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Interview of Mohammed Al Harithi in Sana’a 24/9/95
(before his death in 2007) Filmed by John Miles 
                                            © John Miles All rights reserved 2011

“ The irreplaceable loss of 55 years of Traditional Yemen Music “

At what age did you begin to play music and sing?
I was influenced by songs of farmers and goat herders.  It was after the arrival of records in Yemen.  On the first record was four famous singers who came before us:  Ibrahim Al-Mass, Ahmed Obaid Al-Qaatabi and Asheik Alowi Abu Bakr.  This recording included Yemeni traditional songs.  I learned to play music from this recording.  After that I learnt some music and songs from old singers living in Kawkaban.

How do traditional songs compare with modern Yemeni songs?
There are many differences between the new songs and the traditional songs because the old songs are 300 years old yet remain the same since Yemeni's first wrote it.  The new songs are popular for 1 to 2 years and then they are finished and forgotten.

Do you think traditional music in Yemen is dying?
I believe the traditional songs of Yemen are dying because the new singers and the government don't care about them.  

What can be done to save traditional music?
It is most important to have a music institute / school in Yemen and train musicians.  
This cannot be done without financial support.
We need to have an institute for music and we need a Yemeni national band / orchestra.  

What influenced you to become a musician?
I practised the oud or lute from the age of 15 to 17 years old.  It takes 2-3 years to become good at playing the lute.  I was also influenced by singers of traditional music like Ibrahim Al-Mass .

How many songs do you have on record?
I have lost count of all the songs I have recorded over the last 20 - 25 years.  I record for the San'a radio station and recently for the television.  It has been a long time, so I have lost count of how many.

What can traditional music teach today's Yemeni?
The traditional music of Yemen is a very broad subject.  It is an art that is complete and perfect.  Firstly with traditional music, it is impossible to alter the words of the songs as they have been passed down through the generations.  The songs must be in original Arabic language, accompanied by old, original music.  Traditional music has names like:  "The Song of Al-Gouss" and the song of "Al-Sanabla" and the long song, "Gold Song".  These songs tell of Yemen's past history.

What are the themes of your songs?
The traditional songs are political, which we call 'national songs', others are about agriculture

Are you teaching any young singers your craft?
I have no students because they do not come to me and of course, I am too old to look for them.
Though I remember young people saying they don't like old traditional music and prefer new music, which quickly loses popularity and disappears. They are soon drawn back to the spirit and soul of traditional music.
I remember one time when I performed at a party, I was afraid that the guests would not like my music.  After they listened to my songs they would not let me leave because they wanted to listen to it again and again because traditional music is so wonderful.

Is it easy to survive as a singer / musician in Yemen? 
The royalties from (music) cassettes is nothing.  I don't think that singers can live from recording cassettes and selling them in the suq.  Maybe he can survive for 2 or 3 months, but, he will soon need to go back to work for the government to get support.

Did Musicians suffer during the 1940's when music was illegal in Yemen.  Was music & singing practised in secret?
We could not sing during the reign of Imam Yayha and until the death of Imam Ahmed, we could only sing secretly with friends, with all our windows shut.  Special trusted friends (4-5) would arrange for singers to come and play.  At this time we only used the old oud called 'tarrub' which has now all but disappeared.

Many Musicians have survived by performing political music in support of the revolutions. Have you?
Of Course, if the singer doesn't have the protection of  or belong to a tribe, or is weak, the Imam's soldiers would cause him many problems saying: "People from good families don't sing", and telling him that singing was 'haram' forbidden. 

Why are music and musicians still seen as a social taboo by the orthodox Muslims?
There is respect for musicians, but it is only a surface respect.  There isn't any true support.  Most singers are poor and have lost hope of being supported and appreciated.

How many traditional musicians are left in Yemen today?
We were six then three died.  Now there are only three (traditional musicians left: Al-Aqfash, Al-Sunidar and myself.  The singers who died were: Ali Al-Ansi, one of the greatest singers in Yemen and Ali Al-Sima, who was also a great singer and Ahmed Taher adn Mabakhoot Hobish and Gasim Al-Aqfash.

What are the most famous songs closest to your heart?
All the songs are the same in my heart.  I love them like my sons and I cannot prefer one over another.  I only sing the songs which I love 

Are there any official Musical teachers or schools of music in Yemen as there are in Egypt?
There are no official music teachers or schools of Music in Sana'a. Everyone learns in his house.

There was originally a music theatre why did it stop ?
The government controlled the theatre they made up  long list of fake names and took away all our income so that the singers ended up with nothing.
If it had been managed properly  the singers would have been able to take care of, their family and children and their education and expenses. But this was not the case sadly.

What are the threats to the survival of Yemeni music and its purity ?
Traditional music of Yemen was a target, like a lamb to the slaughter.  One country took the liver, another took the legs and another one the hands.  Some singers from neighbouring counties stole our traditional music and Yemeni singers could only helplessly watch. We could not stop its export and distortion.  The music now in Abu Dhabi is from Yemen, but unfortunately, they don't admit to it.  They claim it is from their own country. 

We have no one to defend our traditions.  I am a singer and am powerless against the theft of traditional Yemeni music because this should be the government's job.

What do you think of having a school supported from outside resources.
The best they can do is make a school or an institute and bring teachers, then gather the people who sing for a hobby and the young and ask them to study and preserve their history and their traditional music.  There are many historians and writers who believe that Yemeni traditional music is the source of Arabic music  and say it must be protected from becoming  lost forever.

What is the role of qat in music. (the narcotic plant which has as an active ingredient cathinone, a sleep suppressant and chewing qat known as Rezzin is a national pastime in Yemen)
Qat has a central place in the social aspect of music. Neighbours and friends buy qat, then gather together and talk about life and politics.  It is sociable.  Instead of sleeping after lunch we puts the qat in our mouth, like a strong coffee.  I asked one doctor about qat and he said it calms you and if you have a sickness like diabetes it will help it.  We chew  qat because it makes  us sociable and relieves fatigue.  Chewing qat helps one to sing or create a qasidah poem.  Qat also helps a fever.  It removes the heat from  the body and wakes you if you feel sleepy or lazy.

Are some of the old songs becoming lost and forgotten?
Already the younger generations do not know about any of the old songs, but people my age of course, remember them.

Do you have any last words to say about traditional music?
Finally I ask all countries and NGO's to support the traditional music of Yemen so it does not disappear.  We need these countries to help traditional music before it dies.

                                            © John Miles All rights reserved 2011
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