When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Muḥammad Mushaʿjil

Muḥammad Mushaʿjil (b. 1976 in Ṭbūt/Źbūt) is a singer and ʿūd player and one of the few Mahri singers to have built a following outside of al-Mahra and among Arabic-monolingual audiences in Oman, Yemen, and the Gulf. Due to the paucity of musical instruments and musical training in al-Mahra, Muḥammad Mushaʿjil only began to study the ʿūd in 1996 and began to perform for friends at informal gatherings shortly thereafter. The classical Arabic ʿūd was first introduced to al-Mahra in the 1970s at the hands of two Mahra, Masʿūd al-ʾAḫḍal and Ḥafīẓ ʿAmrān, who had learned to play it while working in Kuwait and a third Mahri, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jaylānī, a local autodidact. As of 2004, the only other local Mahri who matched (or even exceeded) Muḥammad’s skill with the ʿūd was ʿAbdallāh Ḥabraysh, a young man from Feydamī who is roughly the same age as Muḥammad.

Subsequent to an appearance on the Yemeni TV program, ʿAbr al-qanāh al-faḍāʾiyya al-yamaniyya, in 2001 in which he performed the Mahri language poem, “Little Jewel Said” (Ǧwēher ʾamrūt), Muḥammad was invited to record a tape cassette album in the United Arab Emirates. Muḥammad has since released at least three albums, one of which (Dumūʿ al-ʿayn, 2003) includes the Mahri language song, al-Mahriyya, which is based on the poem ʾĀśer šeh drīyet lā (“Gunfight in Niśṭawn”) by Sālim Muṭīʿ al-Sulaymī. This is the sole Mahri-language song that Muḥammad Mushaʿjil has recorded. Muḥammad also performed ʾĀśer šeh drīyet lā at the Festival of Mahri Culture (Mahrajān al-thaqāfa al-mahriyya) held in Sana’a in March 2004. This was the only song in the Mahri language to be performed during the entire festival. It was also a risky choice given the poem’s political content; however, Muḥammad was justified in assuming that no one in the audience (other than the Mahri attendees) knew the Mahri language sufficiently to understand the song’s content.

Muḥammad performs live only when bidden to do so by the Ministry of Culture; instead, he has followed the career of a studio recording artist. Because he cultivates an international, Arabic-monolingual audience outside of al-Mahra, Muḥammad no longer records songs in the Mahri language. However, Muḥammad relied on local Mahri poets who compose poetry in Arabic (including Ḥājj Dākōn, Muḥsin ʿAlī Yāsir, and Tammām Kiddah) for his first three albums. In Muḥammad’s words, this gave these albums a Mahri “texture” in terms of their inflection, accent, and melody that made them recognizably “Mahri” to local audiences. Muḥammad’s sung version of ʾĀśer šeh drīyet lā remains a popular ring tone for cell phones carried by Mahri speakers.

Muḥammad’s discography as of 2004:

Intaẓartak sinīn (2001)

Dumūʿ al-ʿayn (2003)

Barq al-jazīra (2004)

Contents of this tag: