BEGINNING IN THE FIRST CENTURY BCE, natural pearl diving was the economic, social, and cultural backbone of the Persian Gulf. Well into the 1930s, over 100,000 men—enslaved Africans, indentured workers, and career divers from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar—still took to the sea each season, diving hundreds of times a day to the oyster beds, only 1 percent of which would produce a pearl. It was exhausting and perilous work descending twenty fathoms down to the seafloor, and music lifted their spirits. Nahma: A Gulf Polyphony, the latest transmedia compilation from FLEE, explores the histories that shaped the music of Persian pearl divers alongside the capricious gulfs they traversed.
A record label, publishing house, and exhibition organizer, FLEE aims to comprehend musical genres and movements as “social objects,” encouraging a mode of informed listening attuned to the political dynamics that shape particular sound cultures. Each release includes an LP and publication dedicated to singular musical phenomena, such as Kenya’s benga or Italy’s pizzica, researched and then revived through the interpretation of contemporary musicians, scholars, and artists. The foundation of their most recent project is a collection of rare and previously unreleased recordings of pearl divers’ music captured by the Danish ethnomusicologist Poul Rovsing Olsen in the late 1950s. Classified according to rhythm, melody, and chanting style, his archive includes nahma (“songs”) for work (bahri), leisure (fijiri), and drydocking (sanghini), with specific songs directing the movement of the anchor (“Dawwāri”) or the sails (“Khatfat Al Shira”).
Every captain would hire at least one singer (a Nahhām) to sing on his pearling boat, as well as to protect the crew from mythical sirens and sea monsters—the nahm—from which they drew their name. These vocalists would lead each song as their ship moved between oyster beds, with the rest of the men joining in to form a choir. According to legend, this music was stolen from genies and indeed, it sounds at once mystical and entirely human, suspended between heaven and earth. Trained to hold their breath for long periods underwater, the divers’ lungs boom and bellow across the open water, summoning magic out of thin air.
The first song from Olsen’s archive featured on the album is “Yā Mal,” a midaf (or “oar” song) to be chanted by the Nahhām while sailors row. Together, a droning bass choir of throat singers and the strained lamentations of the soloist (“O, Fortune!”) compose a portrait of their sea: unfathomable and fickle, rarely fruitful. The pearl trade depended heavily on slavery, which was perpetuated along the Arab Peninsula well into the twentieth century. Songs like “Zumayyah” hauntingly echo the call and response of African American spirituals, while “Bahri”—evoking Bahrain’s namesake “two seas” (referring to the abundance of freshwater springs beneath the ocean)—slowly builds to an ecstatic frenzy. Drums slap like water against a ship’s hull, propelling the musicians forward as the piece falls into a seventeen-minute polyphony of mantric exclamation and reverie: a tempestuous dialogue between the soloist and his choir, between the wind and sea. Within the more leisurely fijiri suites, songs enjoyed when the wind died down or work was done, poetic improvisations and wide syllables swell under the empty sails; the slow and sentimental Arabic vocal tradition of mawwāl prevails here, and you can nearly hear these sailors’ hearts break for the shore. In other tracks, anguish reverberates between the choir’s highly percussive clapping and cries, recalling Flamenco’s feverish palmas and jaleo.
Such resonances reflect the Gulf’s rich, intercultural waters. The 240-page Arabic-English publication accompanying the album offers a prismatic history of this music through the eyes of pearl merchants and divers, curators, conservationists, scholars, and artists. We meet Abou Saleh, one of the last of the Nahhām, who welcomed the rise of oil (which, he says, “allowed us to rest”) in the region, as well as “Major Ali,” a retired Emirati Navy major turned conservationist who bemoans the devastation the petroleum industry has wrought on the Gulf, among the most polluted bodies of water in the world. On the LP, contemporary musicians further interpret Nahma in practice and theory. Percussionists like Tomaga and YPY fall into rhythm behind the fijiri, while Hieroglyphic Being pushes it into EBM and house. Tarek Yamani, a Beiruti pianist known for his jazz-inspired “Afro-Tarab” style, pulls us toward the Atlantic; Ben Bertrand drifts in an ambient seascape, and Joakim samples the sounds of the shore.
The archival music of Nahma sits in stark contrast to these new artists’ work, often reliant on synths, programming, or the steady pulse of a drum machine. The dichotomy is poignant, and portends the future of pearling itself, a trade newly dependent on technology. The value of cultured pearls plummeted during this century, returning the Gulf’s divers to darker waters. Dressed in scuba gear, they use X-rays to improve efficiency and avoid overfishing, while back on shore, conservationists, scholars, and divers’ families work to preserve pearling as a trade, cultural heritage, and lifestyle. Muharraq, once the pearling capital of the Gulf, is being revitalized as a Unesco site, while out at sea, old men are once again teaching their grandchildren to dive and sing.