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"Twishya Isbihan" from Escuela de Tetuán-Tánger
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"Katamtu I-Mahabba" from Escuela de Tetuán-Tánger
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Orchestra of Tetouan,  2009 Tour View Additional Info

Echoes of the Alhambra: Morocco's Orchestra of Tetouan Performs the Classical Suites of Muslim Spain for U.S. Audiences

It all began with an Afro-Arab musician and poet Blackbird, who came to Spain from Baghdad. Or perhaps it was one of the other Moorish philosophers whose poems sang of wine and whose writings on the stars later influenced Galileo. Driven from its native home, the music that emerged in this unique period fled across the Mediterranean, carried by the Jews and Muslims persecuted as Spain was reconquered. This Andalusian music leftits traces in the songs and instruments of France’s troubadours. But the story did not end there.

Now, Andalusian classical music is journeying to the United States this September, thanks to the Orchestra of Tetouan. Based in the port city of Tetouan just a stone’s throw from the Rock of Gibraltar, the ensemble reflects the full beauty and diversity of al-alâ, the Moorish repertoire carefully cultivated over generations that tells a striking tale of intimate, intertwining connections between European and Arab music over centuries.

The prosperous and vibrantly multicultural land of Al-Andalus, the Arab kingdoms that dominated southern Spain for centuries, attracted talent from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, and these minds united the many elements at hand to create a new musical repertoire. Take Ziryâb “the Blackbird,” a 9th-century intellectual jack-of-all-trades believed to have been descended from Persian slaves of African heritage but well-versed in the arts of Persia and the Arab East, who came to Cordoba and wound up as a court musician.

Blackbird’s music and poetry was followed by other musical adaptations by 12th Century astronomers, Sufi mystics, and mathematicians. At the same time, the musicians of the day integrated their appreciation for the European music around them, and the style became all the rage across Western Europe and North Africa.

In fact, many of the traditional instruments played by Orchestra of Tetouan—the rbab (spike fiddle), ‘ud (fretless lute), and tar (tambourine)—have long-lost cousins in the West. Arab instruments starting in the 11th century migrated as far north as France, carried by trained Moorish musicians for hire, as well as enterprising merchants or curious noblemen who had fought the Moors. They were ultimately and passionately embraced by the courtly singers of Western Europe.

Fast forward several centuries to the north Moroccan port city of Tetouan, just a few dozen miles by sea from the southern tip of Spain, where Berber, Arabic, and Spanish all ring within the walls of the medina. Once a base for pirates, the town became a refuge for Sephardic Jews and Muslims escaping the demise of Al-Andalus and the fall of Granada at the end of the 15th century. Reshaping Tetouan in the image of their lost home, they preserved the elegance of Moorish culture, singing, playing, carving, and painting their heritage in Tetouan’s houses and streets.

This Al-Andalus in miniature kept alive the form central to Andalusian classical music, the nawbat or nubâ, a North African contribution to Al-Andalus’ vocal and instrumental suite. Dominated by a single mode—there were once twenty four, one for each hour of the day—each suite lasts six or seven hours. Now, Moroccan musicians often perform a single movement or mîzân based on a single rhythm, as an instrumental prelude merges into a chorus sung by the ensemble’s singer-instrumentalists.

Yet to keep this ancient music living and breathing, the Orchestra of Tetouan has added new sounds and approaches to the mix, something Andalusian classical musicians have done for centuries as they incorporated European instruments like the violin and the viola into their groups. Women’s voices have joined the chorus. Western music theories learned by former ensemble leader Larbi Mohammad Temsamani from Spanish musicians have inspired new approaches.

For the Orchestra of Tetouan, European and Arab music continues to cross-pollinate. Much as it did a thousand years ago in Al-Andalus, this interaction creates new possibilities for an age-old hybrid resounding with thoughts of divine love and celebratory joy, with complex beats and fluid melodies.

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Echoes of the Alhambra: Morocco's Orchestra of Tetouan Performs ...
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