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Listening for Al-Andalus


Their Iberian predecessors include these frieze figures from Santiago de Compostele, Spain.

One of the world’s most influential musical cultures flourished from the eighth to the 15th century in the southern Iberian realm called al-Andalus by the Arabs who lived and ruled there. Only traces of that original music remain today, in poems, written histories, illustrations and oral traditions handed down through generations, yet Andalusian music and its many descendants still inspire performers and audiences around the world.

Arabs have always considered the music of al-Andalus a pinnacle of Arab culture. It gave rise to poetry and song forms that influenced the European troubadours, whose music in turn became part of the Renaissance, and is still heard today.

Often attracted first by the romantic reputation of al-Andalus, modern-day musicians worldwide love to “reimagine” its music, blending beautiful old Spanish melodies with Middle Eastern, medieval, flamenco and gypsy influences. Many performers and audiences are also inspired by the ideal of convivencia, the complex co-existence that occurred among Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures in al-Andalus.

Anthropologist Jonathan Shannon of New York’s Hunter College writes about the music and culture of al-Andalus. “Today, people look at our world full of conflict, and romantically view the period of al-Andalus as one of cultural tolerance where Muslims, Jews and Christians all got along and created wonderful poetry, music, food and architecture. They think that if we want to understand tolerance today, let’s look back to medieval Spain. Some people see that as a potential loose model for how the world should be.” Those people, he says, and many modern Arabs as well, often see al-Andalus as a “golden age.” In Spain itself, after centuries of willful forgetting of the contributions of Muslims and Jews to the national history, Spanish musicians and artists have for some decades reveled in a kind of willful remembering—and re-mythologizing—of their multicultural past.

Echoing the Middle Ages from his Madrid studio, Eduardo Paniagua plays a psaltery, or lap harp, as longtime collaborator Wafir Sheikh el-Din plays an ‘ud, or fretless lute. Their Iberian predecessors include the illustration, below, that Paniagua chose for the cover of one of his most popular recordings, “The Best of the Cantigas.”

For Madrid musician, architect and recording producer Eduardo Paniagua, reimagining the elusive music of al Andalus is a lifelong passion that has led him on a musical journey across continents, centuries and cultures. Blending a kind of musical archeology with his own imagination, Paniagua has spent decades teasing out musical threads from the past and weaving them into something new and alive. He plays on both medieval Spanish and modern Middle Eastern instruments. He hunts for songs and poems in old manuscripts, finds inspiration in poems on palace walls and studies images of musical instruments in drawings and carved reliefs. He seeks out living masters of Arab music in North Africa and rescues historic recordings from oblivion.

“It’s a joy to be able to do this work,” Paniagua reflects. “Yet I don’t know why it entered me. I don’t know why I have this love of Arab music and early music. I only know that I love it.”

Music was an integral part of daily life in al-Andalus, from the first days the Arabs arrived in 711 until years after the last Arab ruler was expelled from Granada in 1492. Holidays and weddings were incomplete without music and dancing. Professional singers, male and female, were attached to aristocratic homes and royal courts. Al-Andalus’s most famous musician was Ziryab, originally from Baghdad. After arriving in Córdoba in 822, he established a music school and set down rules for classical music performances. These suites of vocal and instrumental music are known now as the nubah. He is best known for innovating the tuning and playing of the ‘ud, the unfretted lute, Arab music’s signature string instrument and predecessor of the modern guitar. Especially in Seville, craftsmen refined and invented musical instruments. Polymath thinkers wrote about music theory. Andalusian musicians developed their own interpretations of the maqamat, or modes and scales, that grew distinct from those of the eastern Arab world. Around the year 1000, when the original Andalusian caliphate splintered into smaller states, two new forms of popular poetry sprang up and were set to music: muwashshah and zajal.

As the centuries passed, the musical and poetic ideas of al-Andalus spread north into Europe, south into North Africa and east into Egypt and beyond. Later, after 1492, additional waves of exiles from the Muslim and Jewish communities of al-Andalus moved to North Africa and points east, bringing with them music and poetry, while those Arabs and Jews who remained in Spain kept making their own style of music until speaking and singing in Arabic were officially banned in the 16th century.

