What is Al Razfa? Emirati performer explains the age-old tradition of poetry and dance

Ali Al Kaabi describes the ceremonial art form as a fundamental part of who he is

Ali Al Kaabi has been part of an Al Razfa group for almost three decades. Leslie Pableo for The National
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Many will be familiar with the UAE's oldest practices that appear during traditional celebrations, but how many know their true meaning and beginnings?

Emirati poet Ali Al Kaabi, who often performs Al Razfa with his group during events, is aiming to share the root of time-honoured practices with a wider audience.

Al Razfa is a ceremony most prevalent during important occasions or joyful gatherings. The practice involves two lines of dancers who face each other, using sticks to symbolise the reins of a horse while head movements are meant to imitate a rider on the horse.

"The concept behind the cane movement is to mimic the experience of mounting a horse, embodying the role of a knight on a battlefield, complete with corresponding movements," Al Kaabi tells The National. "This summarises the essence of the idea."

Al Razfa was added to Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015.

According to the Arabic Dictionary, Al Razfa means two things, making noise and moving forward. These are represented through the art forms of poetry and dance.

Al Kaabi explains its origins stem from nomadic Bedouin tribes. It would be performed by a poet and his entourage to let all tribal members know it's time to move to a different spot in the desert.

While the songs and poetry at first resonated with calls to war, Al Kaabi explains it has evolved to include all occasions such as weddings, homecomings or rain.

A song for every occasion

Initially, the tradition was only composed of a poet in the middle who would recite poetry and the two facing lines accompanying him would melodically repeat it after. However, as time passed, different musical instruments were added like drums and oud that "enriched the tradition further", explains Al Kaabi.

"The poetry presented in Al Razfa is improvisational, born of the moment rather than pre-written and memorised," he says. "Al Razfa is performed spontaneously, in the presence of individuals from all walks of life, whether it be a sheikh, a minister, or an ordinary person.

"If a poet veers away from the subject you are talking about, it's expected that you, as a poet, respond with the same weight and rhyme within the poem."

For poetry to be suited to Al Razfa, it has to be improvisational, a product of the moment. Al Kaabi explains that Razfa poets who pre-write their poems "veer away from the essence of the practice".

How he came to be a poet

Al Kaabi says the group he currently performs with started 28 years ago. Practising Al Razfa for that amount of time has deeply ingrained it in his identity as an Emirati.

Whether it's small gatherings in the closure of his home or a major event, Al Kaabi says he loves to embrace and represent the tradition whenever he can.

A recent example was during the Unesco World Conference on Culture and Arts Education in Abu Dhabi where he performed in front of high-profile guests from around the world.

"The art of Al Razfa means a great deal to me," he says. "It's an inheritance from my ancestors, particularly as I belong to the Bin Al Nuaman family, known as masters of Al Razfa."

Updated: March 04, 2024, 3:06 AM