Folk Roots, August 1990
‘Arabian Delights: Edward Fox investigates the music of Oman’
My recordings of Omani music have just been put on the British Library – National Sound Archive’s online catalogue. Go to http://cadensa.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/cnDxswzyck/9200007/38/2 , enter <C460> (the catalogue number of my collection) in the search box, and select ‘search everything.’
I went to Oman in search of its music, not because I knew anything about Omani music, but because I suspected I might be lucky in what I found. I knew that Oman, being geographically isolated from the rest of the Arabian peninsula by desert on one side and the sea on the other, had quite a separate culture and history. I knew also that it had acquired the trappings of what Wilfred Thesiger called “the Arabian nightmare” -- oil-fuelled economic development -- later than any of the other Arabian states (except Yemen), and that its absolute ruler, Sultan Qaboos, had sought to learn from the mistakes of neighbouring “sisterly Arab states” to prevent Oman’s culture being paved over in a short-lived burst of enthusiasm for concrete. Finally, I knew that because of its long coastline and the maritime character of its history, this distinct culture must comprise elements borrowed from all over the Indian Ocean, especially from East Africa, as the capital of the Omani Sultanate during the last century was based in Zanzibar.
Before Qaboos came to power in 1970, music was virtually illegal in Oman. A government official who is also a poet, and writes lyrics for Oman's leading singers, told me that during the reign of the previous sultan he had a friend who owned an ‘oud, which he used to play privately. This fact was somehow discovered, and the man was brought before a judge who condemned his instrument as the “devil’s handiwork” and ordered it publicly burnt and its owner sent to jail.
There are two important distinctions to bear in mind when exploring the culture of modern Oman. The first distinction is between Oman before 1970, before Qaboos and before prosperity, and Oman after 1970. The other is geographical: between the interior and the coast. While, historically, coastal Oman (including Muscat, the capital) looked outward through trade, Oman proper, the interior, was turned inward and remained suspicious of anything foreign, sustained by strict religious principles. This means that while the music you can hear today in coastal towns involves stringed and wind instruments (including a type of bagpipe), the drum is the only instrument used in the interior. It also means that the richest place for music is bound to be somewhere on the coast. In my view, the fishing town of Sur has the richest musical life of any town in Oman.
Sur was a slave port. The effects of this are still to be seen in the distinctly African appearance and customs of the inhabitants, many of whom speak kiSwahili. At a healing ceremony in Sur which I was recording, for example, I was told that many of the people present were from a section of the tribe that in the past had been slaves of that tribe. The African style of life in Sur can be seen in the styles of the women’s clothing; in the loose application of the Islamic principle of the segregation of the sexes in social life, in the types of drums used, in healing ceremonies that have nothing to do with Islamic tradition.
A pioneer of the recording industry in the Gulf was a musician from Sur called Salim Rashid Suri. He started a recording company in Bahrain in the1930s making 78 rpm recordings of local musicians and was himself recorded on 78s in the Columbia and Kyala (Bombay Recording Co.) labels. Cassettes of his recordings are still available in cassette shops in Oman. He returned to Oman after 1970 and died there three years later. His son, I'm told, is still alive, is also a musician and works for the Ministry of Information.
I was invited to Oman by the Ministry of Information, which looked favourably on my project to make recordings of different types of Omani music. On my first trip to Oman nine months earlier I had briefly made contact with the Centre for Traditional Music, which is part of the Ministry for Information.
The Centre for Traditional Music records and documents traditional songs and dances in Oman, but its brief does not include much of the music that is popular in Oman, because it is not seen to be “traditional.” The Centre for Traditional Music is limited to forms that are distinctly Omani and that are not perceived as “modern,” in service of a nationalistic ideal of preserving national culture. The problem with this for me was that outside this rubric are types of music that are popular in Oman which are also to be found outside the country's geographical borders and which are certainly "modern", that is, living, musical styles. I was attempting to make a survey of the types of music that were popular in Oman.
It was to the Centre for Traditional Music that I went to find someone to guide me to musical events to record. It was here that I met my outstanding guide to Sur, the drummer Saleh al-‘Alawi. Saleh worked at indiscernible clerical activities at the Centre for Traditional Music during the week and on weekends he would go home to his family in Sur. I went with him in my rented car for two of these weekends, and, with his help, made some of my most interesting recordings.