Though most books on Andalusian music theory were lost, anecdotes about that musical world point to its exuberance. Some old muwashshahat poems survived, and they are still sung in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The classical nubah vocal and instrumental suite tradition incorporated many muwashshahat, and the poems live on in the nubah tradition, mainly in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.

The trouble for musicians today is that they can’t be certain that the repertoires performed by modern ensembles in North Africa and the eastern Arab world in fact use the same melodies once played in al-Andalus, or even close approximations. There are simply no written musical scores of music from Andalusian times. Musicians in medieval Europe and the Middle East didn’t help the situation either, since they regularly set old poems to new melodies, and new poems to old melodies. Thus a muwashshah heard in Egypt today might be set to an old Andalusian poem, but the melody may be only 100 years old.

Folklore and music historian Dwight Reynolds has been studying the music of al-Andalus and North Africa for two decades. “It is quite probable that a large part of the Andalusi music repertoire is old. We just can’t tell which part,” he says.


This allows—or forces—modern musicians who attempt to revive the sounds of al-Andalus to make many bold choices and judgments that inevitably open them up to criticism. First, they must select repertoire from the living, mostly North African, traditions or from written traces of “lost” music. Then they must decide whether to perform in a large ensemble (such as the modern groups in North Africa) or in a smaller group (such as a typical eastern Arab ensemble), or to follow historic Arabic sources that usually describe a solo singer accompanied by a single instrument. Musicians also have to decide whether they’ll play modern or antique instruments, and then they must also choose rhythmic and vocal stylistic interpretation.

For Paniagua, such uncertainty has become familiar territory, and one key to his enduring passion, he says, is that it started early, at home. Born in 1952 in Madrid to an unusually musical family, Paniagua was the son of a well-known hematologist who collected records and filled the house with music played on the family record player.

“We loved all kinds of music, not only classical,” Paniagua says, smiling. “And in our house there was no television. Only music.”

Eduardo is the third of four brothers: Gregorio and Carlos are older and Luis younger. Gregorio studied cello at the Madrid conservatory, and as boys the three younger Paniagua brothers also picked up instruments. In the early 1960’s, Gregorio became fascinated with the early-music movement in Europe and the us. In 1964, when Eduardo was 12, Gregorio formed a band called Atrium Musicae (“The Music Court”) that included his brothers. They began to perform medieval music on period instruments, using historic drawings and paintings as a guide. The group first performed in local high schools, and gradually expanded to museums and theaters.

“It was a golden age in the family,” recalls Luis.

The Paniagua brothers made their first recordings in 1969. Eventually they made 22 records, including an album of classical Greek music based on notations on papyrus fragments. The group toured Europe and the us, and in 1972 it performed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Together Paniagua and Sheikh el-Din have toured and collaborated with dozens of musicians and groups since the 1990’s.

Medieval artworks are characteristic elements
on the covers of Pneuma’s more than 120
recordings. Such art tells us much about and
how music was performed.


Luis Delgado is another prominent Spanish musician who finds inspiration for his many compositions and recordings in the musical heritage of al-Andalus. As a young man, he performed and recorded with Atrium Musicae. “I have a very positive feeling from that time,” he recalls. Gregorio, he says, “opened our minds to early music with a concept of freedom and joy.”

During the heyday of Atrium Musicae, Eduardo and his brothers first encountered the classical music of North Africa. Eduardo recalls that Gregorio heard some recordings and, while on his honeymoon in Morocco, sought out masters of the traditional music known as ala, the local term for the nubah. Gregorio later brought the highly regarded classical Tetouan ensemble of Abd al-Sadiq Shiqara to Spain to record courtly music from the 12th and 13th centuries.

The connections that the Spanish members of Atrium Musicae made with their Moroccan counterparts launched them into a far more profound series of encounters with the music of al-Andalus and North Africa. Just three years later, Atrium Musicae recorded instrumental selections from the North African repertoire played on medieval Spanish instruments.

