Attonborah Band, African or Yemeni? [Archives:2000/19/Culture]

May 8 2000

Saleh Abdulbaqi
Yemen Times
Very little is known about the origin of Attonborah musical instrument. It is not a sophisticated instrument, for it consists of only two essential parts that are triangular shaped sticks and strings. The way it is played is different from that of Oud (Lute). An Attonborah player uses his/her fingers without a need for using plectrum.
It was a pleasant surprise for former Minister of Culture Hassan Al-Lawzi when Attonborah band from Lahj won the coveted first position among 30 other traditional bands participating in the Port Said Festival in 1990. Inspired by the spectacular achievement of this traditional instrument, former Minister Yahia Hussain Al-Arashi sent the band again to represent Yemen in Paris in 1995 in an international music festival.
The Attonborah band performance combines both Yemeni and African tastes. It captures the imagination of a wide range of people who are interested in traditional songs and dances. It is a pity that many people do not know much about this amazing instrument. However, it has proved its versatility not only in Yemen but outside Yemen and has earned people’s applause. The Port Said example is an undisputed proof of this.
What is the origin of this instrument? When was it used for the first time? Are the band members Yemenis or Africans? In pursuit of answers to these and other related questions, I traveled to the land where it flourished, Lahj in Yemen, and met with the band members. The first thing that attracted my attention was the age diversity of its members. Some were very young, others were very old. The conductor of the band and its veteran player, 59 year-old, Abdullah Abdu Al-Dhaheri said that there is no agreement among the old band members regarding its time of origin. However, all the players unanimously said that it existed before they were born and that their forefathers used to play on it. He believed that it was brought by their ancestors from Africa to Aden 80 years ago. Then it found its way to Lahj where many Africans had settled. As it gradually took its roots and flourished among the Afro-Yemeni society in Lahj, the African rhythm started to be colored by that of Yemen.
The band commonly performed in wedding ceremonies accompanied with a team of dancers. They also performed in palaces of Sultans on their birthdays and such other occasions.
Mohammed Salem Al-Alawai, 63, drum beater of the band does not agree with his colleague on who brought the Attonborah to Yemen. However, he agreed that it was of an African origin. “Its history goes back to more then 150 years. He believed that it was brought by Yemenis who immigrated to Africa like Al-Nuba of Sudan. When they returned home they inhabited the plains of Lahj where plenty of food and water was available,” added Mohammed S.
But why is the rhythm still African? “That is what is makes it distinguished. If the scale is changed into Lahji, the core of rhythm of dance will change as well. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable Lahji touch,” said Al-Dhaheri.
All the band members believe that their band is a continuation of the first Tonborah band in Yemen. Day after day, new Lahji touches in terms of either music or diction are being added to make it a kind of confluent paradigm in singing.
The remarkable success achieved by the band not only in its local participation but in international fora outside Yemen shows the people’s acceptance of Attonborah and its ability to captivate audiences wherever it has been performed. Presently, the band is preparing to take part in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of unification of Yemen this month.
In Lahj there is a house called the Attonborah house. It is in this house that Attonborah lovers were used to gather to listen to and learn how to play on it. 80-year-old Salihah Faraj Abu Yabis, resident of the house, said that people used to gather at her house more than 120 years ago to enjoy listening to Attonborah. Only a few months ago the band assembled there for performing rehearsals before participating in the celebrations.
As far as the type of dance accompanying Attonborah performance is concerned, it is not easy. It needs rigorous training and practice. Good dancers are discerned by intricate hand movements which start in the very beginning of the performance.
The performance usually begins with singing to the accompaniment of the Attonborah a little later. Then drums- two big and two small ones- join in. After about 5 minutes of singing, dance blossoms and lasts for more than 15 minutes. During this period, musical scales change and type of dancing also changes. As the performance gathers momentum, the Attonborah player enters the stage taking the rhythm to a climax. Audiences are so absorbed and overwhelmed that they inadvertently hum and make feet movements in tune with the rhythm.
While I was attending a rehearsal session, I was fascinated by a very sweet solo singer. She was Camilia Anbar singing the “Mosimbah”. As the Al-Mangor dancer began to dance I could not help joining him.
“Although I was brought up in Luhj I feel that African songs are part of me,” said Al-Alawi. He is deeply fascinated by the Attonborah and the different types of dance accompanying it.
Sometimes singing voices are mild enough to make the notes of Attonborah distinct. Fused with supple body movements of the Al-Mangor dancer they create a thoroughly magnificent impact. Al-Mangor is a belt made of nails and goatskin tied round the dancer’s waist. Then, the male dancers form a line and women form another facing them. In the process of dancing they mix. A man dances with a woman and sometimes with two. After a time the Attonborah player along with the Mangor dancer joins the rest of dancers in a chorus making the picture even more fascinating.
It is something highly gratifying to see such an old musical tradition inspiring strong enthusiasm among today’s audiences.
As I concluded my visit to Luhj, Abdullah Faraj Bo Yabis, the senior most member I met with here, confirmed that there was still a lot about the Attonborah which is yet to come to limelight. The band should be appropriately encouraged by authorities concerned, especially the Minister of Culture who could grant them an office and suitable uniform. The band appeals to all concerned and, as such, deserves patronage of international organizations to preserve such an eminent cultural tradition.