« Program: The Musical Legacy of Al Andalus, Part 2: Africa & Beyond

Interview: Dwight Reynolds: Al-Andalus 2: North Africa and Beyond

Place and Date: Washington, DC
Interviewer: Banning Eyre

The core of Afropop Worldwide’s summer 2004, program, “The Musical Legacy of Al-Andalus, Part 2: North Africa and Beyond,” is a lengthy interview between Banning Eyre and Dwight Reynolds, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, and Chair of Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of California. Dwight is currently living in Granada, Spain, researching Andalusian music. He had far more to say in that conversation than we could fit into a one-hour program. Here’s a complete transcript of the interview.

Also see Dwight Reynolds interview, Part 1

Banning Eyre: Let’s pick up where we left off last time. After 1492, what happened?

Dwight Reynolds: Well, first of all, there are several different levels to the expulsion. 1492 is the most famous date because that is the fall of Granada, and that is the moment when the Jews are expelled from Spain. The expulsion of the Moors actually takes place over a series of expulsions and different types of conflicts that occur over more than a century. So it’s true that some Muslims left in 1492 as well. They basically saw the writing on the wall. There was no longer a bastion of Muslim power, so some Muslims left in 1492. But at first they had been promised that they would be able to stay in Granada, practice their religion freely, practice their culture freely. So many people of course chose to stay.

That changed within a few years and successively harsher and harsher laws began to be imposed, and then very specifically at one point, the crown said that all Muslims had to leave, or be converted to Christianity. So that led to a second wave of Muslims who left. Those who chose to convert at least in name, we call them Moriscos. So these are Muslims that under Christian control, under an order from the government, if they wanted to stay, forcibly converted to Christianity. The Moriscos continue on in Granada, all the way into the 17th century, especially in northern provinces such as Valencia and Aragon. There are constant problems in controlling this population. Some people in that period portray the Moriscos as being traitors to the crown. They’re essentially a fifth column for the Turkish Ottoman Empire. All of these various concerns eventually come together and in 1609 and 1610, there is finally an official expulsion of the Moriscos from the lands of Castille and Leon. But actually in Aragon, it’s not until 1624–well into the 17th century–when the last of the Moriscos are finally expelled from Spain.

Musically, what happens in that period is fascinating. We have, at first, Muslims who are living freely and openly as Muslims in the region of Granada, and they continue to perform their music. Then, however, with the change of regime in the church and changing regimes in the government, the crown begins to take a harsher and harsher look at the Muslims and at Moorish culture. So they begin to outlaw various different aspects of Moorish and Morisco culture, such as the use of the Arabic language, the wearing of Arab or Moorish style clothing, and very specifically, they promote laws against the performance of Moorish music. We know from various different types of documents that the church [thought] that this music was somehow Islamic in nature and that it posed a threat to those Moriscos who were true converts to Christianity and they really needed to control this phenomenon as far as they were concerned.

The first time that this begins to emerge is in the 1520s, from 1526 to 1532. And that is that the new Archbishop of Granada who is taking a much harsher line with the Moriscos–these people have now at least nominally converted to Christianity–and he’s trying to prohibit the use of Moorish musical instruments and prohibit the gatherings that are called samras and leilas, which are two Arabic words for “an evening gathering.” Interestingly enough, the Moriscos appeal directly to Queen Isabelle of Portugal who’s the wife of Emperor Charles V. She writes down to Granada inquiring why this music has been prohibited. The church officials of Granada write back and portray this music as being sort of an area and a moment when these people secretly get together and sing praise songs to the Prophet Mohammed and do other types of things. And for reasons that are not entirely clear, the Queen is familiar with this music, and she writes back to Granada telling them that they cannot prohibit this music, that they cannot prohibit the gatherings that are called samras.


Part of the reason may be that this type of Morisco music has already percolated upwards into the court culture. We know at least in later times that there are actually court ballroom dances that were considered to be of Morisco origin and that they danced samras like the Moriscos danced. This happens quite a bit in European nations, that a folk dance or a local tradition actually percolates upwards into the high elite courtly culture. So it may be precisely because this had percolated upward into the high court culture that the queen was willing to protect this group. Otherwise, it might have been a social thing. For social or religious purposes she might have seen herself as the protectoress of the new Christians of the south and she basically ordered the church not to prohibit this type of musical gathering.

Banning Eyre: But her opinion didn’t last for very long, did it?

Dwight Reynolds: Correct. What later happened, however, is that there were armed rebellions by the Morisco population, in part as a result of the increasingly harsh laws. After all, the crown had gone back on its word on allowing them to practice their religion openly, which had been the original peace treaty that had allowed Granada to transfer to Ferdinand and Isabella. There were armed rebellions, especially in the region of the Alpujarras, which is the southern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Granada is nestled into the foothills of the northern side of the mountains). And that rebellion lasted for several years, and they actually had to bring in foreign mercenary troops to eventually put down that rebellion. When that happened, of course, then the most harsh laws began to be imposed.

AnchorAs a result of that one fascinating figure, Francisco Nunez Moulay, in 1566 wrote what is called a memoria, essentially an open letter, to the King and Queen of Spain. In tremendously poignant terms, he defends Morisco culture and tries to make a distinction between Morisco culture and religion. The crown–the church in particular–is interpreting everything culturally associated with the Moors and with the Moriscos as being tied to Islam, and this fellow Francisco Nunez Moulay tries to make a distinction. So, for example, regarding the use of the Arabic language, he points out that it would be a tremendous hardship for people to learn Castilian very quickly. He said that the older people in the community would never be able to do it. But he also points out that the Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean–those that live in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, etc.–all speak Arabic, and that therefore Arabic itself is not directly tied to Islam, that you can be a good Christian and be a speaker of Arabic as well. He similarly points out that the clothing, which is different than that of Spaniards and related to that of the rest of the Middle East, is the clothing that’s worn by Eastern Christians in these countries as well. The clothing does not the religion make; you can be a good Christian and still wear this clothing.

