Life in the Gulf was once dominated by the Jewels of the Sea, but what many people may not know is that alongside the wealth from Pearl Diving there was also great hardship, and one of the main things to get people through the days at sea was music. Now, Bahrain-based British guitarist, Jason Carter, is on a mission to tell the story of these unknown voices in a documentary and multi-media concert. FACT’s Shabana Adam learns more…
Did you know that pearl divers of the Gulf had a song for everything? The women and children of men, who went out to sea, also had their own songs about the pursuit. In fact, music played a pivotal role in the lives of the pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf. But, it’s something that is rarely, or never, mentioned in conversation about the pearl diving industry. One man has set out to change that.
Meet British guitarist and filmmaker Jason Carter, who moved to Bahrain just over a month ago and is currently working on two projects to showcase the forgotten voices of the pearl diving era. “Everyone knows that pearl diving existed but less is known about the music and that fascinates me,” Jason tells us. “The women had songs, the men had songs, and the children had songs too. All were sang as the pearl divers were preparing the boats, set to leave and go out to sea for up to 12 weeks at a time. If you talk to some old Gulf Arabs, they will often recall as children, standing on the beaches and watching the pearl divers go out to sea and still being able to hear the songs,” he says.
It’s a magical notion that even the toughest labour of that time was so highly influenced by such a simple and grounding thing as music. “The role of music in this situation is multi-faceted,” Jason says. “It kept them going. It was powerful; it gave them freedom and it kept the morale high – especially singing, it’s very personal.” Songs of longing, hope and survival were part of the divers’ every day life at sea. “I think, on the whole it was something to get them through the time at sea, but, also, the songs had beat,” Jason explains. “For example, when they were rowing they had songs that were very rhythmic; the captain would be calling and singing out to motivate them, and they would repeat the words as they rowed.
“There were songs for pulling the ropes, pulling the divers, there were comical songs, very melancholic songs, and even songs for when nothing was going on,” he adds. Jason’s very first experience of this music was actually in Bahrain, back in 2000, when he was invited by the British Council to perform with local pearl divers. “Those concerts in 2000 and 2001 changed my whole perspective of what music can be, because I was interacting with a group of old men from a totally different culture, and they were so generous and excited, and wanted to share their stories and heritage with me,” he recalls. After the concert, the Minister of Culture approached Jason and told him “you have no idea what happened tonight,” to which he responded, “what do you mean?” One look around and Jason immediately realised that this performance had brought together Bahraini men who wouldn’t usually mix, but because of music, and specifically pearl diving music, they had come together.
“That really changed my perception and something clicked in my brain,” Jason says. “And from that moment it’s sent me off on a more conscious voyage around the world in regards to the importance of music as a platform for intercultural dialogue.” All of Jason’s connections with the Gulf and love for music led him to pursue A Grain of Sand. It was originally set to be a documentary-style film about the last remaining pearl divers in the UAE and Jason travelled the breadth of the Emirates to find pearl divers willing to share their story.
It was mainly in Ras Al Khaimah where people opened up and Jason was able to gather some truly deep and moving footage. The project has now been turned into a full-fledged multimedia concert that Jason is hoping to present in a one-hour show of original interviews, old photos, videos and original music with loops and samples – dedicated to the music of the UAE’s pearl divers.
“What we found in the UAE was a story of real hardship, in that the Emirates was the poorest country in the Gulf at one time,” Jason shares. “In all honesty a lot of pearl divers were slaves from Africa or India and it was a tough life and a tough industry. It was quite common that people would die at sea and when the boats came into the harbour, if there was a black flag flying it meant they had lost somebody,” he continues. “The UAE story is important and I will tell that story through mixed media.”
For the film, the focus is now Bahrain and Jason admits that it’s a lot easier to find the magic that he had originally set out to capture, as Bahraini pearl divers are a lot more open about the activity. “I’ve never had a creative project that I let go of, especially when I know it’s a good idea,” he says.Jason’s commitment to intertwining the past with the present through A Grain of Sand (did you know that a pearl begins its life as a grain of sand?) and now the upcoming film in Bahrain, are both a massive celebration of the Gulf region’s cultural identity, something we hope will always stay strong and true to its roots.