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Vol. 12 No. 2 (2023): Access to Waxes – The Collections from the Arab World of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Digitization and Open Access Publication

A Historical Glimpse of Music in Yemen in the 1930s: A First Approach to the Cylinders Recorded by Hans Helfritz

  • Jean Lambert


The 102 cylinders recorded by Hans Helfritz in Yemen in 1930–31 and held by the Berlin Phonogramm-Archive represent a precious asset for the study of music of this country. They are the first large number of recordings of Yemenite music carried out in the field, just before the beginning of the first commercial recordings in Aden a few years later. Unlike the Aden recordings, Helfritz's represent mainly popular musical genres from the different tribes from the Highlands and Hadramawt, soldiers' songs, work songs, women's songs, and Jewish songs. As a first approach to this collection, I re-documented an anthology of a dozen of these recordings. I brought together as much information as possible from different sources in order to contextualize this music and its collection: Helfritz's biography, his books, his two main travels to Yemen and how he recorded music, and some considerations about Helfritz's contribution to the knowledge of Yemenite music. I consider the ambiguities of his orientalist vision and approach as an explorer more than as a musicologist, which contributed to the form and content of the collection itself. Finally, I bring up a few ethical considerations about these "captured sounds" and the future of this collection.