The Musical Heritage of Al-Andalus
By Dwight Reynolds
In our childhood, they taught many of us that Al-Andalus was the center of a grand golden era of Arab civilization. As we lament the current state of Arab civilization, we were also taught that European civilization benefited immensely during this period. These notions are self-evident in the realm of music since, to this day, there is a highly popular genre of Arab music attributed to Andalusian heritage. Do these notions have the historical support needed for academic research, or do they remain mythological?
A new book by UC Santa Barbara professor Dwight Reynolds is highly recommended to anyone interested in Arab music and history. As the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus by the Arabs, “The Musical Heritage of Al-Andalus” traces the art history of the region. Reynold’s overview of the region’s entire history provides a concise, unique overview of Arab arts since Andalusian culture continues to be an integral part of Arab culture.
Reynolds spans the period from the earliest conquest of 711 to the final expulsion that led to carrying the Andalusian traditions to North Africa. He stresses his purpose to explain “the complexity of the various (musical) borrowings, adaptations, hybridizations, and appropriations” as he walks the reader from the music of the medieval courts of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada to Damascus, Cairo, and Aleppo. He uses Latin, Hebrew, Catalan, and Castilian sources besides Arab references and his experience with hands-on research in Arab countries.
The book is abundantly technical and richly academic but remains easy reading that beautifully flows through various topics musicians and historians would enjoy. It informs readers about life in the medieval period and the Umayyad and post-Umayyad arts with an extensive section on Ziryab (as expected), as well as the musical theory, practice, and instrumentation of the entire Mediterranean region. This section includes the development of maqam theory and rhythm systems and the evolution of stringed and bowed instruments (for anyone wondering if the guitar was derived from an oud). The book also describes how, in early Arab culture, singing was primary to the art of music-making and the term ghina, or singing, also served as the general term for music. Musiqa was borrowed from Greek only when Arabs translated the Greek music theory works.
Perhaps the post-Andalusian impact on today’s Arab music matters the most to some readers. For centuries, but mainly when the final expulsion of the Moriscos took place in the 1600s, Arabic-speaking Andalusians settled in North Africa. They took their costumes, customs, food, poetry, and music. As well as zajal and muwashahat, they composed and sang poetry in colloquial Arabic and classical Arabic, respectively. These forms spread among the local populations and sprinted to the Middle East, where they were so loved that local poets and composers created their own in that style, famously in the city of Aleppo, among other cultural centers. To this day, muwashahat remains recognizable and is called Andalusiah to give credit to their origin. This reviewer learned the contrafactum process, where a melody of an older song is borrowed and new terms set to it, perhaps as the highest form of admiration for the melodies that arrived with the Moriscos. Arabs call that qudud (plural of qadd, the word for size or quantity). This credit now goes to Aleppo under the name qudud Halibyya.
Andalusians restructured Arabic poetry and music so that today can be a disruptive technology. As described in this book, poetic meters (buhhur al-shi’r) were closely bound to musical rhythms, creating a framework for musicians and composers. It took over four centuries of the Islamic era for “the mold” to be broken by the multi-cultural society of Muslim Spain, where strophic and multi-rhythmic music called muwashahat and zajal suddenly emerged and quickly spread throughout the peninsula.
Muwashahat (plural) comes from a word that describes decoration by adding a shawl, or wishah, as well-dressed women enhanced their outfits with a colorful scarf, poetically breaking the mold but with non-shocking incremental modification to the classical works. In a colloquial dialect, zajal began as oral strophic poetry. The term is associated today mainly in Lebanon and the entire Eastern Mediterranean countries with improvised rhythmic poetry among talented competitors who satirically try to outdo each other to the delight of live audiences.
“The Musical Heritage of Al-Andalus” is a masterpiece of beautiful writing and a necessary reference for every person interested in history, culture, language, religion, and music. A critical account of the inter-cultural merging of various, often apparently opposing, values and mores, the book sensibly handles topics like wars and invasions, expulsion and destruction, beauty and joy, history and progress. The book describes the tolerance among three sectarian communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, with distinct yet fluid identities and, without being explicit, points to an example of peaceful coexistence. For many centuries, these groups coexisted on the same peninsula, forming a rooted part of our history that must be documented.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid