Chanting and dancing: the traditional ways

When a country is racing towards the future it’s easy to lose site of the past. But one of the things that anchors any society is an awareness of and respect for the cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations – and which, in turn, reflect the history and personality of a people

Khaleeji music is music native to the Gulf region, often characterised by heavy use of the oud (the Arabic stringed instrument) and the tabl drum (a double-headed drum that is banged with mallets on each of its sides). Though Khaleeji songs nowadays tend to have a pop slant, the music has its roots in storytelling.

In his 2014 book, Jaber Jasim: A Journey into Word and Melody, Abu Dhabi-based Moayad Al Shaibani looks at 50 years of Emirati – or Khaleeji – songs, in particular exploring its relationship with poetry.

“Older songs would take you back to the place, they would paint a picture and you would see, smell and imagine what exactly the song is about,” Al Shaibani says. “The songs were born out of customs and social habits. They are part of our identity and help us to reconnect with our past.”

traditional emirati dance
East meets West: Emiratis teach visiting golfers how to bang the tabl drum

Many Emirati songs derive from and reflect the lives and times of the people who created them. In particular, the Arabian Gulf’s pearl diving heritage – which dates back thousands of years, continuing until the 1960s – features heavily in these traditional chants and songs. Pearl divers would sing songs on the boats during their exhausting day, and many traditional chants were rhythmic work songs, acting as musical sustenance as energy levels waned.

While poetry and song have their roots in the working day, traditional dance is – as you might expect – more associated with celebrations and entertainment. There are many traditional Khaleeji dances that are still performed, particularly on the UAE’s National Day on 2 December, which marks the joining of the seven emirates as one nation in 1971, and during religious festivals like Ramadan and Eid.

The songs were born out of customs and social habits. They are part of our identity and help us to reconnect with our past

Moayad Al Shaibani

One of the most popular traditional dances in Dubai and across the UAE is the Ayyalah. Performed with at least 25 men, and often many more, it is a particularly theatrical dance that depicts victory in battle. The men form two lines and face each other with arms linked. To the beat of drums, they brandish sticks, recite poems and move back and forth.

For those who like their dances to be a little less war-like, the Haban – also known as the Khayali or Khamiri – is often performed at weddings and involves two groups of male and female dancers. The dancers are accompanied by a group of musicians who create a two-step rhythm.

The Yowalah is another dance traditionally associated with battle – although it was also performed to celebrate the return of pearl divers after a hard stint at sea. And while there’s little call to celebrate either pastimes in 21st century Dubai, traditional dance and song continue to provide a strong link to a rich history.