When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Recited performances of Mahri poems are those that are neither sung nor chanted collectively. Recited performances carry none of the social significance that collective chants do, nor are they esteemed as aesthetic acts as sung poems are. Mahra will generally respond to a request to deliver a poem with a recitation, since it is the easiest and quickest way to satisfy the curiosity of a foreign researcher. A poem that is recited in the absence of melody may be referred to using the Arabic word ​nathr (“scattered” or “disorganized”), also the term for literary prose in Arabic. Arabic nathr stands in contrast with Arabic shiʿr (“poetry”) which, thanks to its conventions of monorhyme and isometric lines, is granted a greater share of esteem in premodern estimations of literary significance. The implication behind labelling a recited performance of Mahri poetry as nathr is that its social significance and aesthetic power are less than a sung or rhythmically chanted performance of the same poem.

Despite the fact that recitations do not carry the same degree of prestige that collective and sung performances do, certain Mahri virtuosos are distinguished by their ability to recite incredible amounts of Mahri poetry at high speeds. Such performances, however, are meant to display the remarkable memory of the transmitter rather than the aesthetic or historical merit of individual poems.

Ideally, no poem in Mahri should be recited because all Mahri poems may be sung, and singing is the most aesthetically appreciated mode of performance. However, due to the constraints of time and singing ability, most Mahra settle on recitations in informal settings. It is how the bulk of Mahri poems are performed and heard by Mahri audiences: a quick recital for entertaining or social instruction.

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