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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Pearl divers’ songs to be subject of documentary

Filmmaker Ray Haddad and British musician Jason Carter hope to have the 40-minute film finished in time for the Abu Dhabi Volvo Ocean race later this year.
Jason Carter, who with filmmaker Ray Haddad, is making a 40-minute musical documentary on the UAE’s pearl-diving heritage. Pawan Singh / The National
Jason Carter, who with filmmaker Ray Haddad, is making a 40-minute musical documentary on the UAE’s pearl-diving heritage. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // Nearly 20 years ago a filmmaker and a musician tracked down a group of long-forgotten entertainers in Havana and turned them into global music and movie stars.

Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder sparked a rebirth of traditional Cuban music with The Buena Vista Social Club. Now the filmmaker Ray Haddad and the British musician Jason Carter aim to do the same with the musical tradition that is an integral part of the UAE’s pearl-diving heritage.

Filming begins in September on a 40-minute musical documentary, which the two men hope will be finished in time for the Abu Dhabi Volvo Ocean race at the end of the year.

The idea came to Mr Carter when he met a pearl diver in Bur Dubai 21 years ago and became fascinated with how singing played an integral role in their lives at sea.

“While a diver was diving, his friends on the boat would all sing a song for him,” he says. “It would be his specific song, that was made up for him based on how long he could hold his breath under water.

“By the time the song was finished, if he hadn’t surfaced they would go in and rescue him. It was like a timer. They had no watches, so this song played the role of a stopwatch.”

Pearl diving in the Arabian Gulf is thought to have begun in the early 18th century and was a way of life until the 1930s. It was fuelled by the growth of trade with India and helped in the early development of the country before the discovery of oil.

The last pearl divers stopped working in the 1960s, and Mr Carter says there was a concern that much of the culture that accompanied their work – such as their songs – was in danger of being lost for ever.

The pace of development in the UAE has been so rapid and on such a scale that some parts of its heritage have been brushed aside, he says.

“We can’t necessarily protect it, but we can document just a bit of it,” Mr Carter says.

“This film is about grabbing hold of just a handful of these people who are left and getting stories about what their lives were like, getting them to sing for us and tell us what it was all about.

“That’s part of the UAE’s culture which has hardly been touched on at all, and it definitely hasn’t ever been documented officially.

“I’d like to give people a bigger window. I want to invite people to look at what happened in the past and ask them for just a moment to look at it for a while before it’s gone for ever.”

Mr Carter has been travelling between the UK and the Arabian Gulf for 23 years.

He established the Jesser Al Wadi foundation to “build bridges through music”. For the past 18 months he has been in the UAE tracking down the families of pearl divers, to find the remaining handful of the older generation who are still alive.

He has contact details for at least two families in Ras Al Khaimah, but will wait until the cameras start to roll on September 4 to get in touch with them. The journey of meeting them and recording their music will form the story of the short documentary.

Mr Carter says that while the image of pearl diving has been romanticised, the songs the men sang to keep themselves entertained weren’t necessarily very poetic.

“I’ve heard a few of them when I was in Bahrain and while my Arabic isn’t that good they were hilariously funny to everyone else around,” he says.

“It was all about this guy, probably about the colour of his lungi, or something. I don’t think they were profound by any means.”

mcroucher@thenational.ae