For our purposes, of course, the most interesting arguments he makes are about music. The first argument he makes is about the use of Moorish or Morisco instruments. He said that if you are saying that these musical instruments are tied to Islam, then we should find Muslims everywhere using the same musical instruments. But it’s well known that the musical instruments that are used by the Turks are different than ours, and that our musical instruments are different than those used in Morocco. Therefore, the musical instruments can’t have anything to do with Islam. As a scholar researching the history of Andalusian music, one of the most fascinating things for me is that he tells us directly that the musical instruments used by the Moriscos in the 15th and the 16th century are actually not the same as those being used in Morocco at that same time period. This is born out also by different engravings that can be found in the works of European travelers who came to Grenada and southern Spain in the 16th century. We have images of their clothing and we have a handful of images of Moriscos making music and dancing. One of the most famous of those engravings actually shows us a Morisco musician playing a fiddle on the shoulder. We believe that that instrument and the technique of playing a bowed instrument on the shoulder, like the modern violin, was never part of Moroccan culture. So we can see, perhaps, a glimpse of what he means by the different musical instruments.


Banning Eyre: Any other specifics on the different musical instruments of Morocco and Spain at that time?

Dwight Reynolds: Not that we can pin down with certainty that I know of. That etching does show us a percussion player. The percussion instruments were probably very closely related, although there is a sense that there was a square tambourine that might have been only used in southern Spain that might not have been used in North Africa. As to the fiddle playing on the shoulder, it is quite probable that that was actually never performed in that manner in North Africa. There is another instrument that in Spain is called the guitarra Morisca, but that actually does exist in North Africa. In Algeria, for example, it’s called the kwitra. It resembles a small lute or oud, is more oval in shape, has four courses of strings, and is tuned–if you’re used to a guitar or a lute where the strings start from low and go to high–in a very different manner, with the two central strings being the melody strings and the two outside strings being used for drop notes. So it’s performed in a radically different manner than a normal oud or a normal guitar would be. That seems to have been shared between the two cultures, but perhaps the square tambourine and probably the fiddle played on the shoulder would have been distinguishing characteristics.

AnchorBanning Eyre: In the first interview we talked about some of the stages of expulsion from Spain. I’d like to shift the focus now to the people who were leaving. Where did they go? And who were they?

Dwight Reynolds: The waves of people leaving the Iberian Peninsula, particularly Muslims but also Jews, went at many different times and in many different directions. For example, we know of waves of people that left already in the 11th and 12th and 13th centuries with the fall of the great cities of Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. In fact, that might have been the largest wave of people that came directly from Iberia to the city of Fes. One of the largest quarters in the old city of Fes is actually the quarter of the Andalusies, precisely from the early waves of migration. In 1492, Jews left in many different directions. Those from the south in Arabic-speaking regions most probably crossed into North Africa. We know, for example, of one rather large group that crossed over and eventually made their way to Fez, but then from Fez made their way over the Atlas Mountains and into Tlemçen in Algeria. Others went to Tunisia, some went to Italy, some went into Europe. And particularly the Jewish communities–the majority at that time were found in the northern part of Spain in Spanish and Castilian speaking regions–went off to the eastern Mediterranean in what is now Yugoslavia, Greece, and particularly to Turkey. One of the most important Sephardic Jewish communities since the expulsion has actually been located in Turkey with its roots particularly in Istanbul.

Then the Muslims leave in another series of waves after 1492. We know of one group of Muslims that began leaving actually before Grenada itself fell. Al-Mandari was a nobleman in the province of Grenada who left in 1485, seven years before the fall of Grenada, and he ended up repopulating the city of Tétouan. Tétouan had been an older city, but in battles with the Portuguese, who at that point had colonies in North Africa, eventually the city had been destroyed and depopulated. He led a group of Grenadan Muslims across the Straits and sought permission from the Sultan who was ruling that region of northern Morocco to rebuild the city of Tétouan, which he did over a series of years. That became a magnet for Muslims who were leaving Grenada. So in some sense, the Tétouan that we see today that was rebuilt at the very end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century was the result of refugees leaving from the province of Grenada as it bit by bit fell. For that reason, Tétouan has a particularly close historical, social, and emotional tie with the province and the city of Grenada.

AnchorAnother very interesting group of the Moriscos–and you have to remember that these are people who have now at least nominally converted to Christianity, and certainly some of them sincerely–by the time the expulsion orders of 1609, 1610 and 1624 come along, we’re talking about people who might be second, third, or even fourth generation removed from the Arabic-speaking forebears. Especially in Valencia and Aragon in the north that had been Spanish-speaking for quite a long time, these people might have been completely sincere converts to Christianity who knew not a word of Arabic but were expelled and forced towards Algeria and Tunisia.