Saleh seemed to spend his entire weekend playing the drums, except for brief intervals for shopping, eating and sleeping. There was so much musical activity in Sur that at one point I can remember standing on my balcony at the Sur Hotel and hearing a throbbing of drums rising up from the length and breadth of the townscape spread out before me, as general as dust.
The sound was coming from the healing ceremonies, mostly. On my first morning in Sur, Saleh brought me to one of these, after he’d bought some fish and vegetables in the market. It was taking place in a reed hut set among more solidly built private houses in a residential quarter. A deep throbbing rhythm was coming from inside. There were flags flying from the roof, inscribed with Arabic script. Children were running in and out.
Inside, it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on. At the far end, women sat around a pile of goods; there was a huge sack of rice, a large bunch of green bananas, a gallon can of vegetable oil, a bundle of wood. Along the rear wall of the space some pieces of undyed cloth hung on a line of string. The women were all sitting cross-legged on the floor, swaying and singing to a loud, persistent rhythm played by three drummers. Men, including the drummers, sat facing the women, in their half of the room.
The singing and drumming would go on for five or ten minutes and then subside, and then start up again. The proceedings were led by a man in white gown and turban and a red scarf who strode among the seated women with an air of great authority and a mysterious gleam in his eye. When he called out the words of a new song, the women took up the singing again and the same rhythm resumed. The women swayed from side to side and clapped and waved their arms this way and that.
Every newcomer -- observer or participant -- was passed a large shallow basket containing popcorn mixed with lumps of clear sugar crystal.
The sorcerer's main task was ostensibly to administer a magical healing process to each woman. He did this by going to each in turn, selecting a cloth from the wall, and covering her with it while she swayed to the music. Without ceasing to sway, the woman would pull off a layer of clothing from under the undyed cloth and pass it to the sorcerer, like a snake shedding its skin.
One or two participants would whip themselves up into an ecstatic state, flinging themselves about violently. The air quivered with a dark, intense spiritual energy of the kinds that one witnesses in Holy Roller or Pentecostal or snake-handling churches in the Appalachian region of the United States.
The Centre for Traditional Music has never been allowed to record this part of the ceremony on videotape. They have one fifteen-minute tape of people clapping, singing and playing the drums, but the healing ritual has been excluded.
Saleh pointed out to me four sites in the residential area of the town where these rituals take place. There are different kinds, as I learned the next day, when Saleh took me to another ceremony in a section of Sur separated from the rest of the town by an inlet. What I had seen that first morning was called ‘sharh.’ The next day I saw the ceremony called ‘maydan.’
Maydan takes place over several days and involves different activities, culminating in the slaughter of a large black goat, whose blood is used in the healing concoction and whose carcass is used for a huge feast. The common element is the persistent drumming and chanting that drives the proceedings forward, producing a spiritually charged atmosphere, transforming the simple hut in which the ceremony takes place into a magical place in which everyday reality has been left behind. The only instruments used are percussion instruments, including a free-standing East African drum and conch shells.
The word maydan means public square, and maydan is a kind of forum. In addition to the folk medicine, improvised poetry can be recited on any subject, delivered in elliptical and ingenious turns of phrase. Moreover, during a maydan men can dance with women. A woman will dance forward from the women’s area towards the line of standing men, which includes the drummers. A man will approach her and they will perform a bobbing and weaving dance, which an Omani told me is meant to imitate the courtship dance of a cock and hen.
It was in Sur too that I enjoyed a highly enjoyable evening of the style of music known as sowt al-khaleej. This, for me, was the musical high point of my five-week trip. Sowt al khaleej means ‘voice of the gulf.’ It is not distinctly Omani. but reflects the experience of the sailors and fishermen who travelled up and down the Gulf on long journeys before the economy of the region was transformed by the oil industry. Sowt is performed all over the region, but the best-known performers (most prominently ‘Awad Dookhy) come from Kuwait.
Sowt is usually performed to the accompaniment of ‘oud and drums, often augmented with a violin. The sowt singer plays his ‘oud with a heavy hand, banging a rhythm out of it. It’s not a delicate sound. The songs
usually begin with an elaborate introduction as in traditional Arabic ballads. The lyrics are in an archaic style of classical Arabic, but the lyrics speak of hardship and homesickness, a far cry from the elaborate romantic sorrows of mainstream Arabic popular music. Sowt is the blues of Arabia.
The performance I attended (and recorded) took place on a Thursday night. To arrange it, Saleh began a round of the homes of his musician friends in an attempt to muster willing performers, with me in tow. Many telephone calls were made. Eventually a quorum was achieved.
