I don't know when my fascination with Moorish Spain began but it has been ongoing for a while now. At a time when the rest of Europe was clouded over by superstition and disease it was a bastion of civilization and relative tolerance. For although ruled by Muslims, Christians and Jews were both allowed relative freedom of religion. Both did have to pay an additional tax for the privilege of being allowed to practice their own religion and the more fanatical members of the Islamic community spoke out against them, however compared to the way Muslims and Jews were treated in Christian communities, it was a bastion of tolerance.
In our history books we talk of the period known as the renaissance as if it were a miracle that sprang up out of the earth. When in actual fact it was the influence of Moorish Spain that provided both the knowledge and the impetus for the great re-birth of art and learning. That influence continues through to this day primarily through the music of Andalusia. When the Christian armies marched on Spain, with the Inquisition in tail, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies (Roma) were faced with the choice of fleeing, conversion, or burning at the stake. While the Jews and Gypsies seem to have mainly chosen more tolerant European destinations, the Muslim population took ship across the Mediterranean to Algeria in North Africa. Its there that they have kept alive the words and music of the songs that were created in Andalusia.
While there are some who continue to perform and create music much as it was made more then five hundred years ago, there are others who draw upon the traditional sounds and combine it with modern influences. Trio Ifriquiya, Didier Freboeuf (piano), Faycal El Mezouar (vocals, violin, ud (oud), and percussion), and Emile Biayenba (percussion) use the music of Andalusia as the core for the eleven pieces on their latest release, World Village Music label, and broaden its scope by incorporating traditional and contemporary jazz, and each performer's musical influences.
Of the eleven tracks on Petite Planete five are from the traditional Arab/Andalusian repertoire, according to the liner notes specifically from the Granada region of Spain, while the balance are one original composition by Mezouar and five by Biayenba. Mezouar is the impetus behind the trio, as he was deeply steeped in the traditions of Andalusia during his schooling where he not only learned the instruments he plays, but the Sufi poems that were the music's original inspiration. Freboeuf brings a modern jazz sensibility to the group with his piano, while Biayenba, founder of the drum group Les Tambours De Brazza from the Congo in central Africa, opens the door rhythmically to the rest of Africa and the world.
Yet no matter if they are playing one of Bizyenba's or Mezouar's originals, or if the jazz piano of Freboeuf is taking the lead, Andalusia is never far from the surface. Whether it's the interjection of the ud, the sound of Mezouar's vocals, a trill in the melody evoking the older music, or something about the quality of sound generated by a hand drum, there's always something that will pull us back to that centre again. What I found most intriguing about the more modern compositions was that instead the songs building upon a foundation of the Andalusian music, they start from the contemporary and build to old. It's almost as if they were showing us how, no matter where you start, or with what, you will always come back to this point of origin.
While both Frebouef and Bizyenba play key roles in the music, Mezouar is the heart around which this trio beats. As the one with the direct connection to the source of their inspiration if he falters, or strikes anything resembling a false note, the whole ensemble will fail. However one only has to listen to him sing a few notes to have any doubts about his sincerity or his skill dispelled. His voice brings to life songs whose lyrics could have been penned centuries ago and makes them sound as alive and inspiring as if he wrote them himself. Listening to him you can visualize in your mind's eye the open courtyards and minarets of Moorish Spain with their whitewashed walls and the elaborate mosaic pattern of their tiled floors.
Yet this is not just some journey into the past but rather an exploration of the past and the present meeting in harmony and the music of one culture working with others while maintaining its distinctive flavour. With each man bringing his own particular influences into the mix the music becomes a meeting place for styles and traditions. As a result, while we never lose track of the Andalusian core, we are almost always aware of a much wider world existing outside of that particular time and place. At times the sum of the three parts; jazz piano, the rhythms of central Africa, and centuries old Arabic music, becomes a whole that is unique to the moment it was recorded. Even more intriguing is the fact that although you can hear the distinct parts, simultaneously you hear them blending into one.
The music of Andalusia influenced the musicians of Medieval Europe both in style and content. Minstrels and troubadours alike, with their songs about love and devotion accompanied by a lute or harp, wouldn't have taken the form they did if it hadn't been for the music of the Ottoman Empire. Now, more then a thousand years later, that same music is still providing a blueprint for musicians. Trio Ifriqiya have drawn upon the same source material that so many others down through history have and not only brought new life to an ancient tradition but have created new sounds of their own. Petite Planete is a perfect example of how looking to the past is sometimes the best way to find something new.
(Originally posted September 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.