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4 posts categorized "Middle East"

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the 'Ezra Hakkāk and Emile Cohen Collection

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

 

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate a collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door. Cohen had obtained the recordings from 'Ezra Hakkāk. The Hakkāk’s owned a shop on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad and another in Tehran that started off selling leather goods, branching out into sewing machines, electronics and, ultimately gramophone machines and records.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in the box. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s gift can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From this collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in this collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Emile Cohen and ‘Ezra Hakkāk for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

Follow The British Library’s World and Traditional Music team @BL_WorldTrad

Follow Unlocking Our Sound Heritage updates @BLSoundHeritage

10 June 2019

Recording of the week: Loss of a world and a need to capture it

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

'Someone asked Goha what was his favourite music and he replied, "The clanging of pots and pans and the tinkling of glasses’"'(Middle Eastern Food, p.520)

In 2018 Gaby’s Deli closed after 50 years on Charing Cross Road. A popular haunt of both theatre goers and Central London protestors, it’s also where the proprietor Gaby Elyahou claims (although who can really prove such a thing) to have introduced falafel to London. Gaby’s opened in 1965 and three years later, cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden published her first masterpiece A Book of Middle Eastern Food, updated two years later with A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. While Gaby’s was pretty successful in selling falafel, Roden is the first to admit that Middle Eastern cuisine in general did not go down too well in the UK. In the clip selected for this blog she remarks on how “in those days I wasn’t thinking of the English, because at that time the English were not interested at all” and how the general consensus was it might all be “eyeballs and testicles”. Obviously things are different today, but this does raise the question of who Roden was writing for instead.

Photograph of Mediterranean cookery booksMy mum's copy of Mediterranean Cookery, my housemate's copy of A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and a teapot.

Claudia Roden was born in 1936 to a Jewish Egyptian family. In 1951 she left Cairo for France and then the UK to study art, but after the Suez Crisis of 1956 her family, like many other Egyptian Jews who were expelled or fled, joined her to settle in London. It’s there that Roden began, as a form of historical preservation, to collect recipes, and in this recording she gives her poignant reasons for doing so; “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it”.

Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern cuisine (C821/47)

Roden began with “ourselves, my family” and moved on to “others who had come from Syria, or had come from Turkey”, eventually culminating in A New Book which is described in the introduction as a “joint creation of numerous Middle Easterners who, like me, are in exile”. But wherever the recipes came from and whatever stories they told, Roden was adamant that they “have to be written down, have to be made a record of”. With that in mind it’s apt that we come full circle to this Recording of the Week, itself, taken from an eleven hour oral history interview recorded by Polly Russell for the National Life Stories project ‘Food: From Source to Salespoint’. Because if books are one way of preserving history then recordings are another, and both are underpinned by the same principles of heritage. Interviews too are a “joint creation” and, in the domain of oral history, “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it” remains central.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

13 April 2018

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

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Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document. 

Abdul Qadr
T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr, the head of education in Dhofar at the time. He admired Johnstone for his beautiful Arabic handwriting (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Johnstone had a talent for languages from an early age, learning to speak Polish as a schoolboy, before settling on Arabic (in particular the Gulf dialects) as the language to which he would devote much of his career. However, his work was also invaluable for the documentation and description of Modern South Arabian languages, in particular Mehri, Shehret and Harsusi. He often worked long-term with particular speakers such as ‘Ali Musallam, who in fact spent many months living in London so that Johnstone could continue to work with him. In 1967, Johnstone was also part of a joint civilian and army expedition to the island of Soqotra. Johnstone was the group’s linguist, and accompanying him were also archaeologists, geologists, and botanists (the trip is documented in Doe 1992).  

Map
Map showing the distribution of Modern South Arabian languages in Yemen and Oman. Cartography by Ulrich Seeger. Used with kind permission from the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian team.

The Modern South Arabian languages Harsusi, Mehri, Shehret, Hobyot, Bathari, and Soqotri are distinct from Arabic. They are spoken in Yemen (including the island of Soqotra) and Oman, as well as elsewhere in the Gulf. Whereas Arabic is from the Northern branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, Modern South Arabian languages are from the Southern branch. Each of these languages are endangered, and are undergoing rapid change in response to urbanisation and the ever-increasing use of the dominant contact language, Arabic, in younger generations. This process of language loss was already happening during Johnstone’s fieldwork, and is continuing now. Modern South Arabian languages are also purely oral languages, with no formal script, making the sound archive’s preservation of these recordings vital for documenting the languages as they were spoken by individuals at that moment in time. As they are unwritten languages, recordings are the only documents.