In some cases they met with rather rough fates because people in those countries did not accept them as being in any way related to them. The Spanish had footholds–forts and small colonies–on the coast, and so they would literally bring these people over in ships and dump them and force them out of the city walls of the Spanish ports. From the point of view of the Muslims who lived in North Africa, here were just these thousands of people that were being essentially thrown into their countryside–with the strange argument that somehow because they, four generations ago, had been Muslims that they were somehow related to the people of Algeria. Even when these people were Muslim they were basically Iberians, Spaniards, Spanish Muslims–Andalusies. But in Tunisia, we have the fascinating case of a community of expelled Moriscos that than came to Tunisia, converted back to Islam–or converted to Islam, however you wish to see it–and continued to speak and read and write in Spanish for centuries.

Banning Eyre: For centuries, but not now, right?

Dwight Reynolds: Correct. Eventually it did die out.

Banning Eyre: Why did they go particularly to Algeria and Tunisia rather than Morocco, which would have been closer?

AnchorDwight Reynolds: [Although] many of the people in the very southern part [of Spain] on the Granadan coast and the Malagan coast just crossed over the straits, it’s not particularly closer if you are coming from Valencia or up in Aragon. If you’re leaving out the east coast of Spain, in fact the most direct route is just straight south to Algeria. The town of Oran was a Spanish colony port at that point and that was where many of them were taken. Interesting enough, it was near to where Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, had been a prisoner for several years before he returned to Spain and then wrote Quixote.

AnchorBanning Eyre: What do we know about what happened to the Moriscos? You say that some of them met harsh fates. Can you elaborate a little on that? And what was life like for those that survived and made their way?

Dwight Reynolds: In Morocco, they were accepted and assimilated more directly into the communities of refugees that were already there. In Algeria, we have at least some accounts of columns of these people being forced out of the Spanish cities and marching off into the countryside of Algeria, where Bedouin or nomadic groups would essentially pick them off and just stop them and rob them of virtually everything that they had. Many of them certainly died, either of starvation and exposure, or from the inability to find anyplace or wherewithal to buy food and that sort of thing. Those that did assimilate, I don’t think we know much or have any particular stories about individuals and how they eventually assimilated into places like Tlemçen or other cities closer to Algiers. However, in Tunisia there was this particular community that retained its use of the Spanish language both in speech and in reading and writing for a couple of centuries before eventually disappearing.


AnchorBanning Eyre: What became of Andalusian culture and particularly music between then and now?

Dwight Reynolds: Andalusian music throughout North Africa is organized into these very large suite-like forms, a composite form called a nuba. The nuba consists of one or two instrumental introductions and then a series of five different vocal movements that move from the slowest and most stately, elegant melodic movements to ones that are faster and that have shorter and shorter rhythmic cycles. The overall impact of listening to a full performance of a nuba would be from moving from very slow, highly melismatic vocal pieces through to much faster-moving, foot-tapping, driving rhythms and danceable music at the very end. One of the most remarkable differences between each of the different local versions of Andalusian music in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya is precisely the way in which a nuba does or does not still exist in that tradition.

In Morocco, there has been a historically close tie to al-Andalus ever since the original invasion. We have to realize that people moved back and forth between al-Andalus and Morocco throughout the entire period of Islamic Spain. We know this from biographies of scholars and politicians, from the two different Berber invasions that came later on in the Middle Ages. These are very closely related regions; crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, that eight-mile stretch of water, was done quite commonly. In some sense, once Andalusian music begins to take on its special character of its own–especially through these new poetic song forms, the muwashshaha and the zajal–that music arrived in Morocco almost immediately, and has been in Morocco ever since.

We have to think of the Moroccan tradition of Andalusian music and being layered with different historical layers of new influences coming in ever since Andalusian music first began. The large waves of migration probably put a particular stamp on that music, sort of the last big “creative impulse” to arrive from al-Andalus itself. But we do know that through the centuries, although this repertoire was transmitted orally with great care, there was also never a sense until very recently that it was a dead tradition with a closed repertory that you could not add to and that you should only preserve and not touch. For example, in the late 18th century, an extremely important manuscript is written called the Kunnash, which is sort of the songbook or the collection of Al-Haik. We think it dates to about 1785, or thereabouts. In that songbook, Al-Haik describes the nuba very carefully and in great detail and lists all the lyrics of the tradition, and he divides the nuba into four vocal movements. But the tradition as we know it today in Morocco, beginning with testimony in the 19th century, is a tradition that has five different movements, including one–darj–that does not appear in the late 18th century songbook of Al-Haik. So we believe that all the songs that are in the movement of darj were added in the 19th century, a strong indication that this was a tradition that was still growing, that was still alive, that was still being composed and added to up until the 20th century.

But the impact of the Kunnash of Al-Haik has been extraordinary in Morocco. So much so that the entire repertory, which probably has over 900 individual instrumental and vocal pieces, in Morocco is now only performed in the order that these songs appear in the Kunnash of Al-Haik from the late 18th century. That’s an extraordinary change from what probably preceded the writing of the Kunnash, an oral tradition in which the nuba would be performed by various different pieces that were chosen by the master musician or sheikh of a particular ensemble at the moment of performance or perhaps arranged a little bit ahead of time. So in Morocco, it’s now impossible to perform an entire nuba in one sitting, because there is a specific order to all the songs. To perform one nuba would take seven or eight hours. So now what they do is only perform one movement at a time. Sometimes, if the time is short, they only perform half of a movement. A movement is called a mizan, and the mizan actually refers to the rhythmic cycle of that movement.