After Atrium Musicae disbanded in 1984, Eduardo, Carlos and Luis Paniagua formed Calamus, a group that also included Luis Delgado and Begonia Olavide, whose specialty was the psaltery, or medieval lap harp. Calamus produced two cds using medieval Spanish and Arab instruments, which reflected their growing knowledge of the traditions.

Growing up in Madrid with brothers Luis (center), Carlos (right) and Gregorio (not shown), Eduardo (left) recalls, “We loved all kinds of music, not only classical. And in our house there was no television. Only music.”

Reynolds has followed these musicians over the decades. “If their first efforts now seem uninformed, much to their credit they all took it very seriously, and for a couple of decades now have pushed further and further into the tradition. They could have stopped with the type of music they were doing in the 1970’s, but they didn’t. They kept on studying, and they kept on collaborating.”

Carlos married Olavide, and the couple now lives in Tangier, where he works as a luthier of early string instruments, working from medieval illustrations and other artwork. He and Olavide regularly perform, record and collaborate with Moroccan musicians.

Gregorio went on to pursue both his own musical projects as well as fine art. Luis Paniagua became a well-known sitar player who also, these days, plays a classical Greek lyre made by his brother Carlos.

Eduardo began to focus on the production of recordings. In 1994, he founded his own label, Pneuma, which means “spirit” in Greek. By early this year, Pneuma’s output had surpassed 120 cd’s, a pace of some eight to 10 each year in a prolific, wide-ranging exploration of music in medieval Spain, North Africa and, increasingly afield, in the eastern Arab world. For bringing so much of this music to the broader public, the Academy of Spanish Music has nominated Paniagua three times for its Best Classical Musical Artist award.

For Delgado, “Eduardo’s work in recent decades has been of enormous importance for the dissemination and knowledge of Andalusian music, not only in Spain, but in Europe. His recordings include not the new interpreters of this music, but classical recordings of performers and styles that have received little attention in other previous labels. Thanks to Pneuma, these recordings are now available.”

“It’s a joy to be able to do this work. Yet I don’t know why it entered me. I don’t know why I have this love of Arab music and early music. I only know that I love it,” Paniagua says.

One of Paniagua’s first recording quests is also his most ambitious, a still-unfolding journey that, if he completes it, will mark an unprecedented feat: Initially under contract with Sony, and later on Pneuma’s label, he has set out to record all 420 songs of the 13th-century songbook known as the “Cantigas de Santa Maria,” which was compiled in Toledo under the patronage of King Alfonso x. These songs chronicling the miracles of the Virgin Mary are a mosaic of the region’s traditions, Paniagua says, making them an exceptionally rich source for exploring Spain’s medieval music. Not surprisingly, the “Cantigas” are popular with early music ensembles worldwide.

Although no one knows for sure precisely which instruments were originally used to perform the “Cantigas,” detailed illustrations in surviving manuscripts give a surprising amount of detailed information. They also often depict Arab and European musicians playing together. Alfonso almost certainly had Arab musicians in his court: Nine years after his death, his son employed 27 salaried musicians, including 13 Arabs, two of whom were women. Like other early music ensembles around the world, Paniagua’s group, Musica Antigua, began to experiment with Arab rhythms and instruments in performances and recordings of the “Cantigas,” seeking a balance between interpretive historical fidelity and sounds that can please modern ears, too.

As he continues to work through the “Cantigas,” Paniagua has also recorded North African groups playing the classical nubah suite music of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and joined with other Spanish and Arab musicians to play combinations of medieval period and modern Middle Eastern instruments. They recorded several popular nubat and named their trans-Mediterranean group Ibn Baya, after one of Paniagua’s most admired Andalusians: philosopher, scientist, composer and musician Ibn Bajjah, also known as Avempace, who lived in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The years of study and practice that Paniagua and his Spanish colleagues had invested came to fruition in these recordings: talented musicians, a perfect blend of instruments, a careful choice of repertoire and high production values. (See “A Pneuma Sampler.”)

