The Forgotten Sea Shanties of the Gulf

Until well into the 20th century, their haunting melodies were sung by Gulf sailors all across the Indian Ocean

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The Forgotten Sea Shanties of the Gulf
Sailors at a dhow sailing race in Dubai on May 3, 2019/Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Ahmed Ruqait Al Ali was just 16 years old when he survived a shipwreck off Oman’s coast by latching onto a piece of the mast until he floated upon a desert island. It was 1958. That year, he was one of the luckiest sailors from his neighborhood. It was a monstrous one for typhoons, and three other ships from his neighborhood in Ras Al Khaimah were lost. On the other ships, all perished.

For men of his generation, life revolved around the sea. They circumnavigated centuries-old Indian Ocean trade routes on great wooden ships and sailed to pearling beds in the final chapter of the Gulf’s ancient pearling trade.

Song provided solace and strength for Gulf mariners at the mercy of God, the winds, and waves, recalled Al Ali, now in his 70s.

He was about 12 years old when he heard the mariners’ melodies on his first voyage aboard his father’s ship, from Ras Al Khaimah to Bahrain. Sea shanties, or maritime work songs, helped sailors keep time during the day’s labor. When darkness fell and the day’s work was over, music provided the evening’s entertainment.

“The sailors sang when they raised the sails, they sang when they rowed, they sang for everything to encourage the group, oh yes, to encourage them,” says Al Ali, who captained dhows, the sailing vessels used across the region, on the Indian Ocean in the 1950s and 1960s. “We sang of life, of love and longing, of anything.”

In the Gulf, shanties are still sung by those who knew the sea’s hardships firsthand.

Gulf mariners were Indian Ocean traders, fishermen, and pearl divers, and collective expression through song provided solidarity and hope. Pearl divers lived the most perilous existence of all. Wearing little more than a nose plug, they plunged to depths of 30 meters (98 feet), made up to 100 dives a day, and faced shark and sawfish attacks, blindness and aneurysms, drownings, scurvy, and malnutrition. Added to that was loneliness. The summer dive lasted three to four months, without rest or word from family.

“The death rates of the pearl divers and the folks traveling the Indian Ocean on dhows for trading was extraordinarily high,” says Laith Ulaby, who studied traditional Gulf music with the mariners in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar in the mid-2000s for his doctorate in ethnomusicology.

“What gets divorced in the (modern) reenactments or the performing of (songs) is that in the lyrics, people are literally asking not to die. A lot of times, there’s cute wordplay, but it’s also a lot of gallows humor dealing with this incredibly risky work. I think that, sometimes, sitting at home on the couch and watching it on our phones, we kind of lose that element of just how dangerous and demanding this work was.”

Nasser Al Taee, an Omani ethnomusicologist, translated shanties that pierced the range of human emotion, from agony to elation:

They fight death and all its elements
While smiling
Oh, how I suffer from the long nights
Witnessing those motherless divers
Every time a month passes by, another follows
Until the eyes grow old

Another begins,

Oh, how lucky are the rich
Who no longer cross the ocean as me
If I was rich and a merchant
I would never have endeavored
But I’m weak and all I have
Is my cane

Melodies blended the music and instruments of the Indian Ocean. Voices lifted in a call and answer between a lead singer, or nahham, and a chorus of workers. Textured, overlapping rhythms rose from tiny cymbals and hand drums to bulky standing drums and syncopated clapping that became synonymous with Gulf maritime music.

Captains offered competitive wages for the best nahham, who could lead both spiritual shanties and regale sailors. Above all, the shanties provided a connection with the divine, calling on God and the sea to show mercy. Their performance had strong parallels with Sufism, in which music is central as a way to be closer to God.

As physical and cultural boundaries hardened in the 1960s, the Indian Ocean dhow trade came to an end. Pearling had already wound to a halt following the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl in 1928.

But shanties remained important for new states. After the British withdrawal from the Gulf in the 1960s and 1970s, governments used poetry and folk music to legitimize the nation-state and exemplify its values. It was also recognized as a tool for soft power in diplomacy, and states sponsored troupe tours abroad.

Consequently, elements were dropped or downplayed in national performances, including references to the Indian Ocean slave trade, women’s singing, sexually suggestive lyrics, and mysticism resembling Sufi practices, all of which ran counter to Gulf states’ governments that identified with desert Bedouin heritage and conservative Salafist values.