When beginning to catalogue the recordings containing Modern South Arabian languages, the language barrier impeded us from making them accessible, as to us the content was often unidentifiable. In order to give due care and attention to the cataloguing of this significant and at-risk collection of recordings, we were therefore fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris.

Prof. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University. She works on the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages, alongside Arabic dialectology, phonology, and morphology. She is also a fellow of the British Academy. Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri, and also understands Harsusi and Shehret. Based in Oman, he collaborates closely with Janet, and has co-published papers with her. Dr Miranda Morris, St Andrews University, has been doing extensive fieldwork in Southern Arabia (including Soqotra) for many years, and has researched and published comprehensively on oral literature and on the ethnobotany of the area. She also worked closely with Johnstone in the past, as he was the supervisor for her PhD at SOAS. They all collaborate on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Modern South Arabian languages project, a three-year community-based project which aims to document the Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Not only were Janet, Abdullah and Miranda able to contribute their expertise towards our cataloguing work, providing us with information on the languages used in the recordings, the content of the recordings, and in some cases the names of the speakers, they were also able to illuminate a profound sense of the time and place in which the recordings were made through their extensive background knowledge – and to situate this within the current context of rapid language and environmental change in the area.

Indeed, environmental and language loss tend to go hand in hand – with the most linguistically diverse parts of the world tending to also be the most ecologically diverse. When the landscape changes, the language we have to describe it also disappears. The Modern South Arabian languages which Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda speak and work on are rich in evocative metaphors and similies that are connected to the particular landscape of the area. For example, if a man is described as axahēh sīmar ‘he looks like a mar tree’, he is compared to the Boscial Arabica tree, a tree of the desert and drier mountains that looks like an ‘opened umbrella’. In other words, he is characterised by his ‘height, uprightness, slenderness and a shock of hair’ (Morris, p.c., Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95).

In some cases, particular words used to describe the environment are ‘grammaticalised’ – changing from having a meaning as words on their own, to also taking on a grammatical function. For example, in Mehri, the word śaff (śɛf in Shehret) means ‘animal track’, or ‘footprint’. This word, however, has also been historically grammaticalised – and is now used as the particle śaf, having the sense of ‘it transpired’, ‘as it happened’, ‘really’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). This particle is a kind of metaphorical extension of the noun śaff (‘footprint, animal track’) that now resonates beyond its original, literal meaning, to encode a sense of surprise, or revelation, that something has turned out to be as it has - just like an animal’s footprints reveal an indisputable trace of what or who has passed by. As Janet and Abdullah put it ‘from sight someone might believe that they are following a camel from one herd, but on close examination of tracks [śaff] discover they are tracking a camel from a different herd’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). Just like tracks reveal someone or something’s true identity or nature, therefore, the particle śaf describes this sense of revelation and surprise that transpires from new information or evidence.

Camel track
A photo of a camel track, taken by Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and used with kind permission.

 

Camels
A photo taken by Johnstone of camels in the Negd. They are desert camels, so they have thin delicate legs, unlike mountain camels who have thicker legs and more splayed feet (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

This experience of ‘revelation’ was reflected in our own process of cataloguing the collection – where tapes that we thought to be one thing turned out to be another, as their true identity was unlocked and thus revealed by Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda. Some of the tapes were unlabelled, others had been placed in the wrong boxes. Our collaborative work was thus fundamental to ensure these sound recordings are preserved for the future with meaning, not catalogued as ‘unidentified’ or ‘unnamed’ and consequently remaining almost invisible in the Library’s catalogue.

One recording was found by Abdullah and Miranda to be of someone speaking in Hobyot – a language we weren’t previously aware was represented in the collection, but are now able to catalogue accordingly. Another recording in Harsusi was rich in ethnobotanical detail. However, as well as doing the essential work of identifying things like language, speakers, and content, Janet, Miranda, and Abdullah were able to unlock something of the time and place that the recordings were made, and in fact, a common theme of some of the stories in the collection was this very experience of revelation, of something turning out to be something else.