“I learned a lot from the Ibn Baya recordings,” Paniagua says. “The music of North Africa is a living tradition, not fixed. It sounds different at home or at a wedding. And the poetry is very important. It’s the expression of the music, and they can change one bit of poetry for another.”

In Paniagua’s home studio in suburban Madrid, hundreds of musical instruments from around the Mediterranean fill two walls of floor-to-ceiling display cases. A large collection of lps and books about the Middle East and its music flank the others.

He picks up a medieval lap harp, a two-winged psaltery made by his brother Carlos from an illustration from the 13th or 14th century. He begins to play an old Andalusi tune from North Africa. A multiinstrumentalist, Paniagua also plays the qanun, the plucked zither of the Arab world and Turkey. On both psaltery and qanun, he explains, he deliberately uses simple plucking techniques and a pared-down ornamentation that he believes would have been prevalent in medieval times.

Later, he plays an improvisation on the Eastern European flute, the kawala. Though he also plays the end-blown reed flute of the Arab world called nay, Paniagua chooses to use the kawala when he’s performing medieval Spanish music: It sounds better to modern ears when playing the scales of North Africa and medieval Spain, he explains.

A 13th-century illustration accompanying one of the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” includes musicians in the court of King Alfonso x.

A frequent collaborator with Paniagua is Wafir Sheikh el-Din, a Sudanese singer and ‘ud player living in Madrid who brings his Arab background to many of Pneuma’s projects. An early member of the popular world-music band from southern Spain, Radio Tarifa, which blended Spanish and Mediterranean music, Sheikh el-Din was studying in Madrid when he says he fell in love with a recording by Calamus called “Splendours of al-Andalus.” He made contact with Paniagua, who happened to be looking for an ‘ud player to join the Cantigas project. Sheikh el-Din has worked with Paniagua ever since on many recordings, touring with him in the eastern Arab world.


“I love Eduardo’s work,” he says, “especially as a producer, because he can take scientific knowledge and turn it into an actual experience. He knows how to put something on the stage.

“I think the most important work we do,” he adds, “is the connection of the three cultures—Jewish, Muslim and Christian. This is the main dish for me, because in my personal life, I dedicate myself to make a connection with religion. When we perform, we notice that people are thirsty to find connections between the cultures.”

Paniagua’s own thirst for the subject has led Pneuma to produce cd’s exploring not only the three cultures of al-Andalus, but also Gregorian and Catalonian chants, Sephardic songs, songs about the famous Battle of Arcos in 1195, the legend of El- Cid and the legacies of the troubadours.

Despite this musical range, Pneuma recordings maintain a distinct graphic style. This is where Paniagua the architect comes in: He is deeply involved in the design of each one, and the liner notes, which he writes himself, are usually extensive enough to require their own booklet. The cd covers and notes are all filled with abundant period illustrations, many showing medieval musicians. Most cd’s have their notes translated into both English and French.

“The music speaks for itself,” Paniagua says, “but what’s really fascinating is where it was found, where it comes from, the history of it. Sometimes it takes twice as long to do the texts as the recordings, due to all the translations and research.”

Alongside performing, recording and producing, Paniagua’s job with Madrid’s regional government connects him to architecture much as he is connected to music: He advises landowners in rural areas on the restoration of old structures, especially in villages and town centers; he catalogues significant old buildings and tries to keep them from being destroyed.

Crafted by Paniagua’s brother Carlos to resemble such instruments as the one appearing on the cover of Pneuma’s 2009 catalog, above, this replica medieval ‘ud is on display in Granada at the Pabellón de al-Andalus y la Ciencia.

Indeed, some of Paniagua’s most interpretive recordings connect the music of al-Andalus to its architecture. The cd “La Felicidad Cumplida” (“Perfect Bliss”) sets poetic inscriptions carved on the walls of Seville’s Alcázar Palace to traditional al-Andalus melodies from North Africa. It includes a song set to this builder’s or architect’s prayer, which appears in 18 places in the Alcázar:O my trusted Friend! O my Hope!
You are my Hope; you are my Protector!
Bless my work with Your Seal of Approval.