The party took place in an unfurnished sitting room in a house on the beach outside the town. About thirty spectators, all young men, crowded into the room, and many more stood outside, peering in through the windows and the open door. The spectators knew many of the songs and their vigorous and rhythmically quite complex clapping was an important part of the music.
The spectators sat around the walls, leaving an open area in the middle of the room. Into this space the spectators leapt, individually or in pairs, at high points in the music, to do a dance turn that was greeted with shouts, laughter and applause. In the absence of females, the dancers performed parodic, stylized feminine movements as part of satirical courtship dances with each other. These lewd party pieces were both funny and appalling to watch. We left at about 12.30am, when the evening seemed far from over.
I had a different guide on my trip to Sohar. Sohar is a town on the northern Batinah coast of Oman, the long green crescent that starts west of the Muscat conurbation and continues all the way up to the border with the United Arab Emirates. Delicious tiny bananas and other fruit grow here in a climate which is lush for Arabia. The Batinah is a distinct social and geographical region of the country, and its villages are joined together like pearls on a long string, the string being a single sandy beach about 500 kilometres in length. The beach is the main street of the Batinah: houses are built facing it, football games are played on it and it is the focus of the fishing industry.
I was put in touch with my guide in Sohar -- Muhammad ‘Ali, a hospital administrator with musical interests -- through the office of the Wali (governor) of Sohar. The Wali’s authority in any Omani town is universal, and naturally involves dealing in this way with a visiting stranger.
After some confusion over meeting up, Muhammad ‘Ali took me to a hut on the beach for a performance of a ‘maalid’ in a village outside the town. A maalid is a poem in praise of the Prophet. Maalid poems are published in books, and people memorize them. The performance had begun earlier in the afternoon: we arrived at about 5.30pm. The hut had one side open, facing the sea. There were about a dozen mostly very old men sitting on a mat in two facing rows. Facing outwards, a leader recited the poem while the others sang the chorus. The melody was sonorous and haunting.
As they sang, the men swayed from side to side in a kneeling position, swinging their right arms and, at climactic moments, slapping the ground in time to the music. At other points in the recitation, they pressed their hands against their hearts in a dramatic show of passion for the person of the Prophet. The session ended at the time of the evening prayer (about 6pm).
Maalid is performed at festive occasions such as births, circumcisions and weddings. As we were leaving, a multitude of revellers arrived, some in a bus, and a huge cauldron of rice was boiling on a fire on the beach for a feast later that evening.
In an Indian cassette shop in Sohar I bought some cassettes of a local group called Firqat al-Afrah, on the advice of some helpful teenage boys hanging out in the shop whom I asked for suggestions of local music. The cassettes were typical in that they were locally-made recordings of very poor technical quality. The music involved drumming, clapping, singing and, of all things, bagpipes; the middle eastern variety without drones. They took the songs of popular Arabic singers (which are normally heard in string-heavy, lush arrangements in poor imitation of Umm Kalthoum) and transformed them into rousing marches, with a circular rhythm and melodies that seemed all the happier from rolling along with no perceptible beginning, middle or end. I loved this kind of music and was unfortunate that I was not in the right place at the right time to hear the group play live. They play at the usual festive occasions.
Although music tends to belong to the realm of private life in the Arab world, as at the celebration at Sohar, or the sowt al-khaleej party in Sur, this is not to say that Oman does not have its pop stars. The best example is Salim ‘Ali Sa’id, Oman’s leading popular singer. I went to visit him at his house in the southern capital, Salalah, 1,000 kilometres south of Muscat. After a difficult interview in bad English and bad Arabic, and tea in his sitting room, he called for his instrument and very kindly sang two songs for my grateful machinery. The same songs had been recorded with the usual sugary arrangements, typical of mainstream Arabic pop, on his commercial cassette releases; accompanied only by the ‘oud, he sounded much better. He has a smooth, sweet voice. He favours, he says, “sad songs: about when your girl leaves you,” and doesn't like western pop music because it’s too fast.
Salim ‘Ali’s big break in popular music came when he was 15, in 1975, when he was asked to sing at the wedding of Sultan Qaboos. Now his face can be seen in every cassette shop, and he appears frequently on television. But he never performs in public as we understand the term; there are no concerts in Oman (except by Indian or western musicians brought in to entertain the expatriate communities). Salim ‘Ali still has a full-time job, at the radio station in Salalah, and he still sings at weddings.
Salim ‘Ali Sa’id, Omani pop singer