Al-Andalus: the Music of Islamic Iberia and its Living Descendants

by Peter Tracy | August 13, 2021

13th Century Spanish Lute Player

We can point to any number of moments in music history, western or otherwise, during which a process of what we call “cultural exchange” occurred. Through interactions big and small, the amorphous group of ideas we call culture spread in seemingly unpredictable ways, with different traditions melding together into something new. Musicians, with their concerts and public performances, have historically occupied a significant role in these sorts of exchanges: hearing a musician on the street playing in an unfamiliar style, for instance, you may be tempted to learn more about it, thereby opening a doorway into another way of life. Like all people, musicians borrow and learn from each other, argue and relate with one another, are inspired by and envy each other. Even the smallest moments of contact may cause a change in how people think about the way they live, and listening to music that seems to you unfamiliar, challenging, or foreign can certainly be among these.

It is extremely rare for one culture to be completely isolated from another, especially when travel and communication between regions is easily possible: most people, in most places, try to more or less get along with one another even when their differences are pronounced. European music of the Medieval and Renaissance era is by no means exempt from this rule of exchange: think, for instance, of Mozart’s “Alla turca”, a rondo written in imitation of Turkish military bands[1]. For a more prolonged and complex instance of cultural hybridization in Europe, we must look no further than the unprecedented meeting of influences that took place in what was known at the time as Al-Andalus, or the Iberian Peninsula. Here, a diverse cast of peoples from Iberia, Africa, and the Middle East were thrown together in the midst of their competing and overlapping cultural traditions for centuries on end. Within this milieu a musical synthesis of an extraordinary kind took place, resulting in a uniquely Andalusian style of music and performance that included novel instruments and elaborate poetry. This Andalusian style would go on to have broad implications for the music not only of Iberia, but of Europe, North Africa, and the world.

As scholar Dwight F. Reynolds describes it, the medieval era in Al-Andalus was “…a period of nine centuries from 711 to 1610…” in which “…professional musicians from a variety of different ethnic, religious and regional origins [performed] diverse musical traditions before patrons and audiences of diverse backgrounds”[2]. While many different styles of music were played separately in Al-Andalus, it is difficult to say to what extent these musical traditions overlapped, or to what extent musicians from different traditions truly met and were influenced by one another. Another difficulty is in measuring the results of these contacts and in figuring out just how much these musicians from centuries ago have impacted the music that we play and enjoy today.

15th Century Christian Depiction of Muhammad I of Granada

What we do know with certainty is that, in early 711 CE, a commander named Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād led an army across the Strait of Gibraltar into what was then known as Hispania. This was the Iberian Peninsula, which today houses the nations of Spain and Portugal. Even by the eighth century, though, the peninsula had already seen its fair share of history, with the Roman conquest and occupation giving way to the Christian Visigothic Kingdom that, by the time Ṭāriq’s army appeared, had ruled Hispania for three centuries. In the eyes of the Umayyad caliphate, however, Iberia was simply an extension of its conquests in North Africa, sitting across just a few miles of the Mediterranean at what was then the mouth of the known world. Tariq and his army, made up mostly of conscripted North African nomads, would go on to extend Umayyad rule over all but a few of Hispania’s northernmost provinces, thereby setting the groundwork for what would become a long line of Islamic states on the peninsula lasting until well into the fifteenth century[3].

Setting up their court in Cordoba, the largely Arab and North African rulers of this frontier territory oversaw an influx of people from throughout the Umayyad Empire: administrators, scribes, merchants, soldiers, scholars, slaves, imams, performers, and of course, musicians. A typical musician who ended up in Al-Andalus might have been someone like Qalam, an enslaved singer who was of Christian Basque origin but had been sent to be trained in the court style of Medina on the Arabian Peninsula. Or perhaps they were, like the legendary singer Ziryab, of black African origin, yet trained in the style of the musicians of Baghdad. These are only a few examples: the assortment of musicians who helped create the style of Al-Andalus also included Jews from around the Mediterranean, North Africans, and even the occasional musician from elsewhere in provincial Europe. With all these musicians coming and going, there were undoubtedly different musical traditions and styles coexisting with one another, performing in different contexts and for different audiences. Although something of a hybrid style emerged, it might seem difficult to see how this new style, or indeed the other far-flung styles present in Al-Andalus during this period, could have impacted the music of medieval France or Germany, let alone that of Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach.

The Western scholarly debate over what is sometimes referred to as the “Arab Influence Hypothesis” has been raging for decades now, but the central question remains something like this: to what degree did Arab musicians and the music of the Islamic world influence Western classical music as we know it, from Du Fay and Perotin to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms? Many scholars have historically taken a hard stance on either side, either arguing for Western classical music as an isolated, unique product of European civilization, or for the works of Palestrina and Ligeti alike as being part of a cultural sphere with rather porous boundaries, never really escaping significant exchange with the rest of Eurasia or the world.

