Hip Hop Comes Alive in Yemen
A new art – Yemeni hip-hop – was celebrated at the French Cultural Institute in the second part of an ongoing hip-hop series featuring a rap performance by Yemeni-American artist Hagag AJ and a new work tailor-made by French choreographer Farid Berki for a group of young Yemeni dancers along with professional break dancers Ludo and Romu.
The performance drew more than 600 people to the Yemeni Cultural Center to watch their peers dance to Berki’s vision, while another 200 waited outside and clamored to get in. A group of four young fans tried to climb the fence surrounding the Yemeni Cultural Center, but security stopped them before they got inside.
Rapper Hagag AJ performed one of his songs prior to the dance portion of the show, while attendees clapped and shouted praises with gusto. The group of approximately 20 dancers spent a week training with Berki, who flew in from France especially for the event.
The special work Berki choreographed for the show featured musician Abdulatif on the Yemeni lute, or oud, and moves incorporating jambiyyas combined with music by DJ Malik, who spins at clubs throughout France.
Before that performance, the French and German cultural centers organized a raucous hip-hop dance-off and rap competition at the Center for Study and Research in Sana’a. The best of the dancers at the break-off were chosen to attend a weeklong workshop with Berki, which culminated in the dance show last Wednesday.
Berki said training the young Yemeni dancers was simple. “We took about two hours each day for five days to organize something for them and just talk to them to know where they’re from, what they think about life and how they move and dance.”
The choreographer also gave the youths suggestions on how to improve their skills. “We gave them a few techniques to warm up and taught some of them how to use the means of articulation because they sometimes have bad positioning for the knee or elbow,” Berki noted, “We gave them these tools because we’re used to working with hip-hop and we know how to use the body efficiently.”
He continued, “It was really fun to work with them [Yemeni dancers] because they respected us, so it was easy. However, because they weren’t used to being on stage, it was strange for them to organize a show. They were like, ‘What am I going to do?’ We were just trying things, so they were lost sometimes, but it was fun.”
Berki added that in France, he and his troupe perform shows in theaters all the time, so they understand the rules of the theater and tried to pass along lessons to the young Yemeni dancers about how to use the space, the lighting and the sound, as well as how to relate the music.
“Sometimes we were like children when we worked,” he said, “but they [the Yemeni dancers] were open to everything – all propositions, so it was really easy.”
French Cultural Center Director Joel Dechezlepretre believes the weeklong training and end performance was a great success, but apologized to those who were unable to gain entry due to lack of invitations.
“Hip-hop is considered a world dance that connects other cultures easily,” Dechezlepretre said. “We’ve begun by receiving two talented hip-hop dancers from France to test Yemeni youth interactions with hip-hop. As we saw, it was very well attended, so I hope more courses and events will be done in the near future.”
“This phenomenon affirms the long and deep relationship between Arab and European cultures because there’s a special connection between French and Yemeni poetry,” said Khalid Al-Bahri, public relations representative from the Yemeni Cultural Center, who watched the performance.
“Participation was wonderful because they mixed French dancers with Yemeni sounds and vice versa, and they used the jambiyya while performing popular dances,” Al-Bahri noted, adding that he’d love to see more events like this and that he hopes hip-hop dance will be performed more regularly in Yemen.
“This performance differed from others because they mixed Western and Eastern heritages,” remarked Abdul Ahmed Al-Mughni, a 22-year-old Syrian, “It was special when they played the Yemeni lute [oud] with Western dances performed by those from Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, France and other countries.”
And the audience response was overwhelmingly positive. “The aim of this dance party is to change youths’ vision,” said 23-year-old Sana’a University student Mohammed Al-Harazi, adding, “Such activities are mental invitations to youth.”
Participating dancer Saif Al-Thamin, a 22-year-old Jordanian who lives in Sana’a, pointed out that although his family is conservative, they understand that hip-hop dancing is an acceptable pastime and gave their approval when he began doing it three years ago.
“They know hip-hop is like football, basketball or any other sport,” he said, “I do hip-hop as an amateur, benefiting from it by improving my physical fitness. I especially enjoy doing acrobatic movements and spinning on the ground.”
Dancer Ludo, whose real name is Brizolier Romuald, began in a similar way to many of the Yemeni youths who participated in the workshop. “I attended a hip-hop event when I was 15 as one of the audience and a year later, I actually started doing it,” he explained.
He praised Yemeni hip-hop dancers as interested, kind and focused, and believes the medium has a future here. “Although hip-hop is a worldwide dance, every country has its own particular style when dancing it,” he noted, adding, “Hip-hop doesn’t cancel out other cultures; on the contrary, it adds to them.”
Another dancer, Braha’a Al-Haq Brenji, found the weeklong training useful, but difficult at times. “There were some slips, but we managed to overcome them,” he said, “I’ve never seen such conscientious and proficient trainers like our trainers. We practiced in the university cafeteria, Al-Saba’een square or on the street, but I hope we can find another place to practice.”
Berki likewise wants to ensure that the Yemeni dancers will get to practice and hone the lessons they learned during their week of rehearsals, commenting, “I hope they’ll have places to work because this culture – and for me, hip-hop is a culture – is a way to live, to respect others, to grow and give others what you know.
“There are many traditions in Yemen, so it’s important for youths to know how to use these traditions because culture is growing. You need to know where you’re from in order to know where you’re going,” he concluded.
By Khalid Al-Hilaly, Abdullah Al-Riashi and Hatim Qubati For The Yemen Times.