History of Yemenite Jews
Yemenite Jewry goes back nearly 3,000 years. Some say the Queen of Sheba had her nation in ancient Yemen and converted to Judaism after meeting King Solomon. However, throughout the years Jews in Yemen were persecuted under the name of Dhimmis which means second class citizen. They paid a high tax for "protection". They were not allowed to build houses higher than their Muslim neighbors, ride on horses, drink wine in public, defend themselves against attacks, or even touch a Muslim because they were considered "impure". This greatly affected their music and dance. They were not allowed to make much contact with the outside world and as a result developed their own unique customs and traditions. One of them was not being able to use musical instruments, so their music and dance is all vocal and rhythm-based. Their music and movements are connected to religious poetry from the book of Diwan. After centuries of persecution, poverty, and famines, Jews were taken out of Yemen to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet in 1949. Currently less than 50 Jews remain in Yemen and because there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, the Jews still there are at risk for “ethnic cleansing”.
Read more about Yemenite Jewish history here.
Listen to Yemenite audio recordings here.
Yemenite Jewish Music
The Jews of Yemen have preserved a well-defined singing arrangement which not only includes the very poetic creation itself, but also involves a vocal and dance performance, accompanied in certain villages outside Sana'a by drumming on an empty tin-can (tanakeh) or a copper tray. The Jews of Yemen, maintaining strict adherence to Talmudic and Maimonidean halakha (laws), observed the gezeirah which prohibited playing musical instruments. Instead of developing the playing of musical instruments, they perfected singing and rhythm. The texts used in the arrangement were put down in writing and later included in separate song collections (dīwāns). Men’s song usually expressed religious sentiment, whereas folk songs of Jewish women were sung by memory (unwritten poetry) and expressed the happiness and sorrows of their daily life.