Around the time that Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was growing up in Ireland, his countrymen were mounting the guard at the Irish Battery, now on some maps as le tour des irlandais, just around the corner from what would later become the American Legation. This was the British occupation of Tangier, 1661 – 1684.
O'Carolan, considered by many to be Ireland's pre-eminent composer of what might be called "classical traditional" music, was made known to many modern audiences through the folk music group The Chieftans, especially their late harpist Derek Bell.
Now, through the generosity of Dr. David Asbury, Southwestern University professor of music, Irish music returned Friday night to the medina of Tangier.
This is how Asbury pitched his O'Carolan event: I am currently performing a program of the music of Turlough O'Carolan that I have arranged for solo guitar. The music has strong Baroque and Celtic stylistic elements and translates beautifully to the guitar. It is very beautiful music that is widely accessible.
How could we refuse such an offer? The show was on, and our audience was delighted.
We made the most of Dr. Asbury's visit to Tangier, and introduced him to the good people of Confluences Musicales, who organize the annual world traditional music festival Tarab Tanger. Confluence president and vice-president Omar Metioui and Mounira Zouak, educators whose work carries on the tradition of Arab-Andalusian music, showed us around their beautiful space at Bab Marsa/Borj Hajoui, a restored Portuguese fortress. Metioui explained how this Andalus/Maghreb tradition was saved during years of puritannical Almohad repression in the Middle Ages by finding refuge among the sufi orders and disguising itself as religious music.
Metioui and Zouak took us through the wonderful Confluences lute workshop (housed in the former morgue at Bab Marsa!), and its display of ouds and other instruments used in Andalusian music.
But back to O'Carolan. Dr. Asbury took the audience through the process of arranging the Irishman's work for guitar, O'Carolan having composed upwards of 200 works, largely for the harp. Though much of the repertoire owes its origins to Irish dances and melodies, Asbury explained that the Italian Baroque influenced O'Carolan.
As did whiskey, with tunes dedicated to (and likely inspired by) "Jameson" and other imbibables. O'Carolan's countryman, a Captain McKenney, who "fell drunk asleep" at a late 17th century entertainment near the Irish Battery in Tangier, would have enjoyed the show. Samuel Pepys himself was entertained by "harp, guitar, and dance," according to his Tangier Journal. Nice distractions, no doubt, from the "flux and scurvy."
David Asbury's Tangier visit has inspired him to return and research the rich musical traditions in this city of many cultures, and we have an inkling that his students will get enthusiastic encouragement to seek internships at TALIM. As O'Carolan might have said, cead mile failte or 100,000 welcomes!