Pearlers’ songs of women at home pining for men survived in national canons, while women’s critical role in pearling was often overlooked. Women helped prepare fleets by digging wells and hauling casks of water to ships and then managed the household for months while men were at sea.

Women had their own repertoire of maritime songs, like “Tawb, tawb, ya Bahar” a popular tune when ships returned to port:

Enough, enough (oh ocean)
Four months (and the fifth is on its way)
Bring them, bring them (Bring them, bring them)
Sailing, bring them (Sailing, bring them)
Aren’t you afraid of God (Oh ocean)
You took my son (Oh ocean)

After the conservatism that followed the Gulf War in the 1990s, women in Kuwait are once again performing onstage alongside men, as they did in the country’s golden age of music and theater in the 1980s.

Outside of state-sanctioned performances, music continues. Across the Gulf, elderly men still meet to sing these haunting melodies at community rooms, known as majlis, dar, and diwaniya. These can be in modern homes or old seaside neighborhoods where elders return from the suburbs to reunite for conversation, tea, and song.

In the last decade, social media has introduced these meetings to the wider public, with heritage accounts of small groups attracting devoted young fans.

“It’s opened up the private space, it’s given access for people to get a glimpse into the diwaniya,” says Ghazi Faisal Al Mulaifi, a Kuwaiti musician and assistant professor of music at New York University Abu Dhabi. “It’s created curiosity, and it’s encouraged a lot of people who want to learn this kind of music to go visit the diwaniyas. I would say the posting on Instagram is a beautiful way to let people in.”

Additionally, shanties grew into new forms of music, and their presence can be heard in the rocking beats and scales of urban sawt music and modern Khaleeji pop.

Of course, it’s impossible to pinpoint influences.

“In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there was a lot of work to try and figure out where exactly musical practices came from, and the contemporary thought is it tends to be a lot more complicated than that,” says Ulaby.

“When you listen to the pop music from the region, there’s definitely some of those rhythms and instruments that are seeping in. But it’s hard to know, is that because their neighbors are from Iran, and they’re playing a 6/8 rhythm because they’re hearing Iranian music? Or is it a 6/8 rhythm because that’s what the pearl diving music was?”

In Kuwait, shanties remain in high reverence, and groups founded in the 1930s still meet.

The challenge in modern adaptations is preserving the meaning, notes Ghazi.

His family was one of the last in Kuwait to practice pearl diving and stayed involved in the trade until 1955. But he only learned this family history at age 13, for his grandfather was loath to discuss it.

“We were very close, and no topic was off limits, except for pearl diving,” says Ghazi. “When I found out that he was a ship master, I asked him to tell me about life at sea, and he just told me all the men died at sea.”

Ghazi asked a few more times, then gave up. “I recognized there was a lot of loss there.”

At diwaniyas, social gatherings hosted in private homes, Ghazi watched elders weep, lost in song and memory. One diwaniya leader became a member of Ghazi’s ensemble, Boom Diwan, which combines shanties with global jazz. Occasionally, the entire diwaniya performs with the band.

Ghazi consciously stepped back from the sea shanty trend that swept TikTok in late January, when people around the world posted videos singing European sea shanties.

“I do feel like my role is to conserve the music but also to protect it from being a fetish object, in the colonial sense,” says Ghazi. “I have had people in Kuwait reach out to me during this whole TikTok thing and say, ‘Hey, it’s a hot moment for sea shanties, do you want (to) put your band out there with the TikTok trend?’ While I’m sure it would have created a lot of visibility for Boom Diwan, I declined.”

Ghazi believes the best way to honor the past is to collaborate with other artists, just as mariners themselves melded language and rhythms.

“What we’re trying to do in Boom Diwan is revive a tradition of dialogue and let the music be in its natural state, which is a music that changes with each interaction and civilization. So, we’re pushing back against some of the heritage discourse. It can exist, that’s fine, but as people born in this tradition, we want to make sure that the music remains free.

“There’s no such thing as a canon of Kuwaiti pearl diving music that’s not changing,” says Ghazi. “That is an unnatural state for the music. If it’s being performed as heritage, it’s being performed as a historical document, and that’s fine. But the tradition of the music is that it changes.”

For now, the pandemic has silenced the dar and diwaniya. But the beats of the dhows will be heard again, changing with the times as they did for centuries.

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