AnchorSo if you go to Morocco and you hear Andalusian music, which in Morocco is referred to as ala, you will not hear different rhythms at a sitting, but you will hear one rhythm and a set series of songs in the same order that they appear in Kunnash Al-Haik–one, two, three, four, five, six, etc.–within that mizan. Now you are allowed to skip one or two of these song–you can go from one to three and then to four and then to six–but you’re not allowed to reset the order. So if you’re a connoisseur of Andalusian music, of ala, in Morocco, and you sit down to a performance and the orchestra begins to perform a particular mizan or a particular song, you actually know what song is coming next, unless they choose to skip one. It’s almost like having favorite recordings on a CD–you are so used to what song comes next that you can actually hear the notes and hum it before the sound is played, and that actually does occur in Moroccan performances. People know the tradition so well, and they know what song is coming next, you can hear people in the audience actually humming before they get to the moment of breaking into performance.

That is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Moroccan Andalusian tradition. It has faithfully preserved a tremendous repertory of pieces. It was actively and creatively being composed and added to well into the 19th century. Perhaps the late 19th century marks the moment in which that door to creative additions is closed and people begin thinking of it more as something which is a heritage from the past–a turath–that has to be preserved and one should change not at all. Another astonishing thing is the impact of this songbook of Al-Haik from the late 18th century, which ends up organizing the entire repertory. If you can imagine having all of the symphonies of Western classical music in a particular order, and the idea that wherever you might choose to start that everyone would know exactly where you’re going to go from that point on, because they had already been set in a pre-organized series.

Another interesting thing about Andalusian music in Morocco (ala) is that it’s tied very closely to a social group within Morocco–and that is, people who consider themselves to be Andalusians, or we might say the descendants of the Andalusian immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula. This identity does not exist in Algeria or Tunisia, for example. People might mention that their family might originally have come from al-Andalus or something like that, but in Morocco this really is a social class unto itself. Families who are of the Andalusian tradition are very clear about this and they will tell you the story of where their families are from. One interesting motif that is shared by Andalusians in Morocco and Sephardic Jews throughout North Africa is the sort of “mythic key” to the “house they left behind.” It’s really an extraordinary thing to be talking to a modern Moroccan who tells you that his or her family came from al-Andalus and that their grandmother or someone in the family still has a large key that belongs to the door of the house they left behind in Grenada or Cordoba or Seville or someplace like this.

The other thing to know about that social identity is that this class of people identify very closely with the Andalusian music tradition. So you have a class support system, a patronage system built into Moroccan society. It’s extremely typical, for example, for anyone who gets married in this class to have Andalusian music performed at the wedding. This class and the musical tradition of al-Andalus in Morocco is also rather closely tied to the royal family, and so it is in another way also the official music of Morocco. If you’re watching Moroccan television or attending any sort of official function, if a minister of the government arrives in Fez or Tétouan or Rabat or Casablanca even it’s very typical for there to be an ensemble of Andalusian music performing off in the corner of the room as the background music to a social event, or before or after a banquet.

So Andalusian music has interesting connotations in Morocco that it doesn’t have elsewhere. It is tied to a specific social group. It’s tied very clearly to the idea of the forced immigration and the expulsions from al-Andalus. It’s tied to the royal family and to the workings of the government, because it’s the chosen musical language by which the government presents itself by way of the media, the radio, and the television.

One other aspect of Andalusian music in Morocco that is unusual to Morocco and contrasts rather sharply with its next door neighbor in Algeria is that during the French colonial experience, the resident general Lyautey–the French officer who was placed in charge of Morocco–for a period of his control of the country pursued a policy of encouraging indigenous culture. He chose to actually greatly encourage the performance of Andalusian music and helped to establish two different conservatories or music schools, one in Fez and one in Tétouan, to promote the use of this music. So it not only has historical connections to the royal family and in the media is now closely associated with all official government events, but it was also actively promoted by the French colonial government.


AnchorAnchorBanning Eyre: What is the contemporary cultural effect of the official sanctioning of Andalusian music in Morroco? Is it driving the youth away from the music?

Dwight Reynolds: The sum effect of this being cast as a repertory that is merely to be preserved and passed on and all of the official overtones of Andalusian music–relating it to the upper class and royal family and its use in government occasions–has meant that for many young Moroccans, and particularly young Moroccan musicians, this is a repertory that’s not particularly appealing. Or it’s appealing for very specific purposes and moments in time. But if you’re a creative musician, you don’t choose to become an Andalusian specialist, because you can’t really add. You can become a master performer of this repertory, and it’s a beautiful repertory. I think all Moroccans see it somehow as part of Moroccan identity, but that doesn’t mean that they actually participate in it.

Many more young Moroccans listen to popular music that’s coming out of places like Egypt, particularly Cairo; they listen to not only popular Western music but popular Arab music from across the Arab world; and sometimes they listen to Moroccan singers who are often recording in Cairo themselves. But they are listening to all those types of repertories rather than listening to Andalusian music. I think young Moroccans wouldn’t even have a single recording in their collection of ala, where they might have 40 or 50 CDs of all sorts of other types of music. In the conversations I’ve had with individuals, people would say: “Why would I want a recording of that? I can see it on the TV anytime the King appears anywhere or anytime a minister visits a town or a wedding.” So it’s not the pleasure music and it’s not the music the young Moroccans identify with.

Banning Eyre: Are you aware of any sort of effort to break it out of that such as Andalusian hip-hop or shaabi music or anything like this?

