Songs of the Pearl Divers

Popular music in the Arab world has long originated from Egypt and the Levant. Singers like Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez or Lebanon’s Fairouz are the icons of 20th century Arabic song. Today, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian pop stars consistently top the charts. With the exception of the Emirati diva Ahlam, khaliji music – the music of the Arabian Gulf states – does not have quite the same reach.

Popular music in the Arab world has long originated from Egypt and the Levant. Singers like Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez or Lebanon’s Fairouz are the icons of 20th century Arabic song. Today, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian pop stars consistently top the charts. With the exception of the Emirati diva Ahlam, khaliji music – the music of the Arabian Gulf states – does not have quite the same reach.

Although it has long been a place of trade for Arab, Persian, Indian and African cultures, the Gulf has been considered something of a cultural backwater in relation to the Mediterranean. Until the mid-twentieth century, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE were not nations, but small port cities and rural areas governed by a patchwork of ruling families. From the late 19th century, a British protectorate held sway until the collapse of the British Empire. Once the local rulers and multinational corporations began to exploit the Gulf’s vast oil reserves in the early twentieth century, everything changed.

The tables have turned in the Middle East. Now these states are some of the richest in the world and hold outsized roles in global politics and trade. As the Gulf states rose in power, so did a Gulf identity – a specifically khaliji identity. Let us take a look at one kind of music that speaks to that identity.

Unlike the heavy pulse that propels the sounds of Egypt and the Levant, the rhythms of khaliji music tumble forward. Stuttering drums dance over steady bass hits, giving the music a singular Gulf sound that stands a world apart. In musical terms, the rhythms lean towards a six or 12 beat feel, rather than the four, seven, or 13 beats of Iraq and the Mediterranean.

The sound of the music speaks to the region’s history as a maritime hub. Before oil took hold, pearls commanded the Gulf economy, particularly in Bahrain. For centuries, the profitable but dangerous trade of diving for pearls drew people from near and far to work the rich oyster beds. The divers were diverse: Arabs, Bedouins, Persians, Indians, Sri Lankans and East Africans.

What does this have to do with music? On long journeys in the pearl-diving ships, music kept the 30-man crews going. This repertoire of songs is what is known as fann al-bahar (art of the sea), aghani al ghaws (diving songs), or, more simply, fijiri. This unique mixture of humanity, enduring grueling months at sea together, created this style of music.

A few dozen men clothed in white dishdashas chant cycles of plaintive choruses, while their leader, called a nahham, sings a melody. On the ships, being a nahham was a profession to itself. The melodies that the nahhams sing are wrought by the hardships of the sea and the lyrics adapt to all occasions.

Fijiri songs supplicate to God for protection during rough storms. They sing of love and yearning for their families back on land. They sing to inspire the divers to persist through the damaging hurt of spending hours underwater every day without oxygen. Before heading out to sea, they sing hopeful fanfares. The low bass drone that pervades is said to resemble the sound of the sea in one’s ears while diving, or the sounds of the spirits, or jinn, that live in the water.

One part of the repertoire is for celebration on shore, after a three or four month expedition at sea. This is actually where the name fijiri originates: the all-night musical festivities that lasted until fajr (morning prayer) upon the return of the sailors.

While they sing, the chorus plays out an intricate dance of polyrhythms with interlocking handclaps, mirwās and tabl drums and hand cymbals. The sound has tastes of Iraqi maqamat, Cuban bata drumming, Pakistani qawwali and Bedouin folk drumming. You can hear the work of hoisting sails and rowing in the claps and stomps and see it in the dances.

A Bahraini legend suggests that fijiri is not actually human music, but rather was taught to the divers by jinn. We do not have any evidence to dispute that. But history, and a pair of attentive ears, would suggest that the music is a hybrid sound with strong roots in East and Central Africa. Fijiri’s rhythms are polyrhythmic and felt in cycles of six beats, and some of its songs use a five-note (pentatonic) scale, both of which point to African roots. Even until the 1940s, some African-descended Bahrainis sang in Swahili.

African and Arab cultures have met in the Gulf for 700 years. The centuries-long slave trade that exploited Africa’s Swahili Coast and central region for the Arab world brought many, but not all, of the Africans in the Gulf. The African influence in the cultures and population of the Gulf tends to be overlooked, but it is significant. Many khaliji people can trace some ancestry to East Africa, including members of the Saudi royal family and Bahraini National Assembly. In Oman, whose Sultanate controlled much of the Swahili coast – and the slave trade – for several centuries, around 22,000 people still speak Swahili. The music of the Gulf bears out this presence.

The pearl industry began dwindling before twentieth century but new, cultured pearls and the riches of oil sealed its fate. Today, pearl diving is a tiny industry in the Gulf. As the region turned away from seafaring life, fijiri dwindled. Today, the people who keep the tradition alive are not professional pearl divers, but professional musicians. Fijiri, having lost its context to a changing economy, is in a strange space after transitioning from songs of labor to a music of performance.

Today, it is largely kept alive at dars in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. These cultural centers are home to a variety of preservationist “sea bands.” The Gulf Folklore Center in Qatar is recording older singers in the hopes of documenting the tradition, in the face of meager interest from younger generations.

Fijiri is also being maintained and repurposed in unexpected ways. In March of 2018, a performance in Sharjah, UAE, used fijiri as a musical medium for a Classical Arabic interpretation of the 11th century French epic, “La Chanson de Roland,” a tale that recounts Frankish victory over armies of Al-Andalus. The man behind this mash-up, Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, said that the performers were largely Bahraini, as fijiri does not have as much of a place in the UAE.

This tradition may be fading, but today’s popular khaliji music emerged out of the same cultural mélange, and it sounds like it. Albeit with a stronger influence from the cultural powerhouses of the Mediterranean, khaliji pop carries some of the same rhythmic flow as fijiri. Perhaps oil money and a rapidly transforming cultural landscape will mean that fijiri becomes a thing of the past. Or, perhaps a young producer in Manama or Doha will weave its passionate choruses and entrancing drums into an unforgettable fabric of electronic beats for the new era of the Gulf.