After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City in September of 2001 the unfortunate but unhappily expected backlash against Islamic people and all things Muslim took place. It didn't matter that those responsible for the act were no more representative of Muslims worldwide then right wing extremist Christians trying to bring about Armageddon represent the majority of their faith, if you looked Arabic you became the enemy. (Believe me I know - I'm dark skinned of Jewish descent and "look" Muslim enough for the red necks that I had my share of "towel heads" thrown my way, which would have been laughable if it wasn't so sad and scary).
Thankfully there are some saner heads in this world and though it took a while to get off the ground individuals and organizations around the Western world began work geared at countering the image of all Muslims as fanatical terrorists. MENA Music (ME - Middle Eastern and NA - North African) was set up in New York City in 2006 by Kazko Kawai a Japanese American who has lived in the US since 1985. Her thought was that through music she could enhance mutual understanding between the Arab world and her new country. MENA are committed to bringing the best musicians of the Middle East and North Africa to North America in order to develop audiences for the music from those regions. Ironically the orchestras which have been brought to North America to date have predominately been ones playing music that originated in the west. Andalusia was once one of the cultural capitals of the Ottoman Empire which stretched from Istanbul through the Middle East, North Africa, across the Mediterranean into Spain, parts of Austria, Bulgaria, to the former Yugoslavia and most of the Balkans.
While under the Ottoman rule Christians and Jews were allowed the freedom to practice their religions and in some cases hold positions of real authority. (In Cordoba the principal advisor to the Caliph was Jewish) After the Reconquista, when the Spanish retook their former territories, there was no reciprocation of tolerance. Under the Inquisition Muslims, Jews, and gypsies were forced to flee, convert or burn. It is the descendants of refugees in North Africa, primarily Jewish and Muslim, from this era who have preserved and developed the musical and poetic traditions from the Middle ages that from the basis for today's Andalusian Music.
The Orchestra Of Tetouan were formed in 1944 in Morocco and is now into its third generation of musicians playing the music of their ancestors and are about to embark on a tour of the American Mid-West sponsored by MENA. So far dates have been announced in Madison, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Bloomington with tickets for the Boston and New York concerts , September 23rd and 24th respectively, currently on sale and available for purchase by following the links at the MENA home page However those wishing a preview of what's in store can search out a recording the Orchestra made a few years back on the Pneuma label called Escuela de Tetuan Tanger - Musique Andalouse (The School of Tetuan Tangiers - Music of Andalusia)
While there have been recent recordings made that have featured music from that period re-interpreted for modern and Western instruments, they don't really prepare you for listening to the real thing. Although a recording like Siwan by contemporary musicians and singers is based on the same traditions, and is beautiful in its own right, in reality it has little in common with the original music. For while there might be some similarities in arrangements, there's not much else in the original for a Western listener to hold onto that's familiar.
Everything, from the strings to the vocals, are higher on the scale than what most of us are comfortable listening to. In fact, I have to admit that it initially set my teeth on edge. However I encourage you to persevere, for although it might be work to listen to for the first little while, once you become accustomed to the difference you begin to feel it's power. While the lyrics are of course incomprehensible if you don't speak Arabic the music is not without it's power. Gradually what was annoying becomes enthralling and you're swept up in the swirl of sounds and the hypnotic rhythm tapped out on the goblet drums and tambourine of the percussionists. Of course it's not too surprising that we find the music initially alien to out ears as the instruments used aren't ones we're liable to hear everyday, and the ones we are familiar with are tuned to different keys and played in ways we're not used to.
The lute, violin, and viola might all have been used at one time or another in Western music, and some of you might have heard a zither, but the rebab a one to three stringed bowed instrument, one of the central instruments in the traditional orchestra, will be unknown to most. The music relies heavily on periods of improvisation on the part of the players called taksim or taqsim which literally translates as division, interspersed with vocals. Each taqsim is based on a complex system of modes or melodies and rhythms, with each melody being a combination of twenty-four different quarter notes and each combination having its own mood associated with particular feelings. There are one hundred and eleven distinct rhythmic patterns that a musician can use, the simplest being the rajaz based on the rhythm a camel's hooves make on the sand. Obviously the taqsim chosen will reflect the mood of the vocals in order to provide the proper atmosphere for their theme.
The majority of the vocals seem to have been taken from Sufi poetry which used human love as a metaphor for divine love. As a result this music has the distinction of being secular and divine simultaneously. While a true appreciation of this music would only come with a better understanding of which combination of notes is associated with which feelings, it is still possible to listen to this music and appreciate it for the magnificence of the spectacle and the way it manages to hold your attention. There is something about the combination of the sound and the beat that is enticing, and gradually, almost without noticing, you'll find yourself held by the plaintive keening of the vocals, the shifting sands of the rhythms, and the mysteries of the melodies.
The music of Andalusia was known as the music of love, and while we may not completely understand the message being delivered by the Orchestra of Tetouan, we can't help but be fascinated by it. If you have the opportunity to catch one of their concerts when they are in the US this fall, check them out - it will be an experience unlike any you've had before.
(Originally poste August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.