At a conference in Cairo earlier this month, a group of scholars, poets and representatives of the Aden-based Yemeni government began the process of including a traditional form of Yemeni poetry on the Unesco register of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Along with earning official recognition, an application for inclusion on the list is a step toward keeping valued cultural practices alive, since the application has to include a “safeguarding plan.”
Dan Hadrami is a traditional form of improvised poetry, typically accompanied by singing, dance and instrumental music, that is regularly performed at social gatherings in the Hadramawt region of southern Yemen.
“There is a tradition of public poetic competitions among the Arabs that goes back to pre-Islamic times,” said Jean Lambert, one of the organizers of the conference and a researcher at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris, referring to the legendary poetry contests held at Suq Ukath in Mecca in the centuries before the Prophet Muhammad. “But among the traditions that continue, this one is especially interesting because it remains lively and has its own particular rituals and procedures.”
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Dan Hadrami is performed all over Yemen, and its popularity has spread, in a modified form, to Indonesia and Malaysia. Iraqi musicologist Scheherazade Qassim Hassan made recordings of Dan Hadrami that were released on compact disc in 1998.
The word “dan” is a musical syllable without verbal meaning, similar to the syllables “do re mi” used in European music, or the “ya layla” phrase used in some kinds of Arabic vocal improvisation. In a dan performance, a singer will sing a melody using the syllable, and participants will take turns to recite improvised verses inspired by the melody. In their verses, Lambert said, participants typically will make poetic observations about life—“man and God, man and fate, wisdom and philosophy, happiness and unhappiness.”
Maintaining a Cultural Presence
Lambert, a specialist in traditional Yemeni music, said the motivation for the conference and for the campaign to include Dan Hadrami on the Unesco register of Intangible Cultural Heritage was the need to maintain Yemen’s presence in international culture at a time of crisis. (See a related article, “A Fine Arts School’s Comeback Raises Hope in Yemen.”)
“My Yemeni friends were suffering for years because of the war,” Lambert said, “but now they are beginning to recover, even though the war hasn’t stopped. Because of the war, they feel, we must protect our culture, for this will be the best tool to rebuild Yemen after the war.”