The singing sailor of Oman

Salim Rashid Suri Image copyright Other

Teenagers were dreaming of fame and fortune as a musician long before the advent of downloads, CDs or even vinyl. The Singing Sailor of Oman is one young man whose dream came true, writes Matthew Teller, as his fusion of Arabic and Indian musical styles became a hit - on shellac - in the 1930s.

Music has followed trade routes to and fro across the Indian Ocean for centuries, but the birth of the recording industry hugely accelerated the process of cultural exchange. The story of Salim Rashid Suri illustrates how the gramophone helped bring different musical worlds together.

While still in his teens, in the 1920s, this restless soul began to roam, working on trading ships that plied from his home town of Sur, an old Omani slaving port, along the Gulf to Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq - and further afield, to East Africa, Yemen and India.

On board he would have heard unfamiliar accents and stories, and doubtless joined in with the rhythmic sea shanties that helped pass a long voyage.

He quickly found a talent for song, starting with maidan - an Omani form of sung poetry - then picking up more complex sowt (Arabic for "voice") from early gramophone recordings made in Baghdad by popular singer Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti.

But his desire to pursue a musical career, his skill on the oud (lute) and his growing fame as The Singing Sailor enraged Salim Rashid's conservative-minded family. His brother even threatened him with a gun.

So, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he left Oman to settle in Bombay. There he worked as a trade broker - and deepened his musical reputation.

One of his most famous recordings, Bi Allah faasaalooha, dates from this period. It is notable for mixing the Arabic oud with strong Bombay influence in the clarinet - adopted from British military bands - and tabla drum.

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Media captionBi Allah Faasaalooha

Once established in his new home, Salim Rashid recorded a unique form of Indian-influenced sowt, adding "Suri" to his name, to highlight his Arab origins in Sur.

His discs sold predictably well among Bombay's Arabs, but his canny insertion of lyrics in Urdu also appealed to the much larger Indian market, guaranteeing commercial success.

Suri and his Indian wife left Bombay in the late 1940s for Bahrain, where he set up his own record label and recorded with dozens of musicians, including his teenage inspiration, Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti.

He died in the town of his birth, Sur, in 1979, a cultural ambassador for Oman, enjoying regular TV appearances and a solid-gold reputation as a leading exponent of the Sowt al-Khaleej ("Voice of the Gulf") genre.

Here are five more tracks newly digitised from original shellac discs that exemplify the diversity of Gulf musical styles in the recording industry's earliest days. The restrictions of the 10-inch, 78rpm format - which could only hold around three minutes of music - means that songs often ended abruptly, to continue on the other side of the disc.

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Media captionJala Bel Kas

Jala Bel Kas, (Abdullatif Al-Kuwaiti)

One of Salim Rashid Suri's musical idols, Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti recorded for the German Odeon label in 1928 and 1929 in Baghdad and Cairo, including this stately example of sowt, which also features the brothers Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti (no relation to Abdullatif) on the oud and mirwas hand-drum respectively.

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Media captionAl-Jawqa Al-Iraqi Ya Yousef Al-Hasan

Al-Jawqa Al-Iraqi Ya Yousef Al-Hasan (Muhammad Al-Qubanchi)

A gloriously poised example of Iraqi maqam - a melodic improvisation on traditional Arabic musical scales - recorded in 1932 and showcasing al-Qubanchi's resonant vibrato croon.

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Media captionYouahidouni La Khanani

Youahidouni la khanani (Sett Salima Pasha)

Iraq's most famous singer in the mid-20th Century, Salima Murad - who took the honorific prefix Sett ("Lady") and suffix Pasha (a Turkish title of respect) - here performs in the Iraqi pesta style, a short vocal piece sung after a maqam improvisation. She is accompanied by violin, hand-drum and either qanun (plucked zither) or santur (hammered dulcimer).

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Media captionMa Ba Shirka Budi

Ma Ba Shirka Budi (Khamis Makaddeit)

A strikingly evocative example of leywa, an African musical genre heard in towns all round the Indian Ocean, most likely originating from the slave trade. This track, recorded in Bahrain in the 1950s, features ululation and the distinctive whine of the double-reeded surnay, similar to an oboe, over a loping 6/8 drum beat.

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Media captionSiqani Asal

Siqani Asal (Sanad bin Ahmad)

This very unusual a cappella maritime work song, recorded in Bahrain, features Sanad bin Ahmad, a nahham or traditional singer employed on a pearl-diving ship. Bin Ahmad's voice rises urgently above a grinding, buzzing drone, produced by a chorus of sailors growling in their throats.


Find out more

  • Ethnomusicologist and British Library curator Rolf Killius contributed original research for this article - click here for his extended essay on Salim Rashid Suri, with links to more songs
  • The Qatar Digital Library's Soundcloud page features an extensive archive of early recordings taken from 78rpm shellac discs
  • The Qatar Digital Library YouTube channel has contemporary performances of traditional music genres, including sowt

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

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