It was the most unlikely place to find a copy of James Brown's The Popcorn. Pinned clumsily to a wall in one of the many antique shops in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, hung the creased sleeve of a rare LP that contains some of Brown's funkiest moments. To stumble across it here defied logic, but was, it turned out, the kind of inconsistency that is happily commonplace in Yemen.
I have always collected records; for me, it's one of the most reliable ways of interacting with new situations, surroundings and people. I realise this is anachronistic in an age of torrents and high-speed downloads, but it is inspired by one simple fact: there is still so much 20th-century music that lies undocumented. By day I work as an NGO consultant, and over the years have trawled the streets of Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta and Rangoon, often with my portable turntable in tow, looking for vinyl. As well as new music (and old), it has led to conversations and experiences that would otherwise have alluded me.
Everyone has heard of Yemen, but lately not a lot about its music or culture (the resignation of President Saleh in November last year and subsequent violence have, naturally, dominated the headlines). But the country is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the Near East and stakes a claim, along with Ethiopia, to be the birthplace of coffee. Aden, on the south coast, was once one of the busiest sea ports in the world. In Sana'a's old city, with its ancient box-like architecture and labyrinthine back streets, there are jewellery hawkers, henna and spice sellers; there is the smell of incense, grilled meat and the sweet sting of qat, the privet-like leaf that acts as a slow-release amphetamine when chewed.
I knew nothing about Yemeni music, but began by asking shop owners if they had any old records; within a short time I had made contact with a small circle of locals keen to help, frankly amused by my fixation.
The best examples of local music I found were the 45rpm singles, often in a sorry condition. These featured hypnotic melodies, usually played on the oud, backed by percussion and topped off by heartfelt vocals that drew on Yemen's long poetic tradition. On a first listen, they reminded me of old blues records. The heavy percussion and rhythmic string-picking in some of the songs belies the fact that the east African coast is only 20 miles away across the Red Sea; in many ways, Yemen is closer to countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia than to its peninsula neighbours, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
The guardian .