When Nomads Sing

SARNGADHARAN NAMBIAR –

As a traveller, the moment you drop any idea of departure and arrival and transcend even the weakest intention of reaching any destination, you become a nomad. Anyhow, from a larger perspective, aren’t we all nomads, who come from the cosmic womb and stay a while here before returning to the same source? Needless to say, in this IoT-ruled age as our personas increasingly assume a virtual dimension, we should not feel uncomfortable if aliens call us digital nomads who constantly travel from one cyber space to another…

The nomadic lifestyle is all about freedom, because, as brilliantly observed by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, things that we own end up owning us, and the only way out is to move on… and when people move on, life celebrates itself through songs. Therein lies the significance (and beauty) of the nomadic singing traditions.
Part of the fairy tale charm of the Arab region comes from the land’s nomads. The cultural richness of the region too owes significantly to its nomads, also called the Bedouins, who carry a history dating back to 3000 BC.

The Sultanate’s Bedouin communities, though influenced by urbanisation and modernity, still retain their distinct, centuries-old cultural identity. But how long they will be able to cling on to their traditions is a pertinent question. For one, youngsters, with not many options in terms of jobs — the only available occupations are camel and goat herding and camel racing — are forced to move out to cities. Education is another need that forces them to relocate to cities.
More worrisome is the fact that traditional artifacts and other heritage products that define the Bedouin legacy and are eagerly sought by tourists are easily available in the city’s markets: these are now mass-produced in factories in low-cost countries and sold in Oman. This has negatively impacted the earning potential of Bedouin communities.

MELODIOUS TRADITION
However, our understanding of Omani culture will remain incomplete if we overlook the Bedouins’ singing traditions. Two popular forms of Omani traditional songs — which are nothing but chanted poetry — that belong to the Bedouins feature on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage: they are the culturally rich oral traditions of Al Taghrooda and Al’azi.
The chanted poetry Al Taghrooda is composed and recited by men on camelback as they traverse the deserts. It is popular in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The poems are usually simple and short not exceeding seven lines, and the lyrics and the meter are such that they not just keep the riders in good humour but inspire the camels to walk for long as well.
Al Taghrooda is performed on special occasions as well including weddings, traditional festivals such as camel races, and also around campfires. The objective is to strengthen social cohesion and bonding in a relaxed ambience. Themes could be anything ranging from love messages, social issues and challenges, tribal achievements, disputes and the like.
It is kind of antiphonal singing, and there is a great deal of improvisation and repetition between groups of riders. Also, it’s not a strictly male affair, though: occasionally, Bedouin women compose and recite poems when they gather together for some work. Al Taghrooda poetry is noted for its simplicity and lack of complex literary constructs.
Al’azi, on the other hand, is performed in a different style. As the lead poet recites stanzas, accompanying artistes respond with loud chorus. It assumes the style of a poetry contest or exchange involving the gracious movement of swords and rhythmic steps. It is noted for its large community participation. Here also the singers are expected to improvise significantly, while the responses must be in accordance with the singer’s movements and the content.
Here also the themes could be the pride and achievements of a tribe, major historical milestones or social issues and messages. Al’azi is popular among the tribal communities of northern regions of the Sultanate, and is performed on diverse social occasions.
Al Taghrooda and Al’azi emphasise the cultural identity of the Bedouin communities and lovingly remind them about their own history and traditions. These melodious oral traditions need to be promoted among youngsters as an invaluable cultural element that defines the unique cultural and musical heritage of the Sultanate.
These Bedouin singing traditions could greatly appeal to global tourists who look for enriching and authentic cultural experiences.
Who could resist the temptation of night-camping on the wild but endearing desert sands communicating with the bright stars overhead, even as the Bedouin songs offer a mystical yet musical backdrop?