Taher Ismail was 10 years old when he first fell in love. And 46 years later, he is still committed to his first love, which he says is “passionately moody”.
Clothed in bright new pink, green and blue “karakish” beauty ornaments along the frames, Ismail gently caresses his lady: the tambura. “She doesn’t always give in to my advances, sometimes I need to just sit with her quietly before she decides to sing for me,” he says coyly.
And then with a few tweaks using a small wooden pivot known as a ghazala, he shares his lifetime relationship with one of the country’s oldest musical instruments by falling into a trance, striking the five-string instrument with a bull horn in his right hand, his left dancing along the upper part of the strings.
“Oh people pray! Pray, pray! Remember Allah, remember your Prophet Mohammed,” he chants against a deep assortment of tones. The music is part of a traditional zeker, where religious eulogies are sung to inspire a listener’s soul.
The 56-year-old is one of the last few Emiratis who know how to skilfully bring out the best in a tambura. At almost his height (just over five feet tall), this stringed instrument is made of bamboo, fabric, animal sinew for strings and a hollow, wooden bowl covered with animal skin. Originally from the African region of Nubia (along the Nile river in northern Sudan and southern Egypt), it is used in Noban dances and songs.
The tambura has three maqams, which refer to specific Oriental musical scales. Its “microtones” have a greater range than a western music scale and help give the tambura’s music a greater evocative power.
“It was my mother who inspired me to pick up this instrument,” says Ismail. As a child, he would watch her sing along with a tambura. “It was so magical.”
Two elder musicians, Jawhar Ahmed and Salem Maneaa – who have long passed away – encouraged the then 10-year-old to make his own tambura to practise on first. Known as a samsamia, it was simply made of an oil can, sticks, nails and strings of fish nets. Ismail had struggled through many bleeding fingers on his samsamia before being honoured with a proper tambura.
“It was a test of patience and perseverance. If I quit early on, they wouldn’t have bothered to teach me all the different sets of musical pieces and how to bring about the different tunes that tug at one’s heart,” says the retired army man, who lives in Dubai.
“Music needs commitment and dedication,” he says. “It is a marriage for life.”
And here lies one of the biggest challenges for the survival of traditional music and its instruments in the UAE.
“We are losing our traditional music,” says Fahad Omar, head of traditional performing folklore and music at the Sharjah Directorate of Heritage.
“The new generation is not picking any of the traditional musical instruments. Some are learning to play the oud, but that is a relatively new instrument and our ancestors didn’t play it,” says Omar.
Besides the tambura, there are other traditional musical instruments that make up authentic Emirati and Gulf music. Drums of different sizes and shapes are essential for the beat or rhythm, while wind and string instruments create the melody and distinct tunes.
It’s not just the commitment that’s the problem, but also the perceived image of those who play traditional instruments.
“It is not considered prestigious to be seen playing on drums and other traditional instruments, so we find mostly non-Emiratis playing them, like the stateless, Yemenis, Omanis or even non-Arabs from Pakistan and Africa,” he says. “They depend on it for a living.”
Ismail cuts in and adds: “I feel like a prince when I play my tambura. I don’t understand why people looked down on traditional musicians.”