By Sharifah Alhinai
This article was originally published on Sekka in February 2021, as part of the Diversity Issue.
If you frequently attend heritage festivals or national day celebrations in the countries of the Arabian Gulf, chances are you’ve come across al-laywa, one of the numerous traditional dances that have been performed in the region for more than a century. It begins with the sound of the serannay (a clarinet-like instrument), which is played for a few minutes by an entranced soloist. One by one, the listening men begin to form a circle around the soloist. Barefooted and moving in a counter-clockwise direction, they take two steps forward, two steps back, two steps forward, two steps back…while chanting along to the music. It is said that it is this circular movement that gives al-laywa its name.
The lyrics of al-laywa chants vary and are often barely fathomable or even completely unfathomable at times. Chants that have historically been sung in laywas in the region include:
فيروز الغالي ساروا يبيعونه
يا الله بهبوب الغربي ان شاء الله يردونه
Beloved Fairuz, they went to sell him
Oh Allah, let the western winds blow and return him
The majority of the participants in this dance are Khaleejis of African descent, or “Gulfricans” as they have come to be referred to by some scholars. In fact, the Khaleeji music industry has been dominated by Gulfrican dancers, musicians, and singers since its emergence in the 20th century. Examples include the late Kuwaiti singer Aisha al-Marta, the late Saudi singer Etab and members of the Kuwaiti band “Miami.”
What is the reason behind this dominance? And who is this Fairuz that the laywa chanters sing about, and why is he so important? To answer these questions, we have to go back in history.
The Arabian Gulf Region and Africa: A brief history
The relationship between the Arabian Gulf region and the African continent is a tale as old as time. With only a sea separating them, Arabs have travelled to Africa for thousands of years for the purpose of trade or to seek a better livelihood, and vice versa. Push and pull factors for each varied during different time periods.
In the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, the slave trade was a significant push factor. “As global markets for dates and pearls expanded, so too did demand for slave labor and much of this labor was drawn from East Africa,” explains Matthew S. Hopper in Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire. “As a result, the African diaspora in the Gulf grew dramatically during this period, accounting for nearly a fifth of eastern Arabia’s population by the turn of the twentieth century.”
African men mainly worked in the pearl diving industry in the summers and in shipyards, fishing grounds, and agricultural lands in the winters. They eventually assimilated into life in the Khaleej, mastering the Arabic language and the locals’ speech patterns, and the non-Muslims of them converted to Islam. In the early 20th century, British officers and travellers alike described the population of Khaleeji coastal towns like Dubai’s as homogenous, for example, noting that Africans and their descendants were “indistinguishable from the local population in dress or speech.”
Music as a form of connection to Africa
Although they assimilated, Africans “remained connected to the one most African identifying element besides their skin [color]: their music,” says Emirati Dr. Aisha Bilkhair. With a PhD in the social history of Dubai, one of Dr. Bilkhair’s main areas of research has been the Gulfrican experience, especially the “Afro-Emirati” experience, as she calls it. She has spent years researching and documenting the history and experiences of Emiratis of African descent and has published more than four research papers on this topic alone.
“The al-laywa is one of a number of art forms that came from Africa to the Arabian Gulf region,” says Dr. Bilkhair. “It is still practiced [in the region] in the same way it is practiced in African countries such as Tanzania and Kenya.”
Another is al-nuban, she says, which originated in Nubia.
Al-nuban is a dance that is characterized by the use of al-tanboora (tanpura) and drums to create a rhythmic beat to which the raqis al-manyoor dances (raqis means male dancer and al-manyoor is a belt made out of sheep or goat hooves that is worn around the dancer’s waist to produce a musical rattling sound).
“For Gulfricans, music [historically] served several purposes,” explains Dr. Bilkhair. “It kept them connected to their ancestors,” as much of it was traditionally performed in their native African languages (primarily Swahili), which makes some of the chants unfathomable to Arabic-speakers.
“They also used it express themselves and to share knowledge and experiences,” she adds, referring to the al-laywa chant mentioned earlier as an example of spreading knowledge about an occurrence within the community, namely that a man named Fairuz was sold into slavery and sent away from his loved ones.
“Some divers, upon returning from the diving season [which lasted months], went directly to the headquarters of the musical groups, even before seeing their wives and children; such was their nostalgia for music, a phenomenon that was not observed with non-African divers,” notes Dr. Bilkhair.
Cross-cultural participation in the arts
Gulfricans, however, allowed non-Gulfricans to observe and participate in their types of art and “the majority liked the taste of African music because it was celebratory and entertaining,” says Dr. Bilkhair.
However, many Khaleejis refrained from participation because it was culturally frowned upon for men and women to sing and dance without purpose. Notably, traditional Khaleeji art forms are characterised primarily by acapella singing to ease work or to express pride in one’s tribe/people and their strength and power in times of war. Of course, this has changed today. On the other hand, “Africa was known for having an event for every celebration,” chuckles Dr. Bilkhair.
Similarly, Khaleejis also included Gulfricans in their own art forms. In Oman and the UAE, in particular, Gulfricans participated in the native art forms of al-ayyalah (call to war), al-yola (a dance exhibiting the use and mastery of weapons when one is provoked to war) and al-razfa ( a dance celebrating victory in war). They also participated in the al-nahma, an art form that was popular in the region in the days of sailing and pearl diving.
“The al-nahham was a chanter that went on-board sailing ships and his sole job was to sing and chant day in and day out in order to ease the work onboard of the ship, motivate the sailors and divers if they were feeling discouraged, and give them hope on a tough day at sea,” explains Dr. Bilkhair. Though many of the al-nahhams were African in identity because of their superior lung capacities and deep voices, “the job required them to sing in a language that was different than his native one (Arabic). However, they were able to put their feelings and native flavor into it. So the al-nahham had an African taste with Gulf lyrics.”
Gulfricans’ artistic legacy
Gulfricans added zest to art forms in the region, remarks Dr. Bilkhair, through their rhythm, their usage of the pentatonic percussion, the instruments they brought with them from Africa or made and used (certain types of drums and lyres that are still played today), or the dances they performed.
“They also normalized singing and dancing across it,” she adds.
“Gulfrican men and especially women such as [20th century] singers Ayesha al-Marta in Kuwait, Moza Saeed in the UAE, Moza Khamees in Oman and Etab in Saudi Arabia challenged their time’, says Dr. Bilkhair. “It wasn’t acceptable in this society for women to appear in front of men and the world to sing. Now, the sky’s the limit. These pioneers opened the doors for others to come.”
“These days, young musicians who sing and perform modern music are considered trendy,” she adds. Contemporary Khaleeji singers such as Hussain al-Jasmi and Balqees Fathi are examples.
Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.