Similarly, the cd “Mudejar Builders” celebrates the multicultural history evoked by the Church of St. Martin at Cuellar, built in the 12th century bymudejars, Arabs who lived in the Christian territories of Spain before 1492. The Alhambra Palace in Granada, too, inspired several Pneuma recordings featuring the verses of poets whose words are inscribed on its walls. One incorporates the soothing sounds of the Alhambra’s fountains in the background, while another evokes three stories from American author Washington Irving’s beloved book Tales of the Alhambra.

Paniagua has also delved into the music of Islam. The cd “Al Muedano” (“Muezzin”) features several versions of the adhan, or call to prayer, including a stirring choral version recorded in the chanters’ hall of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. He has also made recordings of the religious associations in Tangier singing Arabic poetry of al-Andalus.

Pneuma is a small shop: Paniagua works calmly with his longtime sound engineer Hugo Westerdahl in the Axiom sound studio off Madrid’s bustling Plaza Santa Ana, where locals sample tapas late into the night. The two men are putting the finishing touches on another unusual project: a recording made using instruments sketched by Leonardo da Vinci but never before built. Three artists from around the world built prototypes, including a lightweight paper organ, a mechanical bowed instrument with a keyboard known as a viola organista and a silver viola with a neck in the shape of a horse’s head. Paniagua says their challenge is to eliminate the mechanical sounds the instruments make while being played and to soften some harsh tones coming from the viola.

Then they turn to Paniagua’s next project: a duet between ‘ud and sitar with Iraqi ‘ud master Naseer Shamma, who runs a music school in Cairo. Paniagua is also putting final touches on the latest “Cantigas” disks—one about Jesus and another of women’s “Cantigas” featuring Samira al-Qadiri, a singer from Tetouan, Morocco. Playing a track from this recording, Paniagua points out how her vocal timbre and delicate ornamentation produce a different overall sound than one hears from western vocalists. Though it was challenging for the singer to learn the melodies by ear, Paniagua seems delighted to present another approach to the music of medieval Spain to his listeners.

Paniagua shows liner notes to writer Kay Campbell. In some cases, research for a Pneuma recording, he explains, takes more time than production of the music.

American musician Bill Cooley recalls that it was in the late 1990’s that he became fascinated with the music of medieval Spain and came across “Splendours of al-Andalus” by Calamus. Although the music was compelling, he says he was most intrigued by the blackand- white photograph of instruments that appeared on the back cover. “I used to look at the photo with a magnifying glass, wondering how the instruments were made.”

Inspired by the music and a growing desire to learn to build medieval instruments, Cooley traveled to Madrid to study ‘ud with Wafir Sheikh el-Din, as well as instrument-making. Sheikh el-Din soon introduced him to Paniagua.

“I came here because of the work Eduardo does. It shows on an international level what that means. He has created a resource, not only for people in Spain, but internationally, for people to study music that is no longer played so much or recorded much. You can find other recordings of Andalusian music from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but you have to go there to find them. So what Eduardo’s doing when he records these traditional groups is very important.”

As Paniagua reaches the halfway mark of his quest to record all of the “Cantigas”—which he estimates will total 60 cd’s in the end—he says he feels “freer and less guided by outside criticism, because the work is there. If something comes together really well, all the elements work. It’s a complex, intuitive world. The more you learn about history, the better you can step ahead with your interpretations. Yet this music is always a thesis. It’s something you propose to do. I can never put my hands in the fire and say with certainty, ‘This is the way it was done.'”

Kay Hardy Campbell (www.kayhardycampbell.com) lives near Boston, where she plays the ‘ud and helps direct the annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College.
Photographer and writer Tor Eigeland (www.toreigeland.com) has covered assignments around the world for Saudi Aramco World and other publications, and has contributed to 10 National Geographic Society book projects.

This article appeared on pages 34-41 of the July/August 2011 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Original link: http://www.aramcoworld.com/issue/201104/listening.for.al-andalus.htm

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