Below are three Soqotri stories, translated and interpreted by Dr Miranda Morris:

[C733/8] ‘Story of two thieves’. The two thieves want to learn about thieving from each other. One has a ‘sword’, the other has some ‘honey’. They each don’t know what the other is doing. The thief with the sword offers for the other to buy it, but the other says he doesn’t have money, only honey. They exchange items – only for the man who thought he would receive a fine sword to find it was only a date palm frond, and the man who was given the honey to find he had been given sticks of excrement. They both laughed and said ‘we’re as bad as each other’.

[C733/3] ‘Story of the fisherman from Momi’. The fisherman is looked after by a lady vulture. He feeds her fish and she looks after the house. He goes out and meets some people who ask him to come out with them – he says he can’t because of his ‘old lady’ back home. They say OK – we’ll come to you. He lights a fire and cooks fish for them. He ends up travelling with them for 2 weeks, and gets lost in a foreign country. He finds another boat, lands in another country, and has to live by begging. A man offers him to come and look after his goats, even though he says he doesn’t know anything about goats. He tells him to look after the camels and date palms – but he doesn’t know how to do that either. Finally he says it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after you and give you clothes and food until you die. That night the fisherman dreamed of home and his old life. A witch appears to him in his sleep, and tells him to go to where the sharks are feeding at dusk - you’ll see the sharks with their mouths open waiting to feed. She tells him to cover his face and wade amongst them. He finds the sharks, does as she says, and in the morning finds himself in his own country… In his house, he finds a woman instead of the vulture…

[C733/1] ‘Story of the man and the jiniyya’. A man left Momi [on the Eastern tip of Soqotra]. He is going to see the Sultan in Hadiboh [the capital]. He goes to the home of the representative of the Sultan. He goes to Kam – where the Sultan’s palace is. He meets him at a famous Christ thorn tree called Gidehem. On the way, a woman he meets seems to know him [this is very common of jiniyya] – they go on together, they lie down to sleep – she says how will we cover ourselves – they use his waist cloth. Underneath, he is naked except for his knives. He says ‘come a bit closer’. He sees her ‘tifr’ [this is the one long fingernail which marks out someone as a jiniyya]. Then he knew that she was a jiniyya. He says ‘go away! I know you!’. He grabs his knives and stick and sleeps elsewhere and then runs away. She chased him all the way home to a house that wasn’t his, where he wakes up a sleeping man. He couldn’t explain himself as he was too stunned. The jiniyya says ‘that man has been rude and he will do no good and he will die’. Then he was dead...

Beach
A photo taken by Johnstone of the beach at Duqm, Oman, now a large development (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

In these Soqotri stories, the ‘sword’, the ‘honey’ the ‘vulture’ and the ‘woman’ all undergo a process of 'revelation', and turn out to be something other than was first thought. Here, a date palm frond, sticks of excrement, a human wife, and a jiniyya. Similarly, Miranda also writes that much Soqotri poetry (which the T.M. Johnstone collection also contains) makes use of a poetic device she translates as 'veiled language', from Soqotri di-ḥarf 'concealed', and di-xīlīyə 'placed beneath'. This is where the true intention of the poet is 'intelligble only to people of superior wit and insight' or to those who 'share some secret knowledge with the poet' (Morris 2013:239). A further parallel, therefore, with the 'revealing' of information in the stories, where things also transpired to be something other than was first thought.

As well as being able to describe the content of the stories to us, Miranda was able to provide us with great detail about the context of the stories and the speakers. The jiniyya was ‘revealed’ as not what the man thought, but also ‘revealed’ was the history of the place Gidehem, mentioned in the story. Miranda told of how the place is named after the famous tree of the same name. Thieves’ hands would be hung in this tree after they had been cut off as a punishment for thieving. The hands would first be boiled in shark oil, then hung up for all to see. Though this no longer happens, the place is still called Gidehem, after the tree.

In another recording from Soqotra, the speaker talks about mekoli (shamanic healers in Soqotra). He talks about how mekoli can help to ‘wash away’ your sickness, by pointing out which woman has done witchcraft on you. He then describes the process by which an accused women would be tried for being a witch: she would have a millstone tied to her neck and then be thrown overboard from a dugout canoe. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was a witch and sent on the next boat to Sur (in Oman). Miranda was able to translate the speaker talking about these past practices – and also to share her memories of her Soqotri friends recounting their older relatives talking about how this practice came to be abolished.

