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CultureMiddle EastMusic

A Look at The Culture of Sea Shanties in the Arabian Gulf

Whilst some songs express the sailor’s longing for their wives and families, revealing the extent of their suffering whilst away from home, others use folk songs, supplications, invocations, or are related to the lifting and lowering of the ship’s sails.

Whilst some songs express the sailor’s longing for their wives and families, revealing the extent of their suffering whilst away from home, others use folk songs, supplications, invocations, or are related to the lifting and lowering of the ship’s sails.

The Persian Gulf, also called the Arabian Gulf, is a fascinating place. A place that’s elicited various cultures connecting the Middle East to India, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and even China.  For decades merchants have gathered for trade, exchanging commerce, culture, and ideas.

At the coast of the Arabian Gulf in BahrainKuwait, the UAEQatar and Saudi Arabia, amidst the scorching hot, dry yet humid weather, a group of fishermen, sailors, and divers can be found. Notorious for harbouring a great deal of pearls in these waters, the divers would dive in search of these precious findings. As you can probably imagine, a laborious task requires a fair amount of energy, patience, and will.

Accompanying these pearl-hunting divers is the voice of “Al-Nahham”. Every ship can hold up to four Nahhamin. The Nahham’s purpose is to use his melodious voice, singing sea shanties in order to encourage and motivate his crew members to continue to work hard, fish more, and increase profits.

The word “Nahham” in the standard Arabic language (Fusha), when translated to English, means insatiable. Within the given context, one can derive that this term might be in reference to the singer’s insatiable hunger to increase potential profits by means of using his voice. Each variant of song is used for different purposes as each is attached in accordance with an action or activity that takes place on or off the ship. 

 “Al-Yamal” is one type of such sea song that is specific to recitative narrations. If the winds are strong enough to carry the ship forward, the sails will be put to use. If, however, the winds have calmed down, the sailors will resort to manually rowing the ship themselves. It is at this point that the Nahham will begin in reciting his Yamal.

Throughout the recitation, the Nahham will regularly pause to allow the sailors to respond in harmony with the inward pulling motion of the rowing paddles. The word Yamal itself is a kind of collective expression of what rages of grief, pain, and separation in the hearts and minds of the sailors – specifically when using the words “Yahi Yamal” and “Yashi Yamal”, which all mean regret, eagerness, and sadness.

It is common to find each Nahham spontaneously coming up with his own version of a Yamal that has its own unique style of narration and melody. It is also often paired with the melodious recitation of Al-Zuhairi poetry (a style of poetry). One example of a Yamal sea song that is sung on the coast of Qatar goes as follows:

“Yamal, Yamal, I begin in the name of God

And I praise and thank God

Oh, I begin with sending blessings upon the Prophet (Muhammed)

And I praise and thank God

Oh, send blessings upon the prophet who showed us the way

And I praise and thank God”

Between the month of May and September, the pearl diving season, also known as the “big dive”, commences. Just before this difficult period of time, the ship would be cleaned, loaded with the necessary equipment, have all its services ready, and finally, take off.

Throughout this journey, “Al-Tari” or “Al-Sifiye” songs are sung. In Qatar, when the Nahham begins by reciting the following song, it indicates to the divers that the time to dive has finally come.

The song goes as follows:

“Oh, from me

And oh, from the birds above my head

And form the grievance of the night

I began flying 

When I saw the chlamydotis mounting the birds”

During this season however, it sometimes happens that not enough pearls have been harvested. Should that have been the case, some divers resort to what in Arabic is called “Al-Radda”, or in English, the return. As the name implies, this simply means to return back to waters for a second time in the hopes of increasing the harvest.

Keeping in mind that this takes place at the beginning of the colder winter months when the water temperatures are decreasing, only young, and strong divers make this journey. Between 18 to 20 days is how long it takes, and between 15 to 20 people are how many the ship will carry. Unlike during the big dive, this journey will only take to explore shallow waters.

During the night, when all ships have come together, and when temperatures have dropped, each group will wrap themselves with fabric made of canvas and pass their time singing sea shanties. “Al-Mawwal” might be one such type of song since it is sung and enjoyed at the time of resting.

As the Nahham finishes reciting his song, a second Nahham takes over to continue reciting a different song, all whilst keeping in tune with the previous song’s melody. If, however, there is no one to take over, the initial Nahham will simply continue to recite on his own.

Similarly, “Al-Fajri” songs share a somewhat common basis, as it is sung at the time of awaiting better weather. This typically happens when the winds continue to be strong, forcing the sailors to sail to the nearest island, take off, and wait a few days until the winds have calmed down. 

Upon the completion of either one of the two dives, when gathered together to finally open the oysters up, the Nahham will begin by singing “Al-Makhmoos” songs. This is accompanied by the clapping of hands and playing of the tabla (drums).

“Al-Jib” is also a type of song that uses the tabla and clapping of the hands. However, with Al-Jib, it tends to be recited when the smaller sails are put to use instead of the bigger ones. 

Other types of songs such as “Al-Hadadi” songs derive their name from the Arabic word “Hadad”, which when translated to English means “smith”. Inspired by the beat of the smith’s work of the past, this type of song makes use of the “mirwas” (a double-sided hand drum), the “ihal” (clay water jug), the “tus” (cymbals), and the “Tabel” (drums). Alongside these instruments, specific to the sailors of Kuwait, bronze mortars and pestles are also used. 

Whilst some songs express the sailor’s longing for their wives and families, revealing the extent of their suffering whilst away from home, others use folk songs, supplications, invocations, or are related to the lifting and lowering of the ship’s sails. Some of these songs are even sung at home and some are even accompanied by traditional dances.

Ultimately, all sea shanties share the same underlying goal; to motivate the sailors’ spirits through song, with the aim of attaining a harmonious workplace where people collectively work together towards a shared goal. 

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