When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Line Structure

There are three line types in Mahri poetry that may be differentiated according to the number of stichs per line and whether the lines have an invariable pattern or are strophic poems in which the refrain and interposed verses have different line lengths. In other words, all Mahri poems are either composed of tristich lines or hemistich lines, or are strophic songs. Poems composed of hemistich lines are by far the most common in Mahri poetics and are formally similar to Arabic literate and vernacular ʿamūdī (“columnar”) poems (i.e., the hemistich qaṣīda). Poems composed of tristich lines are the most esteemed format for Mahri poetry and tend to be associated with traditional poetics. Just about any Mahri poem can be turned into a strophic song; however, lyric poems consciously composed with a sense-bearing refrain and multiple verses are a relatively recent phenomenon in al-Mahra and are based on Arabic-language models. Traditional work songs (ʾahāzīj) likewise fall under the category of strophic songs.

The number of syllables per stich varies from poem to poem, and this variable determines the melodies to which a poem may be sung. My consultants generally referred to the differences in the syllable count per line as buḥūr (the patterning of different meters based on syllable length and count), using a term adopted from literate Arabic scansion. The prosody of Mahri oral poetry, like its Arabic vernacular counterpart, is related to the patterns of alternating long and short syllables established for literary Arabic poetic prosody, although it is not exactly identical to it.

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