Children
A photo taken by Johnstone of children on the beach in Oman. One of the children wears a silver earring, suggesting that his mother may have lost a lot of children. The earring attracts witches away from the child, and so keeps him safe (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Working with Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda was therefore invaluable for revealing the 'footprints' not only of the content of the recordings, but also the landscape they grew from – the environmental landscape and the cultural landscape that Johnstone and the speakers he recorded were immersed in, alongside other British colonial activities taking place in Aden. Recording and preserving this knowledge accurately is an essential part of the preservation work we are engaged with in the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. To use Miranda’s words:

‘many of the traditional uses described have undergone modification or have already been lost. One result of recent development on the islands [of Soqotra] is that certain traditions or procedures are now seen as unsuitable or ‘backward’ and at odds with the more conservative views of modern Islam. Other uses and customs are seen as representing a time of desperation and poverty which many would prefer to forget. In this way, the recent rapid changes affecting the islands threaten to obliterate expertise and knowledge that have passed down the generations over hundreds of years’

(Morris & Miller 2004:3)

To return to our footprints metaphor: as Janet and Abdullah describe, many young speakers of Mehri will use the particle śaf in sentences to mean ‘it turned out that’ or 'it was revealed', but are unaware of the link between this word and the social importance of using footprints to track people and animals in the past. This unawareness is likely to be related to the environmental change caused by increasing urbanisation – you don’t use tracks or footprints to discover information when walking on solid asphalt (Ali Ahmad al-Mahri, quoted in Watson & al-Mahri 2017:96).

To help preserve this unique knowledge, therefore, we have been delighted to work with Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris – and we will further extend this work on the sound recordings of Modern South Arabian languages contained in the the T.M. Johnstone collection by reconnecting them with the speech communities in Soqotra and Oman. This will continue the process of revealing hidden information through the sharing of expertise and knowledge.

Jibjat
Johnstone walks on the plane behind Jibjat in Oman, amongst Chirst thorn trees. This area is now all desert, with no trees (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Thanks to Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri and Dr Miranda Morris for their enthusiasm and for adding their insights on the collection. Many thanks also go to curator of World and Traditional music Andrea Zarza Canova, and to members of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project team, for facilitating the research.

The T.M. Johnstone collection can be found by searching the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue with collection call number C733

Copies of Johnstone’s published lexicons can also be found at the British Library:

Mehri, 1987 [YC.1987.a.5434]

Shehret [Jibbali], 1981 [X.950.11437]

Harsusi, 1977 [X989.51585]

References:

Doe, B. 1992. Soqotra: island of tranquillity. London: IMMEL Publishing Ltd.

Miller, A.G. & Morris, M.J. 2004. Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago. Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Morris, M.J. 2013. The use of 'veiled language' in Soqoṭri poetry. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 43: pp. 239-244. 

Watson, J.C.E. & al-Mahri, A.M. 2017. Language and Nature in Dhofar. In Linguistic Studies in the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparaini. Turino: Quaderni di RiCOGNIZIONI, pp. 87-103.

Related links:

Alice Rudge talking with Rowan Campbell and Andrew Booth about the project on the Linguistics at the Library podcast

British Academy podcast in which Prof. Janet Watson discusses the relationship between environmental and linguistic diversity

Friends of Soqotra charity

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focusses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust  

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage 

World and Traditional Music collection

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio

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Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a five year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will digitally preserve some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the UK and establish the ways for our audio heritage to be shared with a wide range of audiences now and in the future. 

23 August 2016

Passionate music from a hot country: a musical visit to Iraq-Kurdistan

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The British Library's World and Traditional Music section supported ethnomusicologist, Rolf Killius, on a field trip to record music in Iraq-Kurdistan over June/July 2016. This is his report.

 

Rugged Mountains in Kurdistan Photo Rolf Killius
Rugged Mountains in Kurdistan. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

It is hot. No, it is extremely hot. Today the temperature is 45° Celsius; the air is bone-dry, no trace of wind. I am in Sulaimani, the second urban centre in Iraq-Kurdistan. This part of Iraq belongs to the Kurds and is de-facto an independent state run by a Kurdish government.

Traditional singers and musicians have gathered in the Zardosht Café. Zardosht is the Kurdish term for Zoroastrianism, an age-old religion known in the wider region. Since the coming of the Islamic period, it has become a minority religion, often frowned upon. These days the Zardosht belief is making a kind of come-back. Here in Kurdistan the faith is essentially Kurdish and promotes traditional folk music.

