Once again, in a long tradition that now is a Tangier-in-Ramadan institution, the American Legation was the venue last night for a concert of Arab-Andalusian music. And it did not disappoint. The audience – despite one of the hottest days yet this summer – was fully into the swing of this rythmic music, one of the most precious reminders of a cultural past that spanned the Strait of Gibraltar, from Iberia to the Barbary Coast.
Here we have two of the ten members of an ensemble put together by Nabil Akbib, who has a busy musical life in many dimensions, including the group Arabesque. We see the oud on the left, and the zither-like qanun on the right.
All of the musicians are well-known in their own right, and justifiably so. The lead vocalist, whose range goes from tenor to an Andalusian alto that has to be experienced, was a real crowd-pleaser. And he knew when to let the audience take over, as they did quite often, with gusto.
One guest commented that the atmosphere was perfect for the assembled Tangerois. They "felt at home, could meet friends" during the month of Ramadan. The comment, as well as the reflections of other guests, show that there is an important underlying sociological aspect to this music as well.
We've met a number of Moroccan Muslims who feel that their open, tolerant version of Islam is under assault by radical imported varieties. The signs are many, but most audibly through muezzins who seem to stress the raucous, the discordant, and the aggressive in their calls to prayer. Where are the melodious, even beautiful, voices that were on center stage last night? Listen closely through the nightly din, and you may hear them, gently chanting.
Part of the problem may be willful ignorance on the rightful place of music in Muslim society. Cities of Light, an interesting website dedicated to Andalusia in the time of the Arabs says that
Performance art and music theory came together in the royal courts of Al-Andalus throughout the period of Muslim rule. Ziryab was a musician who represented the courtly arts and cultivated society. He established a music conservatory in Córdoba that trained young musicians, spreading his influence to other courts. His talent and influence included ideas about harmony, rhythm, and composition. Scholars of music history trace many later styles of song composition and performance to Ziryab. Certainly, his influence brought eastern styles as well as classical Greek and Arab musical ideas to Al-Andalus, but once there, they combined with North African and indigenous Iberian styles over time to create a distinctive Andalusian musical tradition. The tradition continued even after the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.
So, the tradition established by Ziryab continues to this day, encouraged in Morocco by cultural organizations dedicated to preserving the rich musical heritage of this country.
At TALIM, we too are happy to support this tradition, and to bring our own contribution to preserving Morocco's musical heritage. This year, the centenary of the birth of Tangier American writer, composer, and man of culture Paul Bowles, we hope to bring attention to his efforts at cultural preservation.
In 1959, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles crisscrossed newly independent Morocco in a VW Beetle filled with heavy sound recording equipment. The result is some 70 hours of reel-to-reel tapes, safely stored in the vaults of the Library of Congress.
With a little help from Moroccans and Americans eager to bring this unique musical heritage to light, we hope to use this year's Bowles Centenary to "repatriate" this repository of music.
Ziryab, I think, would approve.