Dwight Reynolds: Let me first say that it is not that no young Moroccans participate in this. There definitely are people who study this tradition for years and become adept performers. But, I think the only way they could really break out of the current mold, and a handful of people are doing it, would mean that you would have to change the tradition a great degree, in other words, by taking the words or the music and either performing it on completely different instruments or in a different style. I’m not really sure to what degree it allows for that type of change and could still be thought of as ala or Andalusian music. There is, interestingly enough, a second type of music that is closely related to Andalusian music which is rather popular in Morocco. This is called Malhun. Malhun is understood to be historically related to Andalusian music in contrast to other indigenous types of music in Morocco, such as different types of Berber music, Gnawa music that comes up from the south. That has had a broader public audience in part because it is sung in Moroccan dialect, and not in classical Arabic and in part because it is lighter and easier and in some sense it is snappier and faster and easier to grasp than the much slower and statelier type of music that you hear in ala, in Andalusian music.

One of the interesting things is that in several different areas of the Arab Middle East, places that have strong Andalusian music tradition, a secondary tradition, a local tradition, has grown up attached to that musical tradition. So Malhun in Morocco is understood to be related to Andalusian music, but in local Moroccan dialect. In Tlemçen, Algeria, the music that is related to Andalusian music but in Tlemçenian dialect is called hawzi. Hawz is the region around the city of Tlemçen, so it’s the regional music, and it’s understood to be derived from Andalusian music. In Syria, where there’s an incredibly strong interest in Andalusian muwashshaha and Andalusian singing, there is also a tradition of singing things in local dialect to tunes from the Andalusian repertoire and these are called qudud halabiyya associated with the city of Aleppo. All three of these are very similar. In some ways they have taken either melodies or rhythms or even perhaps just use the musical modes of the Andalusian music, which means that they are distinct to the local ear from truly local music. So there is some Andalusian influence there, but all three are sung in the local dialect. Everybody agrees that the lyrics are much newer, much more modern, although they can go back to the seventeenth century. But they are local lyrics in a local dialect that are sung to a music that is somehow related to the Andalusian repertoire rather than related to local, truly folk or popular music.

B.E.: Before we move on to Algeria, please discuss how Andalusian tradition and Sufism relate. Was there Sufism in Andalusia originally?

Dwight Reynolds: Yes, there were very strong Sufi movements in Al-Andalus. A number of the major figures, the major authors and poets that we refer back to as the great Sufis of the middle-ages came from Al-Andalus, and in particular Ibn Arabi, who is perhaps the single best known, most revered figure from medieval Sufism. Ibn Arabi was from Al-Andalus and what’s particularly interesting is that he composed within the muwashshaha poet form that is so closely tied to Andalusian music. He traveled from Al-Andalus to the Eastern Mediterranean. There’s another figure equally as famous, at least within Arab Sufi groups, and that is Al-Shushtari who was also from Al-Andalus and who also composed a large number of muwashshahat and who traveled across North Africa and into the Eastern Mediterranean as well. His name is so closely tied to the Andalusian musical repertoire that in Tunisia, the local term for Andalusian music at the very folk level is Shushtari music, coming from his name. So his name has actually lent itself to one way of referring to the Andalusian repertoire. Because of this rather large corpus of muwashshahat that are truly Sufi and truly religious, there are actually Sufi orders throughout North Africa that perform a special repertoire of religious and Sufi-oriented muwashshahat.


AnchorBanning Eyre: Before we leave Morocco, let’s talk a little about Sephardic music. What can you tell me about that tradition in present Morocco?

Dwight Reynolds: Looking at Sephardic music as a whole, there are really two different branches. One ties directly into the music that we’ve been talking about–the Andalusian tradition, that is, the Arabo-Andalusian music, particularly the courtly music that then moves across to North Africa and is preserved there. There are also many different branches or threads of Sephardic tradition that have to do with Jews that were further North and had become Spanish speaking by the time they were expelled in 1492. If you just say “Sephardic music,” what that means to most people is songs in Ladino, which is closely related to fifteenth century Castillian with an overlay of all sorts of vocabulary from Hebrew and Turkish and Greek and other languages in the intervening centuries. But, these are really romances or ballads that are sung in Ladino that are essentially narrative songs–“The three sisters,” “The maiden and the king,” this type of thing. The majority of what has come down to us as Sephardic music is of that type–sung in Ladino, closely related to types of Spanish songs, Castillian songs, of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Those Jews that left the Iberian peninsula and, rather than going to places like Italy or Holland or what is now Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, came across to North Africa, carried with them the Arabo-Andalusian tradition and ended up continuing to participate in that tradition in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

For example, in Tétouane or in Tlemçen we can point to, up until very recently, master musicians of the Andalusian tradition who were Jews. So, there was a constant thread of Jews performing the tradition, particularly in the role of professional musicians–musicians whose sole livelihood was performing this music. What’s interesting in the Jewish communities of Morocco and Algeria and elsewhere in North Africa, is that they ended up also taking these melodies and applying them to both para-liturgical and liturgical song. This is called contrafactum, where you borrow a melody, write new lyrics and put the new lyrics to the melody that you’ve taken. There’s a wide range of examples, a spectrum of ways in which Andalusian melodies have been used in the Jewish cultures of North Africa. People have written new lyrics for baqqashah, for example. Even in liturgical, a variety of different levels of truly sacred liturgical music, where people have used the melodies of Andalusian music and written Hebrew lyrics to them.

When Jewish communities began to leave in mass from places like Morocco and Algeria in the fifties and sixties, with Algerian independence and the problems that resulted from the establishment of the state of Israel, people began to leave in large numbers. For example from the community in Tlemçen, Algeria, people basically went one of two places. They either went to Israel or they went to France. Of course, as Algerians they were French citizens and had the right to travel to France. So, they often went to France where there were strong communities, particularly in Paris and Marseilles. In both France and Israel, there are entirely Jewish performing groups of the Andalusian tradition. There’s actually a national orchestra of Andalusian music in Israel that receives official government support, which is primarily Sephardic Jews from North Africa who continue to perform and keep this repertoire alive in the context of the state of Israel.


