Samsamiah & the Good Old Days [Archives:1998/10/Culture]

March 9 1998

Saleh Abdulbaki, musician

The Samsamiah musical instrument is a distinguished feature of the traditional Yemeni music. Samsamiah was first adopted by Al-Zarbadi traditional ensemble which had a special musical style. It is known among the fishermen musical groups as the coastal style or “sahili,” which is particularly present in Al-Shihr, Aden, Hodeida and other coastal areas in Yemen.
Al-Leiwah ensemble which performed in Al-Shihr and Aden also adopted Samsamiah as its main musical instrument. Playing the Samsamiah, this ensemble presented a very famous song, “Ya Markab Al-Hind Yabo Daglein” or O two-mast ship of India, written by the Yemeni lyricist Yahya Omar Al-Yafi’i.

In Omar Bin Tha’alab’s book, “Mohammed Jom’a Khan: His Life and Art,” published in 1981, some important historical details about Samsamiah are recorded. Historians indicate that Samsamiah was brought by Hadhramaut sailors during the third century after Hijra (around A.D. 922) from Yanbo’ in the northern Arabian Peninsula, before the introduction of Qanbous or the old lute (ud).

Samsamiah consists of a circular hollow wooden piece on which three rectangular wooden sticks are fixed to form a kind of a triangle turned upside down. Five metal strings are stretched vertically between the end of the wooden piece and the base of the triangle.
Unlike Qanbous, every string in Samsamiah gives only one musical tune. Since these strings are made to be twanged by the left hand fingers, it is hard to play the Samsamiah. This actually needs, professional skill and long training.
Some of the most famous Samsamiah players are Saeed Salem Ba-Haddad, Salem Faraj Abdulnaseer, Saeed Al-Solaimah (all fishermen from Mukallah) and Mabrouk Ramadan who was originally from Yanbo’.

According to Omar Bin Tha’alab in “Mohammed Jom’a Khan: His Life and Art,” Mohammed Khan learned to play Samsamiah early in his childhood from Faraj Moftah Faraj, the leader of Al-Zarbadi ensemble. Samsamiah was the musical instrument of many ensembles in Al-Shihr, Aden and Hodeida. With the Al-Leioah ensemble in Aden and Hadhramaut, many traditional musical compositions of the coastal style and the 2/4 eastern rhythm gained great fame. These compositions became very popular among young people and were commonly presented in cultural occasions and country celebrations.
Al-Tilal traditional ensemble tried to maintain the use of samsamiah by reviving the old traditional songs. But, because folk songs are now generally out of public attention, that process did not last long. Samsamiah began to lose its place and gradually disappeared. Perhaps it is our responsibility to save this traditional feature of Yemeni music, but it is at long last the role of the Ministry of Culture to direct that. By all possible means, such valuable and original things as Samsamiah must be maintained to recount Yemen’s great civilization all over the world.