A Word from the Editor: Bahrain’s Memory: Guru Muhammad bin Harban
In the Bahraini dialect, as in most Gulf States’ dialects, a "dar" (plural "duwr") is a room in a typical house that may contain a number of "duwr", depending on the size of the home and the residents' financial means. Whereas, in various Arab countries’ dialects, "dar" means "house" or "residence”.
In Bahrain, this term refers to a room which used to be erected in a secluded spot for men from neighbouring areas to meet after the pearl diving season to converse and sing folk songs. These meetings typically started after the evening prayer and lasted until late at night.
Traditionally, these duwr have norms of ethics, cultural and traditional conventions, and manly rites that have been faithfully observed from generation to generation, in accordance with the needs of each time period. In the past, duwr were built outside neighbourhoods, with sound isolating walls, and few small windows for ventilation closer to the ceiling. According to narrators, some of those duwr that were built close to residential neighbourhoods, had their foundations built in a pit three to four meters deep. This was done to reduce the sound of drums and chants, so as to avoid the annoyance of the austere religious men. Each dar is named after a well-known founder. Duwr’s founders are in charge of financing, the provision of musical instruments, as well as all other aspects of hospitality.
Some of Bahrain's last singing duwr (houses of singing) were established in the 1940s or shortly thereafter, and have remained popular for many years. Such as: Ali bin Saqr’s Dar, Muhammad bin Harban’s Dar, Ibrahim Musaad’s Dar, and Ibrahim al-Bulushi’s Dar in Muharraq; Jannaa bin Saif’s Dar in Bumahir; Qalali’s Dar; Muhammad bin Arik’s Dar and Al Riffa Al-Saghirah Dar in the eastern Riffa; and Juma bin Maktub’s Dar in Budaiya.
Because these duwr were gathering places for men to meet, converse, and sing, they played a social and political role in shaping the national movement and current events over time. In May 1932, some of the major folk music duwr in Muharraq were demolished by the colonial authorities of the time to prevent gatherings, and until the 1960s, lutes were prohibited and were seized at the country's ports. Thank God for this thriving era of social development, creative and intellectual openness, cultural advancement, and responsible freedom that we are living in today.
As a result of social changes, the departure of most folk singers and the recession of their position, the number of duwr in Bahrain, and possibly other Gulf countries, has declined. However, some of these duwr have managed to survive the change of times through innovation and adaptation to changes in broadcasting and tourism requirements.
One of the schools where I learned the ABCs of traditional singing appreciation, as well as the percussion of drums, tars, and brass instruments, was Muhammad bin Harban's Dar in Muharraq. I was drawn in by the unforgotten voice of Nahhamas (Pearl Diver singers) and the endless unrivalled groans in their songs.
The late master Muhammad bin Jasim bin Harban and his contemporaries were among the founders of the traditional singing duwr in residential communities and the alleys and neighbourhoods of the cities. Their intention was to emphasize the connection between the locals and the traditional arts, give social status to the performers, and demonstrate the ethics of the art. They accomplished many of their noble goals, the most important of which are preservation of the traditional arts and attracting new generations, who otherwise would not have known this aspect of their heritage.
Muhammad bin Harban, with his average height and charming voice, would be seen wandering, then, among the performers, proud of his experiences, knowledge, and talent for art. He was inventive and not content with just singing marine songs, but was also intrigued by the "Bustat," "Samiri," and "Ardah”. He and his band were keen not to miss a national event.
The late Muhammad bin Harban, may God rest his soul, was wise to ensure he passed his experiences on to his children, endowing them with a love of traditional arts.
I used to ask this great artist questions arising from my early interest in folk arts whenever I had the opportunity, and he was always friendly and answered me with his welcoming smiles, reiterating, “Come with us, stay with the group... you will learn and know everything”.
This guru was truly a wise and proud artist who gave his life to creativity and art. He was a wise pioneer who instilled in us the principles of traditional singing arts and the importance of performance. His inspiring spirit lives on within us, and within Bahrain’s memory.
I read the news about the opening of the new building that the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities had erected for Dar bin Harban, in order to realize His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's vision of culture as an integral part of national identity. It is, without a doubt, a great cultural accomplishment and precisely what should have been.
Ali Abdullah Khalifa