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Yemeni Architecture, Dance Transmit Tradition

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Yemeni Architecture, Dance Transmit Tradition

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Yemeni Architecture, Dance Transmit Tradition

Yemeni Architecture, Dance Transmit Tradition

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Yemen is known as a place that clings to tradition in a rapidly changing world. While much of the Southern Arabian Peninsula relies on concrete and steel, Yemenis continue to build brick-and-gypsum buildings that give their towns an exotic gingerbread appearance. And while younger Yemenis say they prefer modern dance moves, tribal dances remain popular in many villages.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

The country of Yemen is known as a place that clings to tradition in an ever-shrinking world. Now, while much of the southern Arabian peninsula relies on concrete and steel, Yemenis continue to build brick and gypsum buildings that give their towns an exotic gingerbread appearance. And while younger Yemenis say they prefer modern dance moves, tribal dances remain popular in many villages.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: As a fiery sun bakes the plains of the Hadramawt region in central Yemen, young laborers with white cloth head coverings are dripping sweat as they carry gypsum rocks to and from a huge dome-shaped kiln.

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KENYON: When the smoking white rocks are brought back to the work area, all it takes is a little water to set them sizzling and popping as they crumble into powder.

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KENYON: Yemen has long been noted for its distinctive architecture and for the habit of building in the most unlikely locations. Villages jut out of impossibly steep outcroppings that would challenge a mountain goat.

(Soundbite of banging)

KENYON: In a scene from another century, the workers wield long sticks above their heads to beat the gypsum and water into a smooth white paste. This is what Yemeni craftsmen will use to create brilliant decorations around doors and windows, intricate designs that seem positively luminous in the bright sunlight.

Modern concrete and steel buildings are not unknown in Yemen. But for reasons of economy and also it seems preference, Yemenis continue to build their houses, shops and mosques in the old style. Some visitors have noted that unlike many developing countries, Yemen has relatively few squatter slums, speculating that it may be in part because the preferred building style is nearly as affordable as throwing up a shack.

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KENYON: Yemeni tribal traditions are transmitted through folk music and dances. In this version from Manakah in the Haraz Mountains west of the capital, men wearing the traditional futa(ph), a skirt-like apron with a ceremonial dagger at the waist, whirl, dip and spin in carefully calibrated steps to the accompaniment of drums and an oud.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: This display is for mainly European visitors to Manakah and isn't strictly traditional in its use of microphones and amplifiers. The future of traditional music and dance isn't clear. Younger Yemenis, especially women, say they prefer modern dances. But there are boys as young as five ably playing, singing and dancing on this evening, another reminder that while much of the Arab world takes pride in its history, Yemen seems to hold it a bit closer.

In his book "Yemen, The Forgotten Arabia," the British author Tim McKinnon Smith writes that Yemen is different. It is one of those rare places where the past is not another country.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Manakah.

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