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Performing al-Andalus: Music and Nostalgia across the Mediterranean

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Performing al-Andalus explores three musical cultures that claim a connection to the music of medieval Iberia, the Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus, known for its complex mix of Arab, North African, Christian, and Jewish influences. Jonathan Holt Shannon shows that the idea of a shared Andalusian heritage animates performers and aficionados in modern-day Syria, Morocco, and Spain, but with varying and sometimes contradictory meanings in different social and political contexts. As he traces the movements of musicians, songs, histories, and memories circulating around the Mediterranean, he argues that attention to such flows offers new insights into the complexities of culture and the nuances of selfhood.

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1 In the Shadows of Ziryab: Narratives of al-Andalus and Andalusian Music

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One afternoon in Granada I join a friend in Plaza Nueva, located at the foot of the old “Moorish” quarter of the Albaicín. He manages a little tourist shop that specializes in artesanía (arts and crafts), mostly imported wooden boxes and glassware from his native Algeria, as well as trinkets from Morocco and elsewhere. We had met the day before when, walking around the Calle Calderería Nueva, I heard the voice of the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum issuing from his shop. It was too much to resist, so I went in, and we began talking about music and life in Granada. After half an hour or so we agreed to meet in the main square the next day. At the appointed hour I find him in front of a news kiosk. Because he finds the Albaicín to be “sinister” he prefers for us to head today to the newer side of town. Not only is it more pleasant to sit there, he claims, but he wants to introduce me to a friend who runs a music store nearby where I am sure to find all sorts of CDs for my project on Andalusian music. Not long after we finish our freshly squeezed orange juices at a pleasant café near the Fuente de las Batallas, we walk over to the store, a small shop stacked high with recordings. The proprietor welcomes us both warmly, and we get to discussing the ins and outs of Andalusian music. She has a large collection of what she considers to be “Andalusian music,” including many of the recordings from Eduardo Paniagua’s Pneuma label dealing with one or another aspect of the Andalusian musical heritage, some Syrian and other Levantine recordings, and stacks of recordings of flamenco puro, nuevo flamenco, fusions of Arab and flamenco music, and so on.1 “The whole nine yards!” I think. I imagine that she must have understood that I am interested in musics from the Spanish region of Andalucía—a common confusion—so I tell her that I am mostly interested in the Arab-Andalusian music, not flamenco, which is closely associated with this region in Spain and especially with the city of Granada. “They are the same!” she replies. “They are all sons of Ziryab! Paco de Lucía, Tomatito, these guys [indicating a local group of Arab performers]. ¡Son todos hijos de Ziryab!” With that she puts a disc in the CD player, and, motioning for me to sit down on a stool near the cash register, we proceed to listen to the many sons of Ziryab.

 

2 The Rhetoric of al-Andalus in Modern Syria, or, There and Back Again

ePub

We thread our way through the crowd of evening shoppers in the Souq al-Buzuriyya, passing the rows of barrels of aromatic spices and nuts, as well as Ghraoui’s, my favorite chocolate shop, which dates to the late nineteenth century. There’s no time to stop tonight, however, for Hussein and I are headed to Khan As‘ad Pasha to hear a concert of Andalusian music. Hussein is a well-known ‘ud player from Hama who had relocated to Damascus to pursue teaching and performance opportunities. We arrive a little late, and the Ottoman khan, or caravanserai, the largest in Damascus, has already filled up. With intricate domes soaring over the halls surrounding its expansive courtyard, the eighteenth-century structure is a good venue for a musical performance: acoustically rich and capable of hosting a large audience. Tonight’s concert is part of the Andalusian Music Festival, sponsored by the Instituto Cervantes (a Spanish cultural center) in Damascus, and it features ensembles from Morocco and Spain. The Moroccan group, Ensemble Ibn ‘Arabi (named after the Andalusian sage), directed by Tangier-based qanun player and scholar Ahmed El Khaligh, features performers of the ‘ud, kamanja, nay, and percussion, as well as a vocalist.1 They specialize in Islamic chant (inshad) and Sufi songs (sama‘), as well as instrumental music from North Africa. Wearing flowing white gowns in the stately khan, they are the very picture of authenticity.

