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August 31, 2022

Flamenco: A Gypsy-Andalusian Love Affair

Oye, hijo mío, el silencio. 

Es un silencio ondulado,
un silencio,
donde resbalan valles y ecos
y que inclinan las frentes
hacia el suelo.

Listen, my child, to the silence.
It is a silence that comes in waves,
a silence
where valleys and echoes slide
and brows incline
towards the ground.

El silencio, Federico Garcia Lorca

Music has to be one of the most enjoyable ways of bringing history to life.

Although the Muslim period in Spain officially ended in 1492 with the handover of the Granada emirate to the Castilians King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Islamic culture miraculously managed to survive, hidden in many forms, over the following five centuries. One of the ways that Muslim culture left its mark was through its influence on Spanish folk music.

Flamenco, the impassioned musical form that is the polka-dotted hallmark of gipsies in Southern Spain, provides us with a fascinating window into the relationship between Moriscos and Gitanos, Spain’s branch of the Roma people. It is not hard, on listening to Camarón de la Isla, La Paquera, Manolo Caracol, Enrique Morente, Estrella Morente or Concha Buika, to hear something of the vocal dexterity and sorrow present in much of Arabic songs.

While flamenco is generally associated with the Gitanos, it is in fact fairer to say that it is an Andalusian music form, a product of the encounter between Gitano and Andalusian folk music. Even the term ‘gypsy’ is a misnomer; originating among the Jatt clan from present-day India and Pakistan, the nomadic people now called Romanis began their long odyssey West in the 11th century, moving gradually through Persia before branching into Northern and Southern Europe. Upon arriving at France’s border with Spain in the 1400s, some were given passports mistakenly naming them as the “Princes and Counts of Little Egypt”. However, in meeting the Muslim elements still present in Andalusia, these two marginal cultures formed a circle that embraced East and West and cast an echo into each other that would emerge as a song.

Cante jondo, the most ancient of the flamenco styles, preserves most clearly the “primitive songs of the oriental people”, according to the poet Lorca. It is characterised by a narrow vocal range, and repetition of notes in a way that is reminiscent of spoken word (or even rap), interspersed with the dramatic embellishment that makes flamenco singing so distinctive. It also used semi- and micro-tones, which are also used in Persian and Arabic music, and a complicated rhythm that famously cannot be notated but must be felt. This group of styles are strikingly similar to the sound of Qur’anic recitation.

When compared to gipsy music from more northerly areas such as Bulgaria or Croatia, it becomes clear that flamenco bears more than a passing resemblance to North African folk music. Certain flamenco melodies, such as Camarón de la Isla’s la Tarara, are plainly the same as North African melodies, while the zambra style of flamenco dance, performed at gipsy weddings, evolved from older Moorish styles and has many similarities to belly dancing. The word ‘zambra’ in Moroccan Arabic simply means ‘party’.

T.B. Irving writes in The World of Islam that “Gypsy music and cante jondo go back to the zajal [sung Arabic lyric poetry] and the five-tone scale.” Musicologists even trace the ubiquitous flamenco cries ‘Ay ay ay!’ and ‘Ay li li!’ to the calls of blind Arab mendicants, ‘Ya ‘ain!’ (O, eye!) and ‘Ya, taeel!’ (O, night!). Most quintessentially ‘flamenquito‘ of all, however, is the exultant ‘¡Olé!’ shouted whenever a musician (or, for that matter, bullfighter) pulls off some crowd-pleasing trick, which almost certainly originates in the Muslim cry ‘Wa’Llah!’ (By Allah!) made during poetry recitals.

A Brief History of ‘¡Olé!’s

In the medieval period, Moriscos (forcibly baptised Moors who were often suspected – with good reason – of continuing their Islamic faith in secret) found themselves thrown together with two other persecuted groups within Spain’s melting pot of ethnicities: the Gypsies and the (crypto-)Jews. The meeting of cante gitano (gipsy song) and Andalusian folk music as early as the 16th century seems to have been the starting point that would, very gradually, lead to the development of flamenco.

