By Matthew Machin Autenrieth, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow
The legend of Ziryab has long connected the musical traditions of the Mediterranean.
Born in Baghdad in the eighth century, this singer, oud player, poet and teacher was exiled to Córdoba in Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) during the height of the Umayyad Caliphate, bringing with him the musical styles and fashions of the Islamic world. In the cradle of al-Andalus, Ziryab is said to have founded the first school of Arab-Andalusian music paving the way for the emergence of various styles and repertoires that continue to this day across the Maghreb and Levant.
The historical facts surrounding Ziryab are difficult to validate, yet his legacy endures into the present. The Ziryab and Us project is one such example of how this legend is being reinterpreted and reimagined in the twenty-first century, connecting the past with the present through musical exchange.
The project is part of the Medinea (Mediterranean Incubator of Emerging Artists) network. Integrated into the Festival d’Aix en Provence, Medinea aims to support innovative musical projects across the Mediterranean. Five talented musicians from different countries (France, Israel, Morocco and Spain) came together in a week-long residency in May 2016 at the Mediterranean Music Institute of the Berklee College of Music in Valencia (directed by the flamenco producer Javier Limón).
The goal of the project was to revisit the Ziryab legend through the cultural and aesthetic frameworks of the artists’ different musical backgrounds. Through intense intercultural exchange, the artists challenged the boundaries of their traditions and their own individual musical identities and aesthetics.
From Morocco, Abir El Abed offered to the group her training and experience as a prolific Arab-Andalusian singer. Yoav Eshed (Israel) contributed his expertise as a jazz guitarist and improviser. The multi-instrumentalist Colin Heller (France) combined his training as a classical violinist and his love for Mediterranean traditional music, bringing unique melodic and harmonic textures to the group through his performance on violin, mandolin and the Swedish nyckelharpa (a hybrid violin-hurdy gurdy instrument). From Spain, Sergio de Lope translated the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of traditional flamenco to the classical flute, expanding on the instrument’s technical and timbral capabilities. Finally, Sergio Martínez brought to the group his innovative approach to flamenco percussion, incorporating diverse rhythmic flourishes from the Latin-American and jazz worlds.
During my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, I have been researching collaborative projects across the Strait of Gibraltar in which flamenco is combined with Arab-Andalusian musical traditions. I am interested in how the narrative of a shared cultural heritage (especially between Morocco and Spain) is articulated through musical exchange. For me, the Ziryab and Us project was a wonderful opportunity to see how young musicians are reinterpreting this narrative. I was fortunate enough to be able to observe and document the entire creative process.
Over an intense period of rehearsals and recording sessions, the musicians collaborated to create a repertoire of original pieces and innovative arrangements of traditional songs that have tangible links with the Arab-Andalusian legacy. More than simply a historical legend or a framework for ‘authenticity’, the very idea of Ziryab enabled a space in which the musicians could work through their own musical and cultural affinities. Rather than defending tradition, the idea of the project was to establish a common musical language built on the individual capabilities of the different members. The musicians were required to balance their own artistic aspirations with a respect for the traditions they were working with.
For some of the artists, it was the first time they had worked with certain styles, which allowed them to enrich their own musical knowledge. Expanding on his jazz background, Yoav said: ‘The music was exciting for me because it was my first time exploring different genres such as Andalusian music and flamenco’.
The process wasn’t easy, however. While some styles shared a natural sonic affinity (such as Arab-Andalusian music and flamenco), others were more difficult to fuse together. The musicians needed to work hard to bridge artistic divides and find a collective group identity that incorporated all of the musicians’ individual styles.
The result was worth it. From Valencia, the group made its way to Madrid to perform their first concert as Ziryab and Us at the Casa Árabe on the 9th May 2016. A fitting institution for such an event, the group offered its reinterpretation of the Arab-Andalusian legacy to an eager and receptive audience. In a short space of time, the musicians had pulled together a sophisticated and varied repertoire that they performed with a vivacious energy and professionalism.
Madrid was just the beginning: the group also performed at the Festival d’Aix en Provence in July and will performing in Morocco in October 2016. I hope Ziryab and Us will continue to explore undiscovered musical avenues and new ways of reinterpreting the Ziryab legend for a modernised and globalised age. And I hope the group will continue to act as a model for intercultural music making relevant for today’s world. I will continue to watch Ziryab and Us grow, as the musicians take the Arab-Andalusian legacy forward into the future. For my own research, this group illustrates the discursive and creative power that the legacy of a shared cultural heritage across the Strait of Gibraltar still holds in the twenty-first century.
Dr Matthew Machin Autenrieth is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Music, exploring flamnco’s relationship with intercultural dialogue in contemporary Analusia. His book, Flamenco, Regionalism and Musical Heritage, (Routledge, 2016) is out now.