AnchorB.E.: Let’s talk about Algeria in general. How is the Andalusian ancestry and history processed there?

Dwight Reynolds: Algeria, like Morocco, received different waves of immigrants from Al-Andalus and historically had very close ties with the Iberian peninsula during the Islamic period, so we also have to think of a tradition that was constantly in flux. It was not the case that there simply was an Andalusian music created in Iberia and then exported to places like Algeria–they were part of the process. Algeria has at least three different centers for Andalusian music that have been important for some time. In particular, in the West, the city of Tlemçen, and in the East, the city of Constantine, and slightly less ancient is the school of Algiers, that is the actual capitol. Tlemçen is not only known historically as a center for Andalusian music, but is actually tied to a number of different types of musical genres such as hawzi, which is the Andalusian-derived, local repertoire that comes from Tlemçen. There are other forms such as ‘arubi and sha’bi that are also associated with the region of Tlemçen. One of the differences of the Algerian versus the Moroccan understanding of the Andalusian tradition is that in Algeria, they are using the same oral transmission process that we find in Morocco, but there was not the intervention of a written work like Al-Haik that acted as a way of canonizing the tradition and organizing it into a particular order.

So, if you’re in Tlemçen, and you go to a performance of a nuba, you actually do hear a nuba move through the five different vocal movements. In fact, one always moves through all five movements. So in Tlemçen, for example, we sit down and the concert might be an hour, two hours or a little more, what happens is that the master musician, or the Sheikh, has already decided what mode or part of the repertoire musicians are going to perform. They perform the prelude, an overture, that is the Mshaliya and the touchia which are pretty much preset. The musicians learn these pretty much by heart. To a great degree, if it’s the professional musicians who really know the tradition, the Sheikh essentially chooses what comes next. So, you start with the first movement, which is the m’saddar, which is a very stately, slow, elegant rhythm. It’s typically sung highly melismatic style, that is using one syllable over many notes–a highly decorated style. If the Sheikh wants to move on from the m’saddar on to the second movement, which is the b’tayhi, he will just begin performing the b’tayhi or signal to the percussionists and they will move on. But, he might instead choose to perform another song in the m’saddar movement. Or, if the audience gives very strong reactions he might even choose a third song in the m’saddar before moving on to the b’tayhi. The b’tayhi rhythm is a little bit faster, a little bit shorter, done with a little bit less decoration, and the musicians and the vocalists constantly follow the Sheikh in this performance.

So as a result, the nuba is defined as being the same in Morocco and in Algeria. But if you’re hearing the nuba in Tlemçen, you’re going to hear the instrumental prelude, then the introduction, then the first movement, the second movement, the third movement, the fourth movement, the fifth movement, and it’s over. If you hear that same nuba performed in Morocco, you will only hear one movement, but you will hear all of the songs in that one movement, and they will be performed in a set order. Another way of imagining this is to think that if you know the tradition in Morocco, and you’re hearing one song, you know what song comes next. If you are a connoisseur of the tradition in Tlemçen, and the orchestra is performing one song, you do not know what song comes next because that is the decision of the Sheikh or of the musicians–they either have prearranged orders or they will make the decision during the performance, but you as an audience member do not know what song is about to come.

Banning Eyre: As the Sheikh, would you opt to do only one song from the movement?

D.R.: You might. If you were doing a rather short concert, only forty-five minutes or so, you might choose only one song from each movement. For example, if we say that in the mode, or the nuba, of Zaidan and we’re doing the first movement which is the m’saddar, there might be sixteen different songs that are in that mode, in that movement–in that nuba. In Morocco, you would play all sixteen of them in order. In Algeria, the Sheikh will choose one of them, or possibly two of them. So, even if you know the tradition very well (and I’ve heard all of these songs before) almost every performance is a completely new experience because the sequence of the songs is going to be different: The sequence might be suggested by a theme in the poetry. The sequence might have been chosen because of a melodic relationship between “this” song and the second song. The sequence might have been chosen based on a personal association that the Sheikh has. This might be customary or traditional in that ensemble–they really like to do these two songs together, and they do so nearly every time. That means that you as the audience member participating in this tradition, every time you sit down and listen to a performance, you’re going to hear a different series of songs, even though it’s a nuba and in a mode that you know very well.

AnchorB.E.: Let’s come to how this music is received and thought of by young musicians. You’ve talked about how Andalusian music is not so attractive to young, creative musicians who want to add something to the tradition. There are very different pictures in Morocco and Algeria. Maybe it goes back to the fact that the Andalusians who came at the time of the expulsions were not embraced in the same way as part of the society. Maybe that’s the starting point of this whole thing. Give me a picture of where the music stands now.

D.R.: The first thing is to realize that although there were waves of immigrants that came from Al-Andalus to Algeria, they never coalesced into a clear social class unto themselves. They ended up assimilating into Algerian society. So, although you might encounter people who individually say that they have Andalusian ancestry, there is not a distinct class of people or social identity for Andalusians or their music. Rather, Andalusian music is more broadly accepted as part of Algerian identity. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Andalusian musical tradition in Algeria as opposed to those in Tunisia and Morocco is that Algerians, particularly those in Tlemçen, came to see Andalusian music as an act of resistance against French colonial control.

