When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Multiline Dāndān

Multiline dāndān poems have the following parameters:

Line Structure: Hemistich

TopicOccasional and Sentimental

Length: Multiline Monothematic or Multiline Polythematic

PerformanceRecited and Sung

Multiline dāndān poems are generally viewed as the hemistich counterpart to tristich ʾōdī we-krēm krēm poems. The topical overlap between the multiline dāndān poems in this collection bears this out: both deal with historical topics of collective concern such raids, covenants between tribes, and calls to war. The sole difference is that the dāndān genre may be viewed as the lesser in terms of aesthetic value since rendering a complete poem in tristich lines (as per the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genre) requires the ultimate degree of poetic skill and concentration. As a result, the dāndān genre is open to wider pool of composers and may thus show a greater degree of variability in the quality of execution.

According to some of my Mahri consultants, multiline dāndān poems merit the specific subdesignation of “night-time dāndān” (Ar. dāndān laylī) because they are recited in the evening and nighttime after the exchange of invocatory and welcoming reǧzīt or dāndān couplets has finished in the late afternoon and early evening. This label concurs with the sentiment that dāndān enables a greater degree of participation than the tristich genres since it is not the sole reserve of the political and poetic elite of al-Mahra. It further allows a greater range of potential topics, some verging on the sentimental. Overall, the dāndān genre is less formal than anything emerging from the reǧzīt  and ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genres.    

Evidence of the transition from the performance of introductory reǧzīt to nighttime dāndān can be seen in the following poetic excerpt from a poem by Ḥājj Dākōn. In the following lines, late-night wedding festivities are taking place in earshot of the poet, who, desperate to sleep, complains of the noise:

ḥōm lešikf ṭannek lā // w-lā ʾaynī ġamźawt
hās ahōma dāndān // w-śerḳī ḳlōb eṣawt
I want to sleep but couldn’t sink into it // nor would my eyes close
When I heard the dāndān // and [how] the Easterner changed the song [from reǧzīt to dāndān]

As the lines above indicate, dāndān poems can be identified by their characteristic melody. They are also frequently accompanied by dancing, especially the tanwīś dance in which young women flip their tresses from side to side. When performed in this fashion, nighttime dāndān and poems labelled as šemrēt can be viewed as overlapping poetic genres.

The broad formal and thematic (vs. melodic) range of the dāndān genre is expressed by ʿAlī Saʿīd Bākrīt who identifies dāndān as a type of Mahri “folkloric dance” (Ar. al-raqṣ al-shaʿbī), no doubt having in mind the rhythmic sway of a group of tribesmen collectively chanting dāndān couplets (Bākrīt, 1999: 53). Bākrīt goes on to describe the performance of dāndān in greater detail: “The dāndān is performed at wedding celebrations or other events amongst the tribes of al-Mahra in which qaṣīdas are recited in the Mahri idiom.  In the dāndān, two poets compete and their qaṣīdas relate an event or describe something bad or pleasant” (Bākrīt, 1999: 53).  In this brief description of dāndān poetry, Bākrīt shifts from collective chanting (“folkloric dance”) to exchanged couplets (“two poets compete”) and thence to multiline occasional and sentimental poems (“qaṣīdas [that] relate an event or describe something bad or pleasant”).

Due to the fact that dāndān poems cover a broad topical and formal range, I have only given the dāndān label to those poems that were specifically identified as such by my consultants in light of their melody or their format.