Echoes of an Iberian Past: Music Leads the Way in the Revival of Andalusian Culture in Morocco

Projects like Al-Magreb Blues are reanimating forgotten gems of North-African history.
Tom Pollitt
Tom Pollitt holds an Undergraduate MA in Philosophy from The University of St Andrews and Aarhus Universitet, a Graduate Diploma in Law from BPP University and is currently studying towards and LLM in International Law at SOAS, University of London. Tom lived in Morocco for a year and a half between 2014 and 2015 where he worked for the U.S.G affiliated language institute, AmidEast, and worked as a director for fair-trade business Yamas, of which he is a cofounder.
Echoes of an Iberian Past: Music Leads the Way in the Revival of Andalusian Culture in Morocco
Orchestra Moulay Ahmad Loukili, Rabat (circa 1989)

The history of Morocco is a multi-layered tapestry in which myriad different cultures and traditions intersect. One significant aspect of Moroccan history is the rich legacy of Andalusian music and culture, which originated in Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia) between the 9th and 15th centuries and laid down deep roots across the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia). Over the centuries, Andalusian culture, music, and art has faded from its one-time significance. Now, in 2019, a number of groups are reviving this great tradition.

One such project is Al-Maghreb Blues, founded by Jewish-Moroccan lover of music Michel Zafrany, who currently lives in New York. While Morocco is fortunate to have many groups reviving the music of Al-Andalus, Al-Maghreb Blues is notable for its use of modern musical genres as a vehicle to revive traditional styles.

Echoes of an Iberian Past: Music Leads the Way in the Revival of Andalusian Culture in Morocco
Orchestra Fes (circa 1991)

“20 years ago, after being into the blues my whole life, I got into jazz, in the tradition of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. I had a strong feeling, that it was like ‘our’ music,” Zafrany told Inside Arabia. “By ‘our music’ I mean the Jews of Morocco, more specifically the liturgical music I grew up on and heard in the synagogue,” he continued. “Given the enormous depth and objective value of the blues, I decided to find the connection and revive our music and culture.”

Jewish people have long had a major place in the culture of Al-Andalus, an influence entrenched by events such as the Alhambra Declaration of 1492, the result of which led to up to 100,000 Jews being exiled from Iberia to modern-day North Africa (Al Maghreb).

It is indicative of Morocco’s relatively tolerant attitude towards the Jewish people that there is an appetite for the revival of ancient traditions. Indeed, the new Moroccan constitution, ushered in by King Mohammed VI in 2011, officially recognized for the first time the diversity of ethnic groups that make up the modern population in the country, including the Jewish community.

Traditionally, Andalusian music is learned by ear and the traditions kept alive in the minds of the masters of the craft. The Andalusian musical canon is extensive—it would take over 120 hours to sing all known songs back to back.

Zafrany and his team have set out to change that by creating a new system of notation for transcribing the music of Al-Andalus. “It was clear to me that the music is based on a very high mathematical structure, and so I decided to break the code and try to imagine how the people who wrote it thought,” Zafrany explains.

Because of the importance of the Arabic language to the original pioneers of Andalusian music, the new system is written right-to-left. The rhythm, much of which may have originated in West Africa, is divided into “blocks” of beats divisible by 2 and 4—the pacing of some traditional Andalusian pieces is intended to mimic the rhythm of a camel’s walk. In the system, the octave includes 17 steps.

The next step for Al-Maghreb Blues is to transcribe Nubas recorded in the 1980s by the last generation of ear-trained Andalusian masters.

“Michel wants to open up a window onto the way our culture used to be,” says Zafrany’s colleague Mohammed Amine Debbi. “People haven’t shown this much interest in Andalusian culture until now.”

Debbi is in charge of two Andalusian choral groups in Rabat and runs the Al-Maghreb Orchestra. The orchestra uses music to form a much needed bond between the Maghreb states of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, in recognition of the fact that a profound tradition of Andalusian music is common to all three countries. One of the explicit goals of this project is to create a fusion between the different North-African Andalusian musical styles. Debbi explains that Al-Maghreb Blues intends to create a National Andalusian Orchestra to bring the genre to a wider audience.

Echoes of an Iberian Past: Music Leads the Way in the Revival of Andalusian Culture in Morocco
Orchestra Tetouan (circa 1991)

Debbi is also keen to emphasize the depth of Andalusian heritage in modern Morocco, citing the fact that there are over 100 families of Iberian origin in Rabat alone. To celebrate these traditions, Al-Maghreb Blues plans to set up an Andalusian cultural research center and publish an encyclopedia on all matters Andalusian.

Zafrany also hopes to extend the Al-Maghreb Blues to other genres of music and plans to develop similar notation systems for jazz, the blues, and other genres. He points out the huge influence that traditional North and West African Music has had on later music in the Americas.

As Duke Ellington himself wrote: “Before it ever reached New Orleans, the original African element had made itself felt in the West Indies, and from there it branched off in two directions.” First, Ellington refers to the influence of African percussion in bringing the “most sophisticated” rhythms to the new world.

Second, the influence of African music in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies “resulted in a distinctive Afro-Latin music,” which still thrives today. The Samba in Brazil, the Cuban son, the merengue of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico’s bomba, the Haitian vodun, and American jazz and blues all owe an enormous debt to African musical traditions.

Zafrany stresses the importance of recognizing that this influence is rooted in a legacy of displacement, slavery, segregation, and subjugation. He says he approached his work on the blues as “a non-violent integration of the legacy of multigenerational trauma.” For him, promoting Andalusian music is the first step in building greater understanding and reconciliation.

As the project and others like it develop, it is hoped that North Africans, Americans, and Europeans alike can build a closer relationship with this exquisite and oft overlooked aspect of their cultural history.