Christian and Muslim Playing Chess, 13th century Andalus

Influence, then, might be too simplistic a word. As Reynolds points out[4], even the word hybridization doesn’t quite capture the “multidimensional nature” of the situation in Al-Andalus or of the relationships between its musicians. And while it is impossible to say for sure how much the music of Al-Andalus or the Islamic world influenced the music of medieval Europe, there are a few pieces of evidence worth pointing out. We might highlight, for instance, the etymology of the word lute, which likely derives from the Arabic name for the oud, a similar flat-bodied string instrument. The lute itself likely entered Europe from two major points of contact: Sicily (which was also under Islamic rule until the eleventh century) and Islamic Spain. Also worth noting is the introduction of the first bowed string instrument into Europe through Al-Andalus, igniting a process which would help lead to the popularity of the medieval fiddle known as the rebec (likely from the Arabic “rebab”) and, by extension, to the development of the modern violin family. Additionally, some scholars will point to Al-Andalus as an important center for instrument manufacturing, with instruments from Al-Andalus reaching France just as troubadours and trouvères were gaining in popularity and reach[5].

The music of Al-Andalus itself provides a good example of how such a process of influence might have taken place. Many musicians in Al-Andalus had rather specific styles in which they specialized, but many musicians also learned to perform in styles which were less familiar to them as a result of their being in Al-Andalus. For instance, there is the example of a singer from North Africa named Ḥasan ibn ʿAbd ibn Zaylā, who came to the court in Cordoba as a singer. While exiled in the northern kingdoms after being accused of being an infidel, he learned to sing in the Christian style and continued to perform it after returning to Cordoba. In fact, there is also some evidence that a few of these musicians made a rather conscious effort to bring about an intentional hybridization of styles and to experiment with bringing together elements of different musical cultures. Take, for instance, a man named Salim, who, as a member of the court in Cordoba, hosted Christian emissaries from the north and studied their singing. He then learned Iraqi singing from a slave singer[6] belonging to his patron and proceeded to intentionally combine the two styles in a series of concerts[7]. While we have very little concrete evidence of this kind, we also have to assume that many similar examples simply went unrecorded or haven’t survived in the record. And while these conscious and unconscious movements towards hybridization do indicate some willingness to participate in cross-cultural dialogue and exchange, the political situation outside of the concert halls was often far from conciliatory.

Men’s Clothing in Emirate of Granada

In 750 CE, a revolution would see a new caliphate take power, the Abbasids, who would gradually be forced to cede control over the frontiers of their empire to local Islamic rulers. This process began in Al-Andalus, thus beginning three centuries of independent Islamic rule on the peninsula. In the eleventh century the independent Umayyad caliphate in Al-Andalus splintered further into various smaller states, a situation which was quickly taken advantage of by the remaining Christian kingdoms in the north. The following series of events is now referred to simply as the Reconquista, or “reconquest” a process which would see Islamic states on the peninsula shrink down to the emirate of Grenada in 1252 and disappear altogether with its fall in 1492. Interestingly, the Reconquista saw many Muslim refugees flee across the strait of Gibraltar into North Africa, particularly after the fall of Granada, and among these refugees were musicians. These musicians brought the Andalusian style with them on their arrival in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and other regions of North Africa, where it still exists in an altered state to this day.[8]

As with the recovery and re-interpretation of European “Early Music”, the question of what this style actually sounded like during its heyday is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. We know, for instance, that almost all music in Al-Andalus featured singing of some variety, that it featured ornamental improvisation much like other European music of the time, and that the lyrics were derived from poems in a variety of languages. We also have quite a few references to both strophic (in which verses are sung to the same music) and non-strophic songs being sung in the Andalusian style, with the singer accompanying themselves on lute or with the accompaniment an instrument known as al-buq, a woodwind instrument considered to be uniquely Andalusian by contemporaries. Although we have little to no explicit references to larger instrumental ensembles, with or without voice, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. The same could be said for any number of aspects of medieval Andalusian music: we have only varyingly sparse degrees of information concerning the instrumentation, performance practice, or music theory of Islamic Hispania.[9]

While someone who wanted to give a historically informed performance of, say, a motet by Josquin might apply their own knowledge of performance practices, music theory, and instruments to an early yet somewhat recognizable method of notation, performers of medieval Andalusian music face a different dilemma. There are no surviving instances of notated medieval Andalusian music and only a handful of notated, Christian sources that are in some way relevant the performance practice of the Andalusian style. Though there are surviving Arabic music theory treatises, their relevance to the performance and style of Andalusian music is equally debatable. In contrast to the performance of European early music there is one significant leg up: the existence of living traditions from across North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, traditions that are all closely descended from the music carried by Andalusian refugees away from their homeland.

