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Omani Music Masks A Slave Trading Past

MUSCAT—It’s not long into an interview with an ethnomusicologist, Majid al-Harthy, before he makes what he sees as an important distinction. Omani traditional music doesn’t have an African “influence,” he explains with a friendly fervour, but rather it has an African “presence.” In that seemingly simple semantic difference, he says, lies a denial of Oman’s history in the slave trade.

“To say ‘presence’ is to centralize Africa in Omani society and music. But to use the word ‘influence’ is to say that Omanis went to Africa, liked the music and brought some of it back to Oman, which is not the case,” he says. “The music came to Oman with African people.”

Al-Harthy, head of Sultan Qaboos University’s Music and Musicology Department, was born in Rwanda to an Omani family that emigrated to East Africa three generations before him. When he was 11 years old he moved to Oman, but still has family members in Rwanda, a country that he regards fondly.

A central goal in his music research is actually historical and political—to acknowledge the achievements of a minority community in Oman that, despite being happy to identify as Omani, still suffers from discrimination.

“I always wondered about the relationship between Oman and Africa,” he says. “In school, we studied the political presence of Oman in Zanzibar. But what is not spoken about here is the slave trade.” From 1698 to 1856, the two lands formed a single state, the Sultanate of  Oman and Zanzibar.

In East Africa, a slave trade had been established long before the appearance of Europeans, and was controlled by local powers around the Indian Ocean. During the reign of Seyyid Said, who ruled for fifty years from 1806, Omani control of Zanzibar and the nearby east African coast enabled the Sultanate to expand and dominate the slave trade.

Africans were forcibly taken from their lands to work as soldiers, domestic servants or laborers throughout the Gulf and Mesopotamia. At the trade’s peak, approximately one-fifth of the entire population of Qatar was made up of enslaved Africans.

“Oman had been the center of a slave trade since the sixth century but didn’t outlaw it until 1970,” says Lisa Urkevich, an ethnomusicologist and the chair of the department of music and drama at the American University of Kuwait.

While other countries in the Gulf may not have been as actively involved in the slave raids as Oman, they were also late to abolish slavery. Yemen outlawed slavery in 1962—though some say the practice still exists there—and Saudi Arabia did so the same year. After Qatar outlawed the practice in 1952, the then-Emir, ‘Ali bin ‘Abd Allah, disregarded the abolition and brought his slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the following year.

The fact that this history is so recent and yet hasn’t really been faced by society in the Gulf, according to al-Harthy, is what makes it so important to care about the terminology ethnomusicologists use to describe traditional Arabic music with African roots.

“Research on traditional music in Oman always mentions the African influence, and I took that as marginalizing the presence of Africa in Oman, so I’m the first one to refer to this as a presence,” he says. “I always looked at the music not only for its aesthetics but to see the people who made it. The people behind this music are clearly Omanis of African descent.”

“You will hear Swahili texts and certain drumming patterns that have worked their way in,” explains Urkevich as she describes the African presence in Omani traditional music. “Language, melodies or instruments can all indicate African origins.”

Omani traditional music is an eclectic mix of songs that reflect the hardships of working at sea, homesickness, longing, and other themes. An illustration of one bluesy style within the tradition is the singer Salim Rashid Suri who was born in 1910 and eventually became a cultural consultant to the Sultan.

Experts often describe Omani music as a product of its geography—the desert tribes of the interior tend to use only drums and percussion in their music making, whereas the music of the coast reflects connections with India, Iran and Africa as well as Arabia. The coastal music uses a wider range of instruments, notably the ‘oud (a stringed instrument related to the lute). Sur, a town close to the easternmost tip of Oman’s mainland, is a good place to see this living tradition in practice.

Sur has a diverse and lively traditional music scene and attracts ethnomusicologists such as al-Harthy. The town’s name is often mentioned in research papers dealing with traditional Omani music. It remains a maritime city, and still has a small industry building dhows, the traditional traders’ boats. It was also a slave port.

The lack of will to confront this inconvenient past can be accounted for by the fact that the modern state of Oman is still building its national story, says Urkevich.

“In the 1970s, Oman started to look for an identity just like all the Gulf states. All these countries are new, and when you’re trying to unite a big piece of land like Oman, you don’t want to talk about minorities,” she says. “The motivation was political in that the Sultan was trying to bring the country together.” Oman’s sole ruler since 1970 is Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a descendant of earlier slave-trading sultans.

Urkevich stresses that she doesn’t believe nation building is justification to marginalize minorities, but it does provide important context. “I don’t want to belittle Majid’s work,” she says, “I’ve heard rumors that people who come from African lineage suffer racism. He’s got a point.”

Majid says he hears the nation-building argument often, but argues that it is short sighted to favor it at the expense of recognizing Omanis of African heritage. “The stance of even my closest colleagues is to let sleeping dogs lie,” he says.

His colleagues may admit the history, but “they say Oman is like a melting pot, in which all the bad things have melted away. But I think it’s important to note that these questions were never raised, and society still doesn’t address the traditional racism that’s taken lightly and that I saw in my fieldwork. Many people refer to black people as a slave or as the descendent of a slave.”

To listen to some Omani traditional music, click on the video below: 


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