01 June 2011

The Entertainers: Famed Poets and Musicians of Moorish Spain

By Lisa Yarde

When the Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century, they brought the classical traditions of a rich culture steeped in the arts of poetry and music for two centuries. Before Islam, Arabian culture celebrated music and poetry, but the Prophet Muhammad disapproved of the arts so linked to lingering pagan practices. In Andalusia, the Moorish descendants of Arabian, Berber and Spanish peoples developed varying styles of music, like the nubah, as well as the risqué muwashshah and zajal poetry, which they set to song. Later, the courtiers of Moorish Spain composed qasidas to commemorate important events and extoll the virtues of their patrons.

The nubah involved a group of people singing verses individually, accompanied by bow-stringed instruments and drums. The muwashshah typically has three line stanzas with a recurring rhyme, introduced at the beginning. The zajal was a spontaneous form of short poems, sung in stanzas and followed by a different rhyme each time. Many of the themes in both poetic forms expressed ideals of religious duty but more often, beauty, sensual pleasures or love, typically lost love. The qasidas were the longest form of all, at least 50 lines that rhymed.

Oud player
Ziryab is the father of the Hispano-Arab musical styles of the Moorish period and founded the nubah tradition.  He was born in Iraq in the early ninth century, and may have been Kurdish or of mixed Arab and African descent. He lived in the cultural capital of the eastern Muslim world at Baghdad and trained under another musician until he surpassed his master. A dangerous rivalry developed and Ziryab wisely left for Moorish Spain. A year later, he met his patron, the Ummayad prince Abd ar-Rahman II at the capital in Cordoba. The prince paid Ziryab a monthly salary of 200 gold dinars, which the musician spent on his richly decorated home and costly brocades.  He also founded a school in Cordoba, where he taught fellow musicians. Ziryad also improved the oud, more commonly known as the lute in medieval European society, by adding a fifth red string between the second and third ones. Click here for a sample of the oud played in composition with the guitar and drums, similar to music of the twelfth century in Moorish Spain.

Nearly two centuries after Ziryab, in 1001, the Caliph of Cordoda fathered a child, Wallada. Historians have described her as beautiful, with fair skin, light or blue eyes or blonde hair. In her mid-twenties, her father died and since he had no living sons, Wallada inherited all his property. She used this wealth to build a home where she entertained guests and dazzled them with her poetry. Wallada never married but she did take an equally famed lover, the poet Ibn Zaydun. As the pair were from rival clans, their love affair was a risk but neither cared for the consequences. Nine of Wallada’s letters to Ibn Zaydun have survived. They demonstrate a passionate, but tumultuous relationship that ended bitterly and with some regret for their lost love. A monument to their love exists in Cordoba.

Monument to Wallada and Ibn Zaydun
At the beginning, the lovers enjoyed the following poetic exchange:

The nights now seem long to me, and I complain night after night
That only those were so short, which I once spent with you

Ibn Zaydun
Your passion has made me famous among high and low your face devours my feelings and thoughts.
When you are absent, I cannot be consoled, but when you appear, my all my cares and troubles fly away.

When Wallada later feared that Ibn Zaydun had fallen in love with one of her slaves, she recited:
If you had been truly sincere in the love, which joined us, you would not have preferred, to me, one of my own slaves.
 In so doing, you scorned the bough, which blossoms with beauty and chose a branch, which bears only hard and bitter fruit.
 You know that I am the clear, shining moon of the heavens but, to my sorrow, you chose, instead, a dark and shadowy planet.

Eventually, the pair reconciled, but the renewal of their lovers’ vows did not last. 

Alhambra Palace
In the final flowering of Moorish Spain’s power, a bitter rivalry between two court poets culminated in the violent deaths of both men. In the mid-fourteenth century, the Andalusian poet-vizier Ibn al-Khatib served several of the rulers of Granada, the last bastion of Spanish Islam. He had a protégé, Ibn Zamraq, who he trained for several years. Perhaps Ibn Zamraq grew tired of waiting in the wings for his master to die and pass on his important post of vizier. Ibn Zamraq bided his time, composing qasidas and poems in the muwashshah style, etched in marble that still adorn the Alhambra Palace today. In 1371, when Ibn al-Khatib retired in disgrace (Ibn Zamraq may have aided in his downfall), his former protégé sent assassins to Morocco to ensure he would never return. Ibn Zamraq eventually fell out of favor and met a brutal end in 1393.

Ibn Zamraq’s qasidas survive, including:  
Are there not in this garden wonders
Which God has refused to be rivaled in beauty?
Carved from a pearl of diaphanous light
Its basin is adorned with pearls on all sides.
In it, silver melts and flows amidst jewels
Then departs equal to it in beauty, white and pure

The traditions of the Moorish poets and musicians still survive in Morocco today, where those exiled from their home lived their final years, after the re-conquest of Spain.
Lisa J. Yarde is a historical fiction author. Her novels ON FALCON'S WINGS, an epic medieval novel chronicling the starstruck romance between Norman and Saxon lovers, and SULTANA, set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain, are available now.