Muhammad Hejry is something of an enigma. You could say he’s a bridge between past and present, both an innovator and a traditionalist.
The young Yemeni musician is passionate about reviving and documenting the ancient songs and melodies of Sanaa, his home town. He also champions the turbi – an ancient, oud-like instrument now made only by one remaining craftsman in the Yemeni capital.
However, Hejry lives far from Yemen, collaborates with international artists and has even changed the turbi itself, adding more strings to play a wider range of music.
Born in 1989, Hejry’s family background was a traditional, tribal one in which music wasn’t appreciated. Undeterred, Hejry bought his first oud in 2008 and spent a year looking for the right teacher.
Taking up this classical Arab instrument turned out to be the first step towards his bigger goal of reviving and celebrating the musical heritage of north 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 tells The National from Cairo, where he now lives. “I got more interested in Yemeni music history, especially in the north of Yemen, and felt a responsibility to introduce it to the world.
“Maybe it’s a bigger dream than the recent possibilities, but I will try the best I can because I love this art and it needs to be known just like other music genres in the world.”
What is the turbi exactly? Known in south Yemen as a qanbus and elsewhere in Arabia as a Sanaani oud, it is a tricky-looking instrument.
Unlike the Arabic oud, the turbi is carved from a single piece of wood. Its narrow body is held and pressed high against the chest, forcing the wrist to curl in order to bring the pick close enough to the strings.
At the other end, the pegbox curls round impressively like a shepherd's crook. The bottom third of the instrument is covered in goatskin – a departure from the Arabian oud.
Often played alongside a copper dish called Al Sahn Al Nahas for percussion, a turbi’s four strings are given names – Al Haziq, Al Wasit, Al Rakheem and Al Jarr – that describe their tone. A musician sings while playing the turbi, which is part of a foundational musical and poetic culture that has deeply influenced styles in countries and communities outside Yemen.
“It’s a very genuine music that was not influenced by any other cultural civilisation,” Hejry says. “It did exactly the opposite and spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula to affect neighbouring civilisations and cultures."
As Hejry was mastering the Arabic oud, he first heard the turbi at the house of renowned Yemeni traditional musician Hassan Awni Al Ajamy.
“I was still a beginner,” Hejry says, “and I was amazed by this instrument but I never thought I would have the opportunity to have it and play it. But I am still trying hard to show the best of the turbi.”
But Yemen’s conflict was to intervene and in 2015, Hejry left the country, first going to Oman, then Malaysia and Indonesia before settling in Egypt in 2016. His dreams of studying the oud in Turkey or Syria were no more, so Hejry, now enrolled at Cairo’s Higher Institute of Music, set to carving out a musical niche, that of a Yemeni revival.
As well as performing live and studying, Hejry taught music online, often to foreigners, and even set up a business selling ouds. He has also made several videos in English explaining the intricate rhythms of Yemeni oud styles.
Another musical project – the evocatively named Radio Yemen – followed, with Hejry collaborating with Yemeni, Egyptian, Russian, Japanese and American artists, among others, to perform traditional arrangements.
But his love for the turbi and Yemen’s musical heritage never dimmed. The instrument has been in decline for years, with many singers and musicians – even Yemeni performers – switching to the standard Arabic oud because its greater number of strings offer more playability.
Unfazed, Hejry was determined not to let the tradition die out and, working with Sanaa’s last turbi luthier – Fuad Al Qudaimi – he adapted the instrument to use six strings, thereby expanding its range.
“People of this instrument are still against adding more strings,” Hejry admits. “I got critical comments from some musicians and friends.”
But for Al Qudaimi, 59, who still has his workshop in Sanaa, making the turbi – six strings or four – is a labour of love. A luthier for 35 years, he describes the “magical sound” of the turbi as being melodious and deep.
“I enjoy it when crafting the log to turn it into a turbi,” he tells The National. “When the shape of the instrument starts to appear, the happier I get until it becomes a complete turbi, ready to play.”
Hejry is now working on recording a collection of ancient songs with fellow Sanaa native, singer Ammar Zayed.
“Ever since I had this instrument,” Hejry says, “I was thinking about how I could help to revive the turbi.
“I tried recording some videos, playing different styles of music, but this didn’t really help. So, I started looking for a young singer who could perform Sanaani music professionally.
“I chose Ammar Zayed who has been singing since an early age. He liked the idea and we recorded our first audio – a very classic and old traditional Sanaani song. But what's so different? It's different because we are using the turbi and Al Sahn instruments, which are no longer used in audio recordings.
“We are also choosing some very old songs, some are 500 years old. These are songs that are no longer used at weddings or performances by the new pop singers in Sanaa.”
It is clear that the turbi, to be played well, requires skill and commitment; Hejry has both. From it, he conjures earthy melodies far removed from the swooping Arabesque of Umm Kulthum or the faraway Levant.
“The most important thing is that we are using the original technique, whether vocal or instrumental,” he says. “This will save these techniques and the whole thing from becoming extinct.”