Zamil:The art of popular chanting [Archives:2006/953/Last Page]

June 8 2006

By: Ismail Al-Ghabiri
One of the most popular chanting styles in Yemen is zamil, a type of well-composed verse, each poem usually consisting of two-line stanzas but sometimes a different number of lines. Zamil usually is composed for chanting loudly by a group of people for various purposes, both in peace and war times, as well as on numerous social occasions and at tribal gatherings.

No clear indication in Yemeni history can tell when or how this popular poetry style originated. In his description of zamil, the great writer Al-Baradoni referred back to a story of tribesmen from earlier in history. During hard times of some ruling tyrants, the tribesmen fled to mountain caves where in the dark night, they heard some unseen chanters repeatedly singing persuasive verse in the popular dialect, chanting:

Damn your belittled face.

There can be no welfare after war.

But when we are destined to fight,

Our great deeds will tell you more.

The tribesmen listened and then memorized those enthusiastic words and threats against enemies and derived their own style of chanting similar poems. However, the art of zamil singing is not believed to be derived from that tale. In fact, it initiated in Yemen long before the Islamic era, coming into existence as the result of the necessity of Yemeni tribesmen to chant war poems and challenge the enemy, to celebrate victories and chant other pieces of poetry on various social occasions.

The nature of life in Arabia, with its aspects of ancient wars between tribes and rivals and the way armies used to head to battlefields accompanied by the sound of drums and warriors chanting words of persuasive verse aroused the necessity for innovation of war zamil or persuasive verse chanted by warriors.

Other types and purposes for zamil later were introduced in adapting to life requirements and social environment needs. For instance, at the coming of Islam, welcoming zamil was innovated as tribesmen made their way to Medina to profess Islam.

Because of the fact that the art of zamil chanting was unable to reach out to other neighboring countries, it has succeeded in retaining its own special features and unique flavor apart from external impacts. Even with its peculiarities, zamil has surpassed all other local poetry styles and the reasons are as follows.

First, the theme denoted by zamil clearly can be abstracted and understood perfectly due to the limited number of stanzas comprising a single poem. The poet must squeeze the extracts of his creativity to arrive at a very concise poem, rich with metaphorical expressions, similes and other rhetorical images. With as few words as possible, he must convey a very expressive meaning, which accounts for how zamil poetry is coupled with the use of symbolic expressions.

Moreover, zamil poets are very selective in their vocabularies because the stanza he presents is expected to be responded to by another poet or recipient.

For instance, a father chanted the following words on the occasion that his son intended to leave the family house for his own independent residence. The father portrays the sense of a bird's weak points, saying:

O bird, how far you fly away in the sky.

No matter )- soon you must come down a day

To quench a thirst that you will suffer.

Surely, your wings cannot hold water.

On the other hand, the son portrays the sense of birds' advantages and replies:

The flying bird is hard to catch.

With the help of his wings, a farther point he can touch.

Only foolish birds build nests nearby,

A place which is aimed by every passerby.

Secondly, zamil is most distinguished among other lyrical poetry styles and known for its widespread popularity because it tackles issues of public interest and mostly is associated with events or occasions that circulate in the minds of subsequent generations.

One such occasion dates back to 1948 after Imam Yahya's assassination and Sana'a city was experiencing a state of robbery. The new Imam Ahmed's poet was heard chanting:

O you there, who should be kept well alerted.

The money usurped by all to be submitted.

Doing not, the imam's glazed sword is awaiting

And his enormous soldiers are anticipating.

Thirdly, contemporary daily language is selected when composing the poetry of zamil songs. Use of common dialect is explained in the sense that zamil was a product of daily social life, expressive of individuals' status and reality and their internal and external reactions with the social environment.

Consequently, zamil poetic style was enriched with daily demands of tribal life and tribesmen conventions, traditional peculiarities, rituals, hostilities, compromises and problems' solutions, in addition to aspects of peacetime life. Moreover, zamil offered a scope for individuals to indulge in expressing their spiritual life and philosophical view toward human experience in the world at large.

Zamil's lyrical poetry represents the social implications of life and it has dived profoundly into the human facets of individuals' lives to come up as integral part of social fabric with all its tribal features, conventions, customs and daily life routines.

Furthermore, zamil sometimes is becoming more influential and could be an accountable mover to the state of tangled war and at times, a means of compromise and a peacemaker.

It also could provoke unquenchable thirst for blood and revenge between tribes, be a rapid eradicator of all motives and causes behind hostilities and spare the lives of many.

It was said that a young man once mistakenly killed his fast friend. The killer's father took his son with him and made their way to the victim's father. Upon arrival, the killer's father was heard chanting a zamil, saying:

God only knows and people around can testify,

The killing of your son was not an act of intention.

It was a destined decree that no one can rectify

And the matter is now left up to your kind attention.

Despite the serious situation in which the father's victimized son was put, zamil's social and ethical implication urged him to reply in a generously tolerant way, saying:

Welcome, my two guests, from that far destination.

We have your versed words, foreshadowing inclination.

Sure, you'll know how generous people redress a situation.

Your arrival before us shall clear all sort of intimidation.

As such chanting, zamil style also was considered a means of expressing wise reactions to serious and problematic situations. Besides, zamil's role was emphasized more in tribesmen's lives, as it was more expressive of resolutions agreed upon by hostile parties. Zamil was a way to sum up in wise sayings and expressions the judgments, arbitrations and resolutions to inter-tribal problems.

In addition to this, zamil style of lyrical poetry stems from the individual personality and is being fed on all supreme meanings of human values, ideal morals in society and national concepts. These factors are all influential for zamil's existence and long life in people's minds.

A poet once praised national loyalty and condemning traitors by saying:

O fort of ours, which shamefully has been betrayed,

For the sake of your liberty, cheaply we offer our blood.

We care not who has paid for your destruction

And sold his land to buy weapons instead.

A study of the art of zamil chanting clearly identifies some of zamil poetry's philosophical aspects. This sort of poetry has tackled individuals' spiritual needs, as it parallels development in their spiritual and religious life. This type of poetry has become identifiable with man's life philosophy in general, as well as religious and moral aspects.

One such type of zamil is the following:

Greetings from the sheikh of the tribe.

In this life, we are strangers on a trip.

All mankind should ask for forgiveness.

The burden of their sins should become less.

The reckoning day's balance favors rightness.

Based on the fact that zamil poetic style is but a mirror of Yemen's real social and day-to-day life scenery over the ages, one can conclude that life's various moves and daily scenarios make it necessary for poets to portray life from various angles. Hence, there appeared multi-dimensional purposes for zamil lyrical poetry.

Among zamil poetry's major themes and purposes are the following:

1. War zamil and threats against enemies

2. Political zamil

3. Zamil of pride

4. Welcoming and greeting zamil

5. Marriage zamil

6. Cheerful zamil

7. Lamenting zamil

8. Arbitration and judgment zamil

9. National and revolution zamil

The aforementioned are but some of the various purposes for zamil chanting in Yemen. More on this issue still is to be unfolded if more specialized studies, surveys and research is conducted in this regard. Zamil is a unique art of lyrical poetry, with most of its facial expressions yet to be discovered.