Listen Zardosht Cafe Group


The group starts to play: The zarab (goblet drum) player provides rhythm while the Korg keyboardist adds harmonies and melodic phrases. Occasionally the saz (plucked lute) virtuoso contributes drone and melodic sounds. But the musical highlight is the charismatic lead-singer Ata Azizy; he alternates – or even competes – with the balaban player, Jowanro, in expressing intricate melodic lines. A balaban is a traditional single-reed wood instrument; it is very similar to the Armenian duduk. Its sound is soothing and exciting at the same time. Their way of singing and playing, including the guttural stops, is possibly what makes the music “typically” Kurdish.

The singer Ata Azizy Photo Rolf Killius
The singer Ata Azizy. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

 

The balaban player Jowanro accompanied with zarab drum, keyboard and saz Photo Rolf Killius
The balaban player Jowanro accompanied with zarab drum, keyboard and saz. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

With the support of the British Library's World and Traditional Music section, I was able to visit Iraq-Kurdistan and record traditional music during live events and in pre-arranged recording sessions. I was curious: how does a new country treats its rich traditional music culture?

I stay for the ‘after-party’ at the Zorgasth Café. Here the singer, Rafat Germiany, and the same balaban player perform howrama. Though this musical genre is remotely connected to Zoroastrianism, it is known as a typical Kurdish vocal style. The voice and the wind-instrument alternate again.

 Listen Zardosht Cafe Howrama group

 

 The singer Rafat Germiany (second left) and the balaban player Jowanro (second right) Photo Rolf Killius

The singer Rafat Germiany (second left) and the balaban player Jowanro (second right). Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

For me the most remarkable thing is the large, mainly young crowd (only men). They watch the performance with increasing anticipation. It shows that the music is still meaningful to a younger audience and therefore has a future. One participant told me that this café was the only public space where a female singer was allowed to perform these days.

Everybody mentions the traditional vocal style called heiran from the Erbil region, Erbil being the country’s capital and the other urban centre. Mr Delzar, a friend, invites me to his home village far from Erbil, just below the Qarachokh mountain range. Today his ‘village’ consists of several farm-houses managed on a part-time basis and re-created only recently. The original Kurdish villages of this region were destroyed by Iraqi troops, the last time by Saddam Hussain in 1988. Only in the last few years – the region was only recently secured by the Peshmerga (Kurdish liberation army) – have some of the original villagers and their descendants come back to farm again.

A seasoned Kurd arrives at Mr Delzar’s farm-house and immediately starts singing. Mr Mahyadin Sherwani is a farmer and self-taught heiran singer. He explains to me that the songs of the heiran genre describe the rugged countryside of Kurdistan and its people.

I first experienced traditional Kurdish vocal music many years back in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey. I listened to the always slightly over-amplified and highly reverberated recordings from cassettes played on the crackling PA-system of a local bus. There, listening to this music and viewing the hills flying past, I imagined how this music was born in the Kurdish countryside.  I have the same feeling today, listening to this talented singer in this Iraq-Kurdistan village.

 

The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani Photo Parwez Zabihi
The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani. Photo Parwez Zabihi, 2016

Listen The Heiran singer Mahyadin Sherwani

 

I have already mentioned the saz. During my last week in Iraq-Kurdistan I was invited to a performance in the heart of Erbil of the saz player and musical instrument shop owner, Bakr Sazvan. He has his shop just below the ancient citadel set on a mound towering over the city. He played a number of electrifying pieces, setting his business aside for a full hour.

The saz is a pear-shaped plucked instrument, with five or six strings organised in three courses. For the Kurds the saz is an essentially Kurdish instrument though it is also used by Turkish and Iranian musicians.

Especially intriguing is how Bakr Sazvan plays, combining melodic phrases played on the higher pitched strings, and striking the lower pitched strings in order to create the accompanying drone sound.

The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop Photo Rolf Killius
The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop. Photo Rolf Killius, 2016

Listen The Saz player Bakr Savan in his workshop

 

As I pack my bags for the return journey to London I ponder about Kurdish traditional music: in comparison with many other regions of the world I’ve visited, the music of the Kurds is still alive and kicking! As these people are very keen to demonstrate traditional music and to preserve their culture, they invited me to come again for a much longer stay. I happily accepted.

Rolf Killius (rolfkillius@yahoo.com and www.rolfkillius.com) 09/08/2016 

(with thanks to the musicians, interpreters, fixers and friends who assisted on the trip)

 

The recordings made during this project will be added to the Rolf Killius Collection (C815). Some of Rolf's recordings from rural India are online on BL Sounds.

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.