Yemen sits at a crossroads of civilization, where the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula meet those on the Horn of Africa. So it’s no surprise that the indigenous music draws on both worlds to some measure. Qat, Coffee & Qambus, a collection of Yemeni 45s from the 1960s and ‘70s, captures this musical culture when it was relatively untouched by Western influence. At its root is the lyric poetry of the Arabic world, an oral tradition that has thrived for centuries. This makes the music primarily a vocal one, though here it is often accompanied by the oud (a fretless lute, and a cousin to the softer toned native qambus it’s superseded), and with a bed of percussion beneath it all. But whether a cappella or accompanied, voiced by men or women or both, these are songs of relationships and love. By design, they are made mainly for contemplation and appreciation in private homes over long sessions of social qat chewing.
That isn’t to say they are cool, quiet affairs, unable to move the heart as well as the mind. Understanding Arabic isn’t necessary to grasp the loving frustration in Mohammed Hamood Al Awami’s voice in “Wahed Mozaweg (A Married Person)”. His light rasp drops to nearly a sigh at the end of each verse, and the sense of resignation is all too clear. As the compiler Chris Menist explains in the liner notes, the lyrics tell the story of a husband who has invited his friends for dinner, but his wife refuses to cook because she’s tired. That the wife’s responses are sung by an ululating chorus of female voices, accompanied not only by the oud that underscores the verses but by a rhythmic clapping, imbues the track with a bitter irony. It seems the wife has plenty of vigor and vim, just not for waiting on her husband and his friends.
Similarly, the use of flat-voiced male and female choruses on the sublime “Bellah Alek Wa Mosafer (Hey You, Passenger!)” work wonderfully to contrast with the heart-wrenching pleas of lead vocalist Ayob Absi. Here he begs—and again, that begging needs no translation—for someone, anyone, to carry his message of peace to an unresponsive love in a faraway land. The drums and oud here play a steady rhythm, and carry a bustling momentum of people moving with purpose. It isn’t a beat that inspires a dance, but the motion is relentless and forward, and the ear rides the groove.
But no groove is as ear-catching as the oud, shaker and drums of “Hom Bel Hawa Ya Nas Walaoni (They Made Me Fond of Love)”. The low pulsing drum beneath the trilling oud and steady beat of the shakers make this not just danceable, but irresistibly so. It’s hip shaking in a different way than anything else on this collection. It doesn’t seem dirty, but the beat and the forthright vocal from Raja Ali makes it seem more private a love song than any other on Qat, Coffee & Qambus. It’s hard to imagine a woman singing like this in the very gender-segregated and unequal society of Yemen. Yet this record exists, and the assertiveness of Raja Ali’s vocal shows that all is not what it may seem to be at the surface. There is more to every society than that seen from the eyes of the uninformed.
Qat, Coffee & Qambus is a short glimpse behind those societal walls, but as such has more value than as just a curio. Though unfamiliar, it is lively, engaging music that deserves a broader hearing. By reissuing on CD what was a vinyl-only release in 2012, Dust-to-Digital have allowed for the music to escape the collector’s market and hopefully reach a larger audience. It’s not just an intriguing glimpse into a rarely heard part of the world’s music, it’s an excellent collection that hopefully will spur further delving into Yemen’s recorded past.