8th Century Umayyad Depiction of Christian King

Difficulties remain, however: the surviving genre of Andalusian music took different shapes in different regions, having been influenced by local styles over centuries of exile. The passage of centuries away from the conditions which birthed the style also resulted in the loss of what must have been a huge body of songs sung in Al-Andalus, as well as the composition of new songs in the emerging regional styles. The surviving traditions have largely preserved only the more musically simple, strophic song forms at the expense of those which were more complex, through-composed, and thus more difficult to remember and perform. One example of a surviving, lighter genre is the nūbah, a form which is particularly associated with Morocco but is also found throughout North Africa. In the nūbah, a solo singer or chorus is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble consisting of largely Arabic-derived instruments. Interestingly, a typical nūbah is centered around one mode, while the central rhythmic pattern, or wazn, changes throughout a series of movements. Each of the movements is precluded by a short instrumental introduction, resulting in an alternation between ensemble and soloist not unlike the ritornello or concerto forms of western Classical music.[10]

Although the musical forms and genres which have lived on in these traditions originated as “lighter” music, they have since become elevated to the status of classical, concert music in Morocco, Algeria, and other countries much as popular medieval European dances have acquired a new life as concert pieces throughout the western world. And rather like the current movement in favor of period performance in Western classical music, there have been more recent attempts to recover the music of Al-Andalus and to perform approximations of the older style in concert and on recordings.[11] Below, you can find a playlist featuring some results of these attempts alongside recordings of troubadour songs and the concert repertoire of various surviving Andalusian traditions. You’ll likely find more than a few echoes of your favorite medieval and renaissance music, but we hope you’ll also hear a few less familiar surprises.

Although the precise musical fabric of Al-Andalus may be lost, its impact and influence clearly lives on through the longstanding traditions of North Africa and through the efforts of contemporary musicians to reinvent the style of the time. It might also, perhaps, live on in your favorite Medieval chanson, Renaissance tourdion, or Bach violin partita. Regardless of the precise extent to which the music of Al-Andalus influenced the Western world, its history should serve as an important reminder not only that there are a wide variety of different musical traditions out there to explore, but also that western classical music has never really been an isolated, exceptional tradition. This is especially worth remembering today, when the people who make up the classical and early music communities are exposed to a variety of musical styles broad enough to make your average medieval Andalusian’s head spin. More importantly, the people who perform, compose, and enjoy classical music today are becoming an increasingly diverse group in their own right, a group within which it might be possible to develop something equally as novel as the music of Al-Andalus. Whether we will fully open ourselves and our music up to these other peoples and traditions, however, remains to be seen.

Music of Al-Andalus

Bibliography/Further Reading

  • Burstyn, Shai. “The “Arabian Influence” Thesis Revisited.” Current Musicology (1990): pp. 119-146.
  • Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, 1991.
  • Pacholczyk, Jozef. “The Relationship Between the Nawba of Morocco and the Music of the Troubadours and Trouvères.” The World of Music, vol. 25, no. 2, 1983, pp. 5–16.
  • Reynolds, Dwight F. “Music In Medieval Iberia: Contact, Influence And Hybridization”. Al-Andalus, Sepharad and Medieval Iberia. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Reynolds, Dwight F. “The Re-creation of Medieval Arabo-Andalusian Music in Modern Performance”. Al-Masāq, vol. 21, no. 2, 2009, pp. 175-189.
  • Schuyler, Philip D. “Moroccan Andalusian Music.” The World of Music, vol. 20, no. 1, 1978, pp. 33–46.
  • Shannon, Jonathan Holt. “Performing Al-Andalus: Music and Nostalgia across the Mediterranean”. Indiana University Press, 2015.

[1] For more on Turkish influence in Mozart, see Benjamin Perl, “Mozart in Turkey”, (Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, 2000).

[2] Dwight F. Reynolds, “Music In Medieval Iberia: Contact, Influence And Hybridization”, Al-Andalus, Sepharad and Medieval Iberia, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 246.

[3] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, (Warner Books, 1991).

[4] Dwight F. Reynolds, “Music In Medieval Iberia: Contact, Influence And Hybridization”, 237.

[5] Shai Burstyn, “The “Arabian Influence” Thesis Revisited”, (Current Musicology (1990)), 119-146.

[6] It’s worth noting that a large portion of musicians during this period were female slaves, a fact that certainly complicates any vision of cross-cultural understanding. See Dwight F. Reynolds, “The Re-creation of Medieval Arabo-Andalusian Music in Modern Performance”, (Al-Masāq, vol. 21, no. 2, 2009), 177.

[7] See notes 2 and 4.

[8] See note 3 and Reynolds, “The Re-creation of Medieval Arabo-Andalusian Music in Modern Performance”, 175-189.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., see also Schuyler, “Moroccan Andalusian Music”, (1978) and Pacholczyk, “The Relationship Between the Nawba of Morocco and the Music of the Troubadours and Trouvères”, (1983).

[11] See note 7.

About Peter
Peter Tracy is a cellist, composer, music journalist, writer, and artist based in the greater Seattle area. He graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Music and English Literature, a combination of interests that he has pursued further in his research on Charles Ives, reviews of experimental music releases, and excursions into the music of traditions from around the world. Peter has previously written for the contemporary classical music radio program Second Inversion, a subset of Classical KING FM Seattle. He currently works as a freelance writer and private music teacher in his hometown of Redmond, Washington.