The art of singing was not immune to the political conflicts in Yemen, but was influenced and sometimes was part of the political dispute. Recently, my friend, director Adam Al-Hussami, told me about a meeting he had with a Yemeni singer in Cairo, while he was filming an interview with him for television. He told him that he once attacked him harshly in an article, but the Al-Khawaja’s response was: “May God curse the politics that divided us.”
The response of the artist who actually sang in support of separation was only an expressive image of the impact of political conflicts in Yemen on singing. At the height of the escalation of promoting secession, he contributed with his beautiful voice as a singer and supporter. But perhaps he will realize, after years, that the cloak of politics is more contemptible than the realm of art, or that he will no longer be willing to make his art a mean of fueling conflict.
Most likely, the same singer engaged in singing with the aim of making legitimate political demands against injustices that were committed by the regime, and not to spread division or hatred. Thus, he did not hide his dissatisfaction with the impact of politics on singing, but beyond that, it even affected social relations.
Al-Hussami told me that since that meeting, he has become a friend of that singer and person, which relieved him from the political burdens.
About half a century before that, the September 26 Revolution broke out in northern Yemen against the Imamate rule, followed by wars that lasted for years between the nascent republic and supporters of the monarchy, and singing was not far behind the wave of the conflict.
In fact, many singers have joined the revolution trend, most notably singer Ali Al-Ansi, who not only sang revolutionary songs in support of the revolt against the Imamate, but also sang for the defenders of the Republic on the battle fronts, including during the Seventy-day siege in Sana'a.
In the midst of the conflict, another singer from Al-Ansi's generation, Mohammad Abu Nassar, eight years younger than Al-Ansi, sided with other fronts among the royalists who was affiliated with the ruling Hameed Al-Din family before its fall in 1962.
Because of the family connection with Imamate regime, Abu Nassar was subjected to imprisonment at the beginning of the Republican era, and even after his release from prison, his voice was still supportive of his family’s rule.
It is noteworthy that the owner of the song “Oh Security Council”, recorded his first song for Sana’a Radio during the Imamate era. Contrary to the convention of that family, which disdained and forbade singing, Abu Nassar’s talent asserted itself in order for him to gain the encouragement and support of his ruling family, to the point that he recorded his first songs for Sana'a Radio at the end of the royal era.
Perhaps his choice of the name "Abu Nassar", excluding the family name so as not to arouse their embracement, was a kind of implicit approval for his continuation of singing. But there are two issues that shall be noted: the first is that the ruling family’s position toward singing has softened in recent years, and at the same time it may has been convinced of the political role of singing, and perhaps it saw in Abu Nassar’s songs a guaranteed support and backing for it.
At the height of the battles to restore Imamate rule, Abu Nassar was a supporter of Hamid al-Din family, but his political songs in support of the royalists were lost as a result of the political conflict, and were not destined to survive, as they were rogue songs in the eyes of the republican regime.
Despite the difference in the political affiliation between Al-Ansi and (Abu Nassar), they were united by the spirit of art in one photo brought them together side by side, which might remove the impurities of politics. (Abu Nassar) has a song from his brother’s words, in which he sang at its beginning:
“O Security Council, the Yemeni lover has been humiliated while he is from a noble family.”
At first glance, it might come to mind that the song is one of those political melodies with which he supported the royalists, but it is a song of complaint about the abandonment of his beloved and calls for the intervention of the Security Council.
Aside from its emotional subject matter, it is a product influenced by the political conflict that Yemen witnessed after the September Revolution. Invoking “the person of the noble family” to describe the lover seems to be a recall to the fundamental idea upon which the rule of the Imamate is based, that is, the connection of regime to family affiliation and other privileges, which is the same attachment to which the poet Yahya Hussein Hamid al-Din and his brother, singer Abu Nassar belong.
Naturally, the song includes an indirect embodiment of the plight of the family ruling system whose tyranny is decorated with religious instruments. This summons is most likely not limited to a social context, but rather a political context, and it is the same formula addressed to the Security Council.
We will not go far in interpretation, let us search for hopes that were present on the royal side to obtain international support that would be extracted through the Security Council resolution. During that period, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (U Thant) appointed the first UN envoy to Yemen, to intervene in the conflict. The envoy (Ralph Bunche) intervened in an attempt to persuade Saudi Arabia and Egypt to withdraw during the war between the Republicans and the royalists.
Even though the song included an emotional meaning in which the lover called for the intervention of the Security Council, it was in some way the result of the intersection of singing with the political conflict in Yemen, at least by employing implications related to a war that lasted for many years.
In the history of Yemeni singing, we may find dozens of songs with political implications that appeared in southern and northern Yemen. In the 1970s, Al-Ansi’s song in which he chanted, “I am the nation, Your Honor.” It was a clear symbol of criticism of the military rule, after what was called the “June 13 Correction Movement.” led by late president Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, and the subsequent freezing of the Shura Council.
In the south, the song “Nashwan” or exultant appeared, written by Sultan Al-Surimi, composed and sung by Mohammad Murshid Naji. For several years, the two songs were banned in northern Yemen, and Al-Murshedi’s song was even circulated by the public as a condemnation of the killing of President Al-Hamdi, even though it was directed at political criticism unrelated to that incident. The poem was first published on June 1, 1974, in Al-Hikma magazine, that is, before Al-Hamdi ascended to power, and not just his assassination.
However, politics also imposed its own interpretation on singing, and the Yemeni public was ready to analyze songs' implications to describe a political reality or situation. In fact, some political songs rose in status because of the ban they were subjected to, just like those of political prisoners and activists. The melody was not the reason, but rather the meaning it carried. Some even found in it an indication of a stance opposing the political system, and sometimes tale of struggle, because it is prohibited and likely to lead to imprisonment, and so it sneaked in secretly with a kind of risk.
In the context of our discussion about political singing in Yemen, my friend asked me about the difference between national and political songs? I replied that what can be considered political song is that apostate song which is prohibited by the ruler, while patriotic signing is the song that enjoys broader welcoming by most social segments.
It is also possible for political singing to become patriotic, according to the general interpretation, or to the understanding of a political party, and perhaps vice versa, but for the regime it also becomes rogue, as well as a threat to public and national tranquility. However, what is prohibited is not necessarily political, or singing has become political in some Yemeni areas. This is a result of the ban imposed on it by the Houthi group, which seeks to monopolize singing on Al-Zamil and the religious anthem which has become its propaganda tool.
We may investigate a broader context about the political song and what makes it different from the national song, and where the common points are, if any, in the forthcoming articles.