The Singing Sailor, Salim Rashid Suri: A Ṣawt Musician from Oman

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Salim Rashid Suri, an Omani ṣawt singer and oud player became famous as the ‘singing sailor’ and for developing a truly unique style, which took influence from musical sources across the Middle East and India.

Not even his brother threatening him with a gun could stop Salim Rashid Suri from singing. His family disapproved of his involvement with music so extremely that the man known as the singing sailor took to the seas, journeying with commercial ships to ports in East Africa, India and around the Middle East.

The style he developed during his travels encapsulated the cultural melting pot and long history of trade across the Gulf and Indian Ocean, which in turn had an impact on the musical landscape of the Gulf. Through his recordings and the testimony of his children, the extraordinary story of how he came to be so influential can be pieced together.

Sur and Ṣawt al Khaleej

Salim Rashid Suri (1910/12–1979) was a singer and oud player who was born and died in Sur, Oman, though he spent most of his life in India, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Salim Rashid Suri at an airport circa 1960s; courtesy of Khalid Al-Suri.
Salim Rashid Suri at an airport circa 1960s; courtesy of Khalid Al-Suri.

Although he began by singing al maidan, a form of sung poetry known in the Suri region of Oman, while accompanying himself on a one-stringed drone instrument, he was to become known for his distinctive style of Ṣawt. Ṣawt al Khaleej, a traditional urban style mainly developed and performed by musicians from Bahrain and Kuwait, was popular throughout the region. Suri was an important contributor.

His birthplace, Sur, was one of the most important Arabic trade ports connecting Oman with Yemen, East Africa, Zanzibar, India and ports along the coastlines of the Gulf. Though there was very little specific influence of Omani music in his style, Sur is still regarded as one of the main centres for traditional Omani music. This cultural mixing undoubtedly influenced the young musician.

The Singing Sailor

In Sur he started working on commercial ships and had the chance to visit port towns in Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, India and East Africa. In this period he learned ṣawt music while listening to recordings of the singer Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti (1901/1904–1975) and through his contacts with other musicians in the region. Travelling widely, he quickly became known as the ‘singing sailor’.

Because of his family’s disapproval of his choice to pursue a musical career he escaped their influence and settled in India in the early 1930s. As his son, Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri, put it ‘he left Sur with a good voice, but he didn’t know how to sing’. It was during his travels that his music developed and at Aden (at the time, part of the British-controlled Aden Protectorate; now part of Yemen) that he first encountered and learned to play the oud.

Broker in Bombay

In Bombay he added ‘Suri’ (or ‘Soori’) to his surname to indicate that he is from Sur in Oman. He lived in the port area of the city and initially became a ‘boiler controller’ on a steamship before becoming a broker Often a local commercial agent in the Gulf who regularly performed duties of intelligence gathering and political representation. and translator, helping Arab merchants to buy goods in Bombay and transport them to the ships.

Increasingly, the ‘singing sailor’ came to be known as a versatile singer of ṣawt. His audience was mainly the Arabic-speaking community, many of whom were from Oman and Yemen and had settled in Bombay. Most of the musicians he learned from were from the Arabian Peninsula, especially from Yemen, but he also studied Indian music.

Salim Rashid Suri performs with a tabla drummer and violin player in Bombay, 1967; courtesy of Khalid Al-Suri.
Salim Rashid Suri performs with a tabla drummer and violin player in Bombay, 1967; courtesy of Khalid Al-Suri.

He recorded twelve shellac (78 rpm) discs with HMV in the early 1930s, which were sold for around fifty Indian Rupees Indian silver coin also widely used in the Persian Gulf. each. These records did very well commercially, especially amongst the Arab population in Bombay, but also among Indians, in part because Suri used Urdu in some of his songs.

In 1943, he got married to an Indian woman whose mother was from Bhatkal in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Many people from the traditional Muslim Navayat community – who are themselves descendants of Arab seafarers who married Indian women – have settled in this small coastal town.

Full Circle: Bahrain and Oman

After leaving India in the late 1940s, due primarily to the difficult economic and, according to his son, generally ‘unfavourable conditions for foreigners’ in the newly created independent India, Suri settled in Bahrain where he became a sought-after freelance artist. By the 1960s, he had created his own record label, Salimphone, and recorded widely in the region with musicians such as Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti and Mahmud al-Kuweiti.

However, because Suri’s records were only suitable for gramophones, the coming of vinyl records (45 rpm) in the early 1960s hit his business. Struggling financially, Suri returned to Oman in 1971.

There he found work with the ruler Sultan Qābūs bin Saʿīd ʾĀl Saʿīd who made the singer a consultant for cultural affairs. In this role he started to perform songs eulogising the ruler and his family which were widely broadcast on Oman’s recently established TV and radio stations.

Suri had come full circle. Initially a traveller and seafarer, Suri’s music encapsulated the centuries-old cultural exchange of the India Ocean and Arabian Peninsula and broadcast this to a wide audience in the early years of mass media. By the time he died in 1979, Suri was being hailed as an icon of the Omani nation for his contribution to ṣawt al-Khaleej.

This article is based on an interview with Salim Rashid Suri’s son, Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri conducted by the researcher and recordist Edward Fox on 21 November 1990 and subsequent email conversations between the author and Sa‘id.

Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri is also a versatile musician and singer. He was born in 1954, received his main education in Bahrain and presently lives in Oman where he moved with his father and mother when he was eighteen years old. From 1975 to 1978 he studied music in Egypt.