Hip-Hop in Yemen

Looking for a Common Beat

At weddings, on car radios and while chewing intoxicating qat leaves: the traditional sounds of the lute can be heard everywhere in Yemen. Now, however, the country's first ever hip-hop concert was staged in the capital. Klaus Heymach reports

At weddings, on car radios and while chewing intoxicating qat leaves: the traditional sounds of the lute can be heard everywhere in Yemen. Now, however, the country's first ever hip-hop concert was staged in the capital. Klaus Heymach reports

Ali Salih, left, during the first ever public hip-hop concert in Yemen (photo: Klaus Heymach)
Many of the hip-hop workshop participants have faced long discussions with their families - others decided to leave them in the dark altogether

​​"Hip-hop moves are only for homosexuals," ten-year-old Abdullah was warned before the open-air event in Sanaa. And a Yemeni woman working at the Deutsches Haus, fully veiled in a niqab, finds it "embarrassing" to see grown men whirling across the stage to western rhythms. Up to now, rap and hip-hop have almost only found their way into Yemen via foreign satellite television.

But Ali Salih is all the more fired up, having spent two weeks rehearsing for his first show with two Berlin-based musicians, two choreographers from Marseille and eleven other Yemenis. "It was a unique opportunity, an absolute premiere," says the 18-year-old, who sports baggy pants, a sports jacket and a baseball cap instead of the usual white men's dress and curved dagger. "I've already organised a dozen private hip-hop parties for my friends, but a real public show – that was inconceivable until now."

Security guards for a cultural event

It was the project European-Islamic Cultural Dialogue that made the inconceivable possible. The French and German embassies invited four artists to Sanaa for the workshop, where they worked on a one-hour stage performance together with the Arab participants, under the motto "Common Beats".

The audience during Yemen's first public hip-hop event (photo: Klaus Heymach)
Enthusiasm and frowns - Modern youth culture has to walk a tightrope in what is probably the most traditional Arabic country

​​Thousands of people thronged to the three concerts in Sanaa, the former Socialist capital of Aden and the port of Hodeidah – accompanied by hundreds of security men to protect the musicians and their fans from possible attack by Islamic militants.

The reserves on the part of the Yemeni sponsor illustrate just how much of a tightrope modern youth culture has to walk in what is probably the most traditional Arabic country. The cell phone company Sabafon failed to send representatives to either the press conference or the concerts themselves, ignoring the opportunity for marketing directly to their young target group. Sabafon is run by a prominent representative of the Islam-oriented Islah party, the son of the country's most important sheikh. For many – not just in Islah – music and dancing are "haram", banned by Islamic law.

Yet there were clear rules on the content of the raps in English and Arabic: "No politics, no religion," says the 25-year-old musician Karim Sfaxi, who flew in from Berlin along with the Japanese performer Tomoki. "As an Arab, I can totally understand that. In Tunisia, where I come from, unpolitical lyrics help avoid a lot of problems too." In Berlin, the two men produce electronic club music with an oriental touch in their project "Nomad Soundsystem".

But even the Tunisian Sfaxi seems to have only discovered the true orient now: "Yemen is still 100 percent Arab," says Karim. "The traditions here are still exactly like they used to be."

"If you're isolated, you can't develop"

But the event organisers don't want the hip-hop workshop to be seen purely as an import from the west. "Hip-hop and dance are nothing new here," says Frank Werner, cultural attaché at the German embassy. "We watch what goes on here, pick up on it and help to develop it in conjunction with our own culture. If you're isolated, you can't develop. And Yemen wants to develop."

Guido Zebisch, an employee of the German embassy, sees similarities to the traditional Yemeni tribal dances: both forms of dancing are sporting competitions, he points out. Nevertheless, many of the workshop participants have faced long discussions with their families, while others decided to leave them in the dark altogether. "People come up to me on the street because of my clothes, they say they're un-Islamic," says the rapper Ali. "That's hurtful. I am a Muslim and I even pray."

Call to prayer

Hip-hop fan Ramzi, who is really impressed by the concert in Sanaa, also comes up against a lack of understanding for his taste in music at times:

"The hardliners try to tell us that Islam doesn't go with this music. But the two things have nothing to do with each other." The rehearsals have shown that religion and rap really can go hand in hand: at the sound of the muezzin's "Allahu akbar," the rehearsal room immediately falls silent. And the unusual sounds from the West don't seem to be a threat to traditional oriental music either.

"When I'm chewing qat I listen to Sanaani music, and after a long day at the college I like to listen to hip-hop with my friends," says Ramzi. He liked the show so much he wants to join the newly formed Yemeni breakdance troupe and show off a couple of his own moves. His mother doesn't mind his new hobby, although it's very unusual in Yemen: "At least it'll stop him chewing so much qat."

Klaus Heymach

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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