The French ruled over Algeria for a much longer period than they did in Morocco or Tunisia. They arrived in 1830, and they did not leave until 1962–132 years. The French approach to their domination of Algeria was to outlaw the use of Arabic in schools and outlaw many aspects of Arab culture. In some very real sense, they did not conceive of Algeria as a colony but rather they annexed Algeria to France. Algeria was for the French part of France rather than a colony under French control. That perception led to a completely different attitude in many different ways. So, whereas in Morocco we can see a form of patronage that comes from the French colonial government for the encouragement of Andalusian music in Morocco, in Algeria, at different points in time, the French literally tried to suppress and kill off the tradition, and to outlaw its public performance. This meant that for people in Tlemçen, for whom Andalusian music is a dear and very valued part of their local identity as well as Algerian identity, it became an act of resistance against French colonial control, saying: “You’re not going to kill off this tradition.” So people in Tlemçen will tell you stories of how their grandfathers, for example, had to learn this tradition as best they could while hiding, secretly and quietly at night in attics and in basements.

The French, obviously, did not succeed in killing off the tradition. I have to say that in some sense, although they tried to prohibit its public performance, they also did not go after musicians and try to arrest them. But they were definitely not disposed to seeing the performance of this Andalusian tradition during their reign. So it became much more than just a marker of local identity. It became an act of resistance to the French. The interesting thing is that in 1962, with Algerian independence, the Algerian government was actually rather Marxist in orientation. So, rather than embracing the Andalusian tradition because it had been an act of resistance to the French, they branded it a bourgeois tradition because it was in part tied to the patronage of the upper class, it was seen as a remnant of courtly music, it talks about love trysts and gardens and drinking parties and things like that. So they also did not actively encourage the Andalusian tradition. It was not given space on television and radio that it might have been given. It was occasionally performed and broadcast but it was not seized upon by the new government as a mark of identity for Algeria.

Now, the great challenge to the Andalusian music tradition in Algeria is the threat from very fundamentalist or extremist Islamic elements which has led to the tragic situation in Algeria over the last decade, since the summer of 1991. They, of course, do not embrace this tradition because it talks about love trysts and drinking songs and all sorts of themes that are not acceptable to them. Intriguingly, almost as a result of all of these elements that have tried to suppress the tradition, the people who do listen to it have clung to it even more closely. In Tlemçen, for example, at least in the early nineties, it had a broad following amongst young Tlemçenians that you cannot find a real parallel for in Morocco or in Tunisia where this music does not have the strong, emotional, identifying significance that it has in Tlemçen.

B.E.: Does anyone come out of Algeria that can give us any idea of what’s going on?

D.R.: We do know that the musical tradition is continuing in Tlemçen. There has been at least one if not more Andalusian music festivals that have been held there in the last decade and there are a number of Tlemçenian musicians and even perhaps groups that have traveled to France.

AnchorBanning Eyre: So we know it’s still there. Someday, hopefully, the curtain will lift and we’ll see what’s there. Meanwhile, let’s talk about Tunisia. What can you tell us about Andalusian music there?

D.R.: The Andalusian repertoire is locally called malouf. It’s interesting that Andalusian music in each of these traditions is referred to in a different way. In Morocco, the Andalusian repertoire is referred to simply as ala which means instrument or instrumental music. In Tlemçen, people refer to this as Gharnatiyya, Granadian music. In the city of Algiers, they refer to it as san’a which means crafted or artistic music. In Constantine and in Tunisia, it’s referred to as Malouf which means customary or traditional music. At the same time, they refer to it as Andalusian music, but each of these local labels is how you would ask for it if you were in a local shop trying to buy a recording, for example, or talking to musicians.

There are two interesting things tied to the Andalusian music in Tunisia. One, the effect of an ensemble and school called Rashidiyya that go back to a nobleman called Rashid who was a lover of music and who, similar to the way the Al-Haik manuscript in Morocco ended up organizing the entire Moroccan repertoire, he is credited with having begun the process of canonizing and organizing the Tunisian repertoire. That movement gained a lot of ground in the twentieth century and in the mid part of the century, particularly in the nineteen fifties, a couple of major musicians and scholars ended up transcribing the Tunisian repertoire as it was known in the capitol, Tunis. So it is now also a written and oral repertoire at the same time. The other thing that’s very interesting in Tunisia is that we see very clearly an interaction between the Sufi brotherhoods and the tradition that they have carried in Andalusian music, and the secular or profane performance of nearly the same music. They refer to this as performing in two different ways. One of them is named khamm which means “raw” and that is what the Sufi brotherhoods do in their zawiyas, in their lodges. They perform this only with percussion instruments, with no melodic instruments. So it’s primarily with clapping, with percussion instruments, and with singing. That is the raw form of performance.


They of course choose to sing the parts of the repertoire that have mostly religious lyrics and religious overtones–we know that a number of the most famous Sufi poets wrote muwashshahat, such as Ibn Arabi and Al-Shushtari and these are the favored parts of the repertoire in the Sufi brotherhood. Very often, however, those same musicians, those same Sufi brothers, will also perform at local weddings. So they have to bring in melody instruments, particularly different types of reed flutes. They perform in a much more secular context and oftentimes in a much livelier context as well. The music is actually danced to at weddings. So you have the more solemn version, the more austere version with only the percussion instruments, and you also have a much more upbeat version with the accompaniment of melodic instruments that eventually becomes dance music at local weddings.

We do find Sufi brotherhoods, especially the Issawiyya, in other parts of North Africa that carry on Andalusian music in their lodges. But, its particularly in Tunisia that we can see this interaction between Sufi performers and local weddings.