 

3 The Rhetoric of al-Andalus in Morocco: Genealogical Imagination and Authenticity

ePub

The sun has just begun to set when I hop out of my taxi and make my way past the barricades into the lobby of the Jnan Palace, a swank hotel in an elite neighborhood of Fez. The Fez Festival of Andalusian Music is about to begin, and I am characteristically a little late. I meet one of the organizers in the lobby. He presents me with my complimentary tickets and says as I rush past, “Don’t worry! It hasn’t started yet!” The lobby has an exhibit of musical instruments, books, photographs, and other memorabilia of Morocco’s Andalusian music, so I stop to have a look. Strolling around, I run into a number of performers, aficionados, and scholars of the music who have come to be my friends, teachers, and primary interlocutors in my research in Morocco. In a way, I feel at home among them and look forward to the concert. I’ve forgotten my camera and recorder at the hotel and only have a small notebook with me. No matter; it means I can focus more on the event and less on the technology. I want to enjoy the music and not just analyze it.

 

4 The Rhetoric of al-Andalus in Spain: Nostalgic Dwelling among the Children of Ziryab

ePub

At last I arrive in Granada! Having made the trans-Mediterranean crossing from Tangier the day before via the port of Algeciras, I eagerly toss my things in my hotel room and head up the hill for my long-awaited visit to the Alhambra, Qasr al-Hamra’, as I would continue to call it, pedantically using the Arabic terms for things and places or attempting to find Arabic roots (arabismos) in almost every Spanish word I come across. The crowds are almost as intense as the heat that day, so after shuffling through the richly decorated rooms of the Nassirid Palace, I stand at a window and gaze out over the Patio de Lindaraja below, with its small fountain and orange and myrtle trees. Looking down, I notice that someone had recently engraved on the windowsill the Arabic phrase “sanastarji‘ iyaki in sha’ allah”—“we will get you back” or “we will reconquer you, God willing.” The Arabic verb yastarji‘ can mean “to reconquer” or “to forcefully return,” a fitting response, I think, to the notion of the Christian reconquest (reconquista) of the Iberian Peninsula—fitting because many Arabs and Muslims consider al-Andalus to have been a golden age, their golden age. Exiting the palace an hour or so later, I walk over to the Generalife Gardens. While wandering amidst the lush vegetation and bountiful fountains, I overhear a man telling his young daughter in Levantine Arabic, “Kull had kan ilna!” (All of this was once ours!). Dreams die hard.

 

Finalis: The Project of al-Andalus and Nostalgic Dwelling in the Twenty-First Century

ePub

Omar Metioui, whom we met in Morocco, is both a pharmacist and a skilled interpreter of Morocco’s Andalusian musical heritage. Having grown up in multilingual Tangier and studied in Brussels, Metioui is comfortable in Arabic, French, and Spanish, as well as in the varied roles of pharmacist, ensemble director, cultural translator, researcher, and social entrepreneur, having founded in 2007 the association Confluences musicales (Rawafid musiqiyya) dedicated to preserving and performing the Andalusian musical legacy. While his pharmacy and the cultural center are in Tangier, he and his family reside in a spacious villa near Cape Malabata looking across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. A plaque near the front door reads “Las Dos Orillas” (the two banks), evoking the medieval concept of al-‘udwatan, the two banks of al-Andalus—the African and the European. Metioui straddles these two banks as a performer and as a person.

On a fine spring day in Fez in 2004, I attended a concert that Metioui gave with Begoña Olavide, the Spanish artist who is also the founder of Ensemble Mudéjar. At the time, Olavide and her husband, Carlos Paniagua, were considering relocating to Tangier to work with Metioui on Confluences musicales. They in fact would later relocate there for some six years, performing regularly with Metioui’s Tangier-based ensembles, both in Morocco and internationally, and conducting master classes on music and lutherie at Confluences musicales’ headquarters in the Tangier medina.

 

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