Traditional music and its instruments struggle for survival

Traditional Emirati music is a dying art; young people aren’t taking up the instruments and there is no official support for its development.

Taher Ismail, a retired army officer, plays his tambura at the Sharjah Directorate of Heritage majlis. Ismail has been playing since he was 10 and wishes more young people would learn the old instruments.
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Taher Ismail was 10 years old when he first fell in love. And 46 years later, he is still committed to his first love, which he says is "passionately moody".

Clothed in bright new pink, green and blue "karakish" beauty ornaments along the frames, Ismail gently caresses his lady: the tambura. "She doesn't always give in to my advances, sometimes I need to just sit with her quietly before she decides to sing for me," he says coyly.

And then with a few tweaks using a small wooden pivot known as a ghazala, he shares his lifetime relationship with one of the country's oldest musical instruments by falling into a trance, striking the five-string instrument with a bull horn in his right hand, his left dancing along the upper part of the strings.

"Oh people pray! Pray, pray! Remember Allah, remember your Prophet Mohammed," he chants against a deep assortment of tones. The music is part of a traditional zeker, where religious eulogies are sung to inspire a listener's soul.

The 56-year-old is one of the last few Emiratis who know how to skilfully bring out the best in a tambura. At almost his height (just over five feet tall), this stringed instrument is made of bamboo, fabric, animal sinew for strings and a hollow, wooden bowl covered with animal skin. Originally from the African region of Nubia (along the Nile river in northern Sudan and southern Egypt), it is used in Noban dances and songs.

The tambura has three maqams, which refer to specific Oriental musical scales. Its "microtones" have a greater range than a western music scale and help give the tambura's music a greater evocative power.

"It was my mother who inspired me to pick up this instrument," says Ismail. As a child, he would watch her sing along with a tambura. "It was so magical."

Two elder musicians, Jawhar Ahmed and Salem Maneaa - who have long passed away - encouraged the then 10-year-old to make his own tambura to practise on first. Known as a samsamia, it was simply made of an oil can, sticks, nails and strings of fish nets. Ismail had struggled through many bleeding fingers on his samsamia before being honoured with a proper tambura.

"It was a test of patience and perseverance. If I quit early on, they wouldn't have bothered to teach me all the different sets of musical pieces and how to bring about the different tunes that tug at one's heart," says the retired army man, who lives in Dubai.

"Music needs commitment and dedication," he says. "It is a marriage for life."

And here lies one of the biggest challenges for the survival of traditional music and its instruments in the UAE.

"We are losing our traditional music," says Fahad Omar, head of traditional performing folklore and music at the Sharjah Directorate of Heritage.

"The new generation is not picking any of the traditional musical instruments. Some are learning to play the oud, but that is a relatively new instrument and our ancestors didn't play it," says Omar.

Besides the tambura, there are other traditional musical instruments that make up authentic Emirati and Gulf music. Drums of different sizes and shapes are essential for the beat or rhythm, while wind and string instruments create the melody and distinct tunes.

It's not just the commitment that's the problem, but also the perceived image of those who play traditional instruments.

"It is not considered prestigious to be seen playing on drums and other traditional instruments, so we find mostly non-Emiratis playing them, like the stateless, Yemenis, Omanis or even non-Arabs from Pakistan and Africa," he says. "They depend on it for a living."

Ismail cuts in and adds: "I feel like a prince when I play my tambura. I don't understand why people looked down on traditional musicians."

As for the technique of learning itself, it is mainly done through observation and practice.

"There are no properly written-down musical notations or studies of music," says Omar. "That is why masters of music like Taher Ismail are critical."

"We are in the process of completing a study and a proposal to send to his Highness, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, to set up a college for traditional music," says Omar. "We need a central meeting point for the teachers and the students and whoever is interested in learning a particular traditional instrument."

Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have a team of musicians and singers that perform on national and public occasions, but it is limited and doesn't have a mentor-like programme where interested people can join and learn. Ismail is part of the Sharjah team, and gets a monthly stipend of Dh3,600.

"This proposed college can then have branches across the UAE and the different tribes and their music can be taught in their particular emirate in a systematic and professional way so it doesn't die with the older generation," he says. "It is a very critical project that I hope comes to life soon."

Until then, Ismail will keep teaching those interested on his own, in the hopes that one day he can teach in a proper institute. "I get calls from young Emiratis interested in learning how to play the tambura, but most don't keep up and quit after a short time," he laments.

Last week, he got a call from two young Emirati men in Fujairah who will be driving down to Dubai to get a lesson from him. He says he will charge them whatever they are able to pay. The week before, he was in Fujairah playing at a wedding where he made Dh1,500 for the night.

"I have heard that some steal music off the CDs made by the heritage department and put it as part of their video clips and songs, and then they remix it electronically and reuse it," he says. "It is very silly as there is nothing like a real, live performance with a soul."

Ali Al Keebali, an Emirati in his late 30s, has been fortunate to use his musical talent to become a kind of a celebrity here in his craft. The rababa player says he has collaborated with a few major artists on some of their albums and videos, though he's coy as to who they are.

"I was lucky to have been noticed by the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, who kept in me in his majlis for over a year in 2003 along with poets and other musicians as part of his support for traditional folklore and music," says Al Keebali, who is a member of a desert tribe in Ras Al Khaimah. "Al rababa is an instrument of a single maqam, and it was played by the Bedo during poetic recitation."

Unlike the tambura, which Ismail ends up building himself as they don't exist in the market, it is common for desert tribes to own rababas, and they can be found in traditional souqs in RAK, the western region of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, as well as Deira in Dubai near the fish roundabout. A rababa would cost about Dh200.

A rababa has only one string, usually made from the hairs of a horse's tail. The single string is traditionally played using a bow made of bamboo and horsehair. The player holds the upper part (neck) of the instrument with one hand and rests the other end on his thigh.

Al Keebali got his inspiration from watching local television channels in the 1970s and early 1980s that broadcast long segments of traditional musicians and dancers.

"I think that is what is lacking today. As a child, I was captivated by what I saw on TV and it looked cool to be doing it," he says.

"I liked how it always sounds sad and gives a heart to the poetry being recited, especially love poems."

Like Ismail, Al Keebali also teaches interested youngsters to play the Rababa but finds there is a lack of dedication. Even in their own children there is lack of interest.

"They say they are busy, have other priorities and eventually move onto different things," says Al Keebali.

Ultimately, whatever the instruments, the musicians do it for the love of music. "There is no great money in traditional Emirati music," says Ismail, who can't help but smile whenever he plays his tambura. "But the impact it has on my soul, it is worth millions. The only time I am truly and peacefully happy is when I am playing."