AnchorBanning Eyre: Let’s move on to Syria, which is the furthest away but you say it has, in a way, the greatest popularity of Andalusian music. That’s rather an irony, isn’t it?

D.R.: Yes. One of the interesting things about the Syrian tradition is that it had remained creative and alive until very recently. By which I mean, there was not a sense of having a frozen repertoire that had to be passed on unchanged. For instance, many of the muwashshahat that are sung in Syria were composed in the early twentieth century by a fantastic composer named Umar Al-Batsh who was a major figure in the Andalusian musical world. This is such a large part of the Andalusian repertoire that some Western scholars have written that the Syrians don’t really perform Andalusian music, that their music doesn’t really date back to Al-Andalus. Wherever we’re looking in the Arab Middle East, we have almost no idea to what degree the melodies we’re listening to date all the way back to the middle ages, and date all the way back to the Iberian peninsula. In a handful of cases, we can actually locate the poetic verses in collections and attribute them to a particular poet. But on the other hand, just because the lyrics are written by a poet of, say the twelfth century, it does not mean that the song has come to us from the twelfth century. That song could have been put together in the nineteenth century by a composer who particularly liked those verses.

I think sometimes Western observers misinterpret the label or the concept of Andalusian music. It is not a claim that each and every one of these songs comes to us directly, unchanged from medieval Al-Andalus. It is a style of music. It is couched in particular poetic forms. It has recognizable characteristics in its musical formation as well. But it has not been, until very recently, a dead and closed musical repertoire. In Syria, this has meant that it remains an incredibly popular music. The most famous singers in Syria and great figures such as Sabri Moudallal and Sabah Fakhri sing primarily Andalusian-style muwashshahat. Whether those melodies go back to medieval Iberia or not we do not know. But the style, the form, and the association–the identity of this music with Al-Andalus is still very much alive in Syria.

B.E.: Going back to the history again, were there any Andalusians who went as far as Syria during the time of the expulsions?

D.R.: Yes. Rather than waves of immigration such as those that were received by North African countries, what we know about in the late Middle Ages is actually individual persons, particularly poets and Sufi figures. Both Al-Shushtari and Ibn Arabi for example, whom we’ve already spoken of, ended up in Syria. So we know that a fair number of individual figures traveled as far as Syria. But, there were probably never large groups of refugees from Al-Andalus that moved specifically to Syria. We have an interesting text from the Middle Ages by an Egyptian author named Ibn Sana Al-Mulk which is actually our most important treatise on the muwashshaha and the music that went with it. And he’s writing in Cairo, describing hearing muwashshahat sung in Cairo in the twelfth century. So, we already know that the music had reached Egypt at least that early. Because of that, we always have to imagine that, although history gives us documentation of famous poets and famous authors that move from one place to another, what’s really happening is the transmission at the level of more popular musicians who are never recorded in chronicles and historical accounts, but who constitute the lifeblood of any musical tradition. So, it’s probably those musicians and those singers at a more popular level that are moving into the Eastern Mediterranean and bringing about this astonishing interest in Andalusian music. Then, very rapidly, people in the Eastern Mediterranean begin composing their own muwashshahat and their own melodies in the Andalusian style.

AnchorBanning Eyre: I have some recordings from Syria. Often, the things I read in the liner notes do not make specific reference to Andalusia. Rather, they talk about Sufi music. To what extent does this relates to the story that we have?

D.R.: In Aleppo as well, there is a strong tradition of Sufi performances of Andalusian music. There is also a strong sense that many of the great singers have had their training originally in Koranic recitation or as muezzin. The singer Sabri Moudallal is famous for having been a muezzin, that is, the person who gives the call to prayer, all through his singing career.

B.E.: You said that “not until recently has Andalusian music become a dead tradition.” Has something happened recently to make it less vital?

D.R.:Well, it was not a closed repertoire. So the question is: “Are there composers right now who are composing new songs for the repertoire?” To my knowledge, if there is anyone in Syria composing for it, it is probably rather idiosyncratic. There is nobody of note who is composing and adding to the repertoire, whereas as late as the 1920’s and 1930’s there was this major figure, Umar Al-Batsh, who was composing new muwashshahat and they were completely accepted as being within the tradition. In other words, if you open up one of the collections of muwashshahat of Syria, a number of his muwashshahat will certainly be in there. But, to my knowledge, there has been no one who has added new repertoire.

Banning Eyre: Take Sabah Fakhri for example, he’s not adding?

D.R.: No, he’s not a composer. He’s a singer and an interpreter and for the large, general public he’s the single most popular figure in this tradition.

B.E.: When you were talking about Tlemçen, you said that “one of the most beautiful parts of the music is the improvisation on a single, vocal line.” Can you give me a little riff on that?

D.R.: When we’re listening to Andalusian music in all the different regional traditions there is a fascinating juxtaposition between instrumental sections and choral vocal sections and then moments when individual vocal soloists improvise within a traditional framework using just one or two verses of poetry. In Algeria, this is called the Istikhbar. In Morocco, it can be called Muwal or it can also be called Betain, which literally means “two verses.” Further east it’s called the Mawwaal. The idea is that the singer takes these one or two verses of poetry and just does everything vocally possible, every decorative technique, every beautiful thing with their voice and timbre that they can to breathe beauty into this incredible moment of improvisation.

Banning Eyre: Thanks so much, Dwight. You’ve provided a real education, as usual.

D.R.: Thank you.