YEMEN: Akher El Akhbar - Ahmed Fathi
Updated: Mar 1
The master of the oud demonstrates his skill not only in his musicianship but also through his production of the record
Around November 2020, having listened to numerous albums that featured the oud front and centre, it is fair to say that I was accustomed to the sound. I was, however, not so opinionated on the oud as I was ‘keen for the kora’ or ‘dedicated to the duduk’; in other words, I was on the fence about the oud, an instrument that I somewhat liked but hadn’t yet blown me away. Then came along Ahmed Fathi’s spectacular 2008 release, Akher El Akhbar.
“It is an absolute floor-filler not just because of its infectiously upbeat tone but also its catchiness.”
At the time I was recommended the album, I was living temporarily in a hostel in Lisbon, Portugal. Due to the pandemic there were very few guests staying in the shared accommodation, which meant that I could play my music in the communal showers loudly and without fear of being accused of 'sodcasting'. With this in mind, one evening I went to take a shower and was proudly singing along to Fathi's work. As I opened the door only in my towel, the Nepalese cleaner was stood there and in broken English said “this is like a Sarangi but better”. Now, there are two ways to reflect back on the situation - either embarrassment, thinking of her stood there for 15 minutes listening to me blast out Yemeni pop music whilst laughing at my inability to get the lyrics spot on, or with a smile, as I ponder the powerful nature of music that even stopped her in her tracks compelling her to connect with me, even under the rather amusing set of circumstances.
I am not suggesting that the oud is a better instrument than a sarangi, or that any instrument is inherently better than another, but what the album did was revolutionise my understanding of what was possible with an instrument in the hands of the right master. The week I was recommended it, I found myself listening to it on repeat at every given opportunity. Though other music I loved eventually got in the way, for months I found myself coming back to the album and knew it inside out. As a record that had a special place in my heart, it took me by total surprise when the album was removed from Spotify in 2021. Initially saddened that I couldn’t stream it, I was absolutely delighted to discover that the album was reinstated several weeks ago. However, something wasn’t right…
When I listened to it for the first time since its reappearance on Spotify, the album felt completely out of kilter and almost unfamiliar. It was then I realised that the order of the songs had been totally jumbled up. Having since found the correct order and listened to it as originally intended, I realise that Fathi’s genius not only comes in his virtuoso ability on the instrument, but also in the production of the album too. Every aspect of the record seems so well thought out and further compounds the view that the best musicians are more than just performers, they are artists who take care of each detail of an album rather than bunging together an incoherent selection of tracks and hoping for the best.
The record, in its correct form, begins with Siret Chagen, that kicks off with an eerie spoken word piece with snake-like hissing on top of an impressive oud instrumental. Then comes Fathi’s call and response vocals, which change the rhythm and feel of the piece entirely. There is a bluesy tone to the track, but this is confused by the pipes that join him, almost disorienting the listener, before closing the song with an impressive oud solo. Khal Li Hali then starts off sounding like a ballad in which he is pouring out his heart to his one true love. Then everything changes. Let's just say there ain't no party like an Ahmed Fathi party.
Bridging old and new so perfectly, Fathi brings in a modern up-beat tempo and rhythm but does this by stripping back each instrument and allowing them to each momentarily take centre stage with a deft touch. The party is very much underway by this point and the tone becomes increasingly celebratory, making dancing an irresistible prospect on Argouk and Goug Banat. The title track’s dramatic instrumental with sparse but effective complimenting of a synthesiser is another string to Fathi’s bow, that he takes to new heights on the groovy Ya Ganity and my favourite track A'al Eh. The latter track is a certified banger that I can imagine taking off in clubs and discos far away from Yemen. It is an absolute floor-filler not just because of its infectiously upbeat tone, but also its catchiness.
Before Fathi totally winds down the party he entertains with Garrib Tigy and Yastar, two very different tracks, with the first more akin to flamenco and the latter with gentle elements of R&B, but both nonetheless very enjoyable. Closing on Bidayet Hob, Fathi's inclusion of a clarinet is the perfect way to bid farewell to the album. Often we are guilty of politicising music when it isn't needed. There is no obvious political statement on this album, just a statement that the master of his craft is making by demonstrating how multi-dimensional the oud is when left to someone as talented as him.