  and by the stylus.“
Jean Lambert, ethnomusicologist
Translated by Délia Morris
 For the Yemenis who live in the town, the East, mashriq, in other words the gateway to the desert of Rub’ al-Khali, is a mythical untouched region, that of the nomads and a life without fetters of any sort.
 For Arabs the term “legitimate magic” is one of the names given to love.
 Allah writes the decrees of destiny on the sacred Table (al-lawh al-mahfuz).
- Reference : 321.029
- Ean : 794 881 639 823
- Main artist : Hasan al-Aljami (عوني حسن العجمي) & Ahmed Ushaysh (احمد عشيش)
- Year of recording : 1998
- Year of publising : 2001
- Music style : Music of Sanaa
- Pays d’origine : Yemen
- Ville d’enregistrement : Paris
- Langue principale : Arabic
- Compositeurs : Amar El Achad ; Hadj El Anka ; Traditional
- Lyricists : Amar El Achad ; Hadj El Anka ; Traditional
- Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe