Meet the musician who preserves Yemen’s heritage with a modern twist

Muhammad Hejry is an enigma. You could say he is a bridge between the past and the present, both an innovator and a traditionalist.

The young Yemeni musician is passionate about reviving and documenting the ancient songs and melodies of Sana’a, his hometown. He also defends the turbi, an ancient oud-like instrument that is now only made by a single craftsman in the Yemeni capital.

However, Hejry lives far from Yemen, collaborates with international artists, and even changed the turbi himself, adding more strings to play a wider range of music.

Born in 1989, Hejry’s family background was a traditional and tribal environment in which music was not appreciated. Undeterred, Hejry bought his first oud in 2008 and spent a year looking for the right teacher.

Adopting this classic Arabic instrument turned out to be the first step towards its larger goal of reviving and celebrating the musical heritage of northern Yemen and one of its defining instruments – the turbi.

“I chose the turbi because it’s like the ancestor of the Middle Eastern oud,” Hejry says. The National from Cairo, where he now lives. “I became more interested in the history of Yemeni music, especially in northern Yemen, and felt a responsibility to present it to the world.

“It may be a bigger dream than recent possibilities, but I will do my best because I love this art and it must be known like other musical genres in the world.”

What exactly is turbi? Known in southern Yemen as the qanbus and elsewhere in Arabia as the Sanaani oud, it is a delicate looking instrument.

Unlike the Arab oud, the turbi is carved from a single piece of wood. His narrow body is held and pressed high against the chest, forcing the wrist to bend so that the opening pick is close enough to the strings.

At the other end, the dowel box wraps impressively like a shepherd’s crook. The lower third of the instrument is covered with goatskin – a departure from the Arab oud.

Often played alongside a brass dish called Al Sahn Al Nahas for percussion, the four strings of a turbi have names – Al Haziq, Al Wasit, Al Rakheem, and Al Jarr – that describe their sound. A musician sings while playing the turbi, which is part of a founding musical and poetic culture that has deeply influenced styles in countries and communities outside of Yemen.

“It’s very authentic music that hasn’t been influenced by any other cultural civilization,” Hejry says. “It did the exact opposite and spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula to affect neighboring civilizations and cultures.”

While Hejry was mastering the Arabic oud, he heard the turbi for the first time in the house of the famous Yemeni traditional musician Hassan Awni Al Ajamy.

I became more interested in the history of Yemeni music, especially in northern Yemen, and felt a responsibility to present it to the world.

Muhammed Hejry, Yemeni musician

“I was still a beginner,” Hejry says, “and I was amazed by this instrument but never thought I would get the opportunity to have it and play it. always to show the best of the turbi.

But the conflict in Yemen was to intervene and in 2015, Hejry left the country, traveling first to Oman, then to Malaysia and Indonesia before settling in Egypt in 2016. His dreams of studying oud in Turkey or in Syria were no longer, then Hejry, now enrolled at the Higher Institute of Music in Cairo, ready to carve out a musical niche for himself, that of a Yemeni revival.

In addition to performing live and studying, Hejry taught music online, often to foreigners, and even started a business selling ouds. He has also made several videos in English explaining the complex rhythms of Yemeni oud styles and performed in 2019 at the Fujairah International Oud Forum.

Another musical project – the evocative name Radio Yemen – followed, with Hejry collaborating with Yemeni, Egyptian, Russian, Japanese and American artists, among others, to perform traditional arrangements.

But his love for turbi and Yemen’s musical heritage never faded. The instrument has been in decline for years, with many singers and musicians – even Yemeni artists – switching to the standard Arabic oud because its larger number of strings provides more playability.

Unperturbed, Hejry was determined not to let the tradition die out and, working with Sana’a’s last turbi luthier – Fuad Al Qudaimi – he adapted the instrument to use six strings, expanding his range.

“The people at this instrument are always against adding strings,” Hejry admits. “I have received critical comments from some musicians and friends.”

But for Al Qudaimi, 59, who still has his workshop in Sana’a, making the turbi – six or four strings – is a labor of love. Luthier for 35 years, he describes the “magical sound” of the turbi as melodious and deep.

“I appreciate it when making the log to turn it into a turbi”, he says. The National. “When the shape of the instrument begins to appear, the happier I am until it becomes a complete turbi, ready to play.”

Hejry is currently working on recording a collection of old songs with fellow Sanaa native singer Ammar Zayed.

“Since having this instrument,” Hejry said, “I had been thinking about how I could help revive the turbi.

“I tried recording videos, playing different styles of music, but it didn’t really help. So, I started looking for a young singer who could perform Sanaani’s music professionally.

“I chose Ammar Zayed who sings from a young age. He liked the idea and we recorded our first audio – a very classic and old-fashioned traditional song from Sanaani. But what is so different? It’s different because we use the turbi and Al Sahn instruments, which are no longer used in audio recordings.

“We also choose very old songs, some are 500 years old. These are songs that are no longer used at weddings or performances by Sanaa’s new pop singers. “

It is clear that the turbi, to be played well, requires skill and commitment; Hejry has both. From there, it evokes earthy melodies far removed from the plunging Arabesque of Umm Kulthum or the distant Levant.

“The most important thing is that we use the original technique, whether vocal or instrumental,” he says. “It will save these techniques and everything from extinction.”

Updated: 22 Aug 2021, 04:06

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