Yemeni orchestra captivates Paris music lovers with message of peace

The National spoke to a young Yemeni musician with a vision of taking his country's music to the world stage

Yemeni and French musicians practise ahead of their landmark Yemeni Tunes In Paris concert. Amira Al Sharif for The National
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For nearly a decade, Yemen has been marred by war, instability, and a deepening humanitarian crisis. Amid these challenges, a group of 30 Yemeni musicians has embarked on a mission to transform the world's perception of their country using the rich tapestry of Yemeni music.

For 90 minutes, their melodies echoed through the Mogador Theatre in Paris during the Yemeni Tunes in Paris concert last week.

It could be just the beginning – the ensemble has played in Cairo and Malaysia and, according to 32-year-old Mohammed Al Ghoom, architect of the project, are determined to spread not only Yemeni musical heritage, but a message of peace through culture.

More than 1,500 people gathered to witness this captivating performance of 10 musical pieces by the virtuoso musicians.

“We are here to reshape the world's perception of our country,” Al Ghoom told The National.

“Yemen is not merely a theatre of war; it is a land of unparalleled cultural diversity and vibrancy that the world deserves to know about.

“We bear a mission and carry a clear message. Yemenis not only yearn for peace but can also be ambassadors of peace, with music as our instrument,” Al Ghoom said, describing their inaugural European concert.

Despite the formidable challenges that accompanied their European odyssey, the musicians remained unwavering in their determination to perform in the heart of Paris.

This concert is a part of the Heritage Symphonies project, a concept born in the turmoil of Yemen's conflict. The inaugural concert took place in Malaysia in 2019, followed by a triumphant performance at Cairo's Opera House in 2022.

Buoyed by these successes, the musicians set their sights on Europe, selecting Paris as their destination.

“Paris, as a major epicentre of culture and the arts, was the ideal choice for us,” said Al Ghoom.

Jean-Marie Safa, former French ambassador to Yemen, shared his excitement and joy at attending the concert.

“The performance was outstanding. Music may not speak, but it certainly weaves tales, and here in Paris, we heard captivating stories from Yemen – narratives of music and culture,” he told Al Hadath TV.

“I am thrilled that this cultural exchange has found its stage in Paris,” he added, echoing the sentiments of many captivated by the concert's message of hope and solidarity.

“We journeyed to Paris with a mission: to introduce the world to the rich tapestry of ancient Yemeni civilisation and to demonstrate Yemen's indomitable spirit and unwavering desire for peace,” said Muammar Al Eryani, Yemen’s Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, which has strongly supported the project.

The concert received valuable support from the Hadhramout Culture Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in December 2021, dedicated to setting Yemeni culture to the global stage.

“Our work is entirely voluntary, driven not by profit but by our fervent commitment to sharing our artistic and cultural heritage on international platforms, despite our limited resources, but with boundless determination, Al Ghoom said.

“This is our moment. We have emerged at a pivotal juncture in reference to the conflict, determined to demonstrate that Yemeni youth can be catalysts for change and purveyors of hope even in the face of profound adversity.”

Protracted Conflict

Yemen has endured nearly eight years of war, a complex struggle that set Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the internationally recognised government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition.

Despite multiple attempts, both parties have failed to renew the six-month UN-brokered ceasefire that ended in October, although violence levels are far lower than in previous years.

There remain fears, however, that the ceasefire will not hold, despite encouraging moves such as prisoner swaps between the two sides.

The Yemeni civil war ranks among the world's worst humanitarian crises, with 69 per cent of the population, equivalent to 21.6 million people, requiring humanitarian assistance in 2023, according to UN reports.

“We have surmounted countless obstacles, a testament to the patience and unwavering belief of our resilient youth,” Al Ghoom said.

Hope amid uncertainty

The ensemble found themselves pleasantly surprised by the turnout at the Paris concert.

“This experience injected another dose of hope into our spirits,” Al Ghoom said with gratitude.

The theatre was filled to capacity, with 1,600 attendees, and thousands more eagerly awaiting the performance.

“This stands as a testament to the impact of our work. They were genuinely captivated by the performance, and I could feel it myself while on stage, sensing their reactions. It is undeniably a resounding success,” Al Ghoom said.

The concert was not solely a showcase of Yemeni music; it also featured the collaborative efforts of French musicians, resulting in a blend of Yemeni and French melodies.

“This venture embodies a cultural exchange that we are committed to pursuing worldwide, spreading hope and fostering resilience,” Al Ghoom said.

“Through music, we firmly believe that hope and peace will ultimately triumph, and the deafening echoes of guns will be silenced.”

Updated: October 07, 2023, 11:00 AM