But it was not until the late 19th century that flamenco would start to garner public interest as a performance art, with the opening of a new type of café, the ‘café cantante‘. Though the first one to open, in Seville in 1842, attracted little attention, by the 1860s similar cafés were springing up all across Andalusia and as far afield as Madrid. Two guitarists, one or two singers and a handful of male and female dancers would appear on stage to entertain the crowd, bringing together the three basic elements of flamenco: dance, song and guitar.

The latter half of the 19th century was flamenco’s golden age of performance. Up until this point, flamenco songs were accompanied by violins, tambourines and/or bandourrias (a 10-stringed instrument similar to a mandolin), but now the guitar – and particularly the solo – became enshrined as a vital component of flamenco. It was at these cafés that the founder of the modern school of flamenco, Ramón Montoya (1880-1940) found acclaim.

The years preceding and following the Civil War (1936-9) saw flamenco’s nadir, with paid performances hard to come by and morale low; Spain preferred the light-hearted croonings of popular singers such as Antonio Chacón, and the more operatic or balletic flamenco performances such as the zarzuelas popularised by Manuel de Falla.

But during the 1950s an avalanche of musicological and anthropological books began to appear on the subject of flamenco, paralleling a revival of the art form. From the 1970s on, there have been fusions with rock, blues, funk, pop, electro, house and chill-out through artists such as Smash, Pata Negra, Ojos de Brujo, O’funk’illo and Chambao. From the 1960s onwards, ‘tablaos‘ began to replace to ‘café cantantes‘ as establishments specifically offering flamenco spectacles. In modern times, flamenco has seen something of a return to its roots, led by musicians who are also known for great innovations in flamenco, such as the late Enrique Morente and his daughter Estrella. Concha Buika has also united traditional styles with African, blues and jazz influences:

Andalusi Impact on Flamenco

Al-Andalus, the period of Iberian history from 711 to 1496 CE during which much of the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim, is renowned for its role in the cultural flourishment of Western Europe. One important aspect of this cultural exchange was music. Moorish Spain and Portugal had, by the 11th century, become an important centre for the manufacture of musical instruments, which gradually began arriving in Provence. The first contribution that Muslims might be said to have made to flamenco is simply by providing the guitar.

William VIII brought Moorish music into European courtly life with the transfer of hundreds of Muslim prisoners to Poitiers from Andalusia, captured during the so-called Reconquista. Many of the instruments used in medieval France passed through to England and the rest of Europe, leaving an imprint on the French troubadour tradition as well. Thus the European terms for dozens of medieval instruments are derived from Arabic, the most common of which are the guitar (from qitara), lute (from ‘oud), rebec, the predecessor of the violin, (from rebab), and naker, a small drum which was the forebear of the kettledrum (from naqara).

Andalusian classical music is thought to have originated in Córdoba in the 9th century, possibly invented by the Persian musician, trendsetter and general man-about town Ziryab, or ‘Blackbird’ (d. 857), who arrived at ‘Abd ar-Rahman II’s court in Córdoba from Baghdad around 800 CE. Ziryab was also an inventor, adding a fifth string to the oud and dying the strings colours to signify the humours; he also established one of the first conservatoires in Spain, which influenced the singing and instrumental styles of Cordoban music for two generations. Later, the poet, composer and philosopher Ibn Bajjah of Zaragoza (d. 1139) is believed to have fused Western styles with those invented by Ziryab to formulate a new musical style than then spread across al-Andalus and beyond.

When most of the Muslims and Jews of al-Andalus were expelled after the Reconquista, the exiled Andalusis carried their musical styles to Morocco and Algeria, where Andalusian classical music would develop more fully. This is a form of music composed of suites, a little like ragas, each one of which is called a nubah, which is itself subdivided into 5 mizans. It is said that there were originally twenty-four nubahs, one for each hour of the day; however, only 11 have survived in Morocco, while 16 have survived in Algeria.

Meanwhile in Spain, flamenco was developing along its own lines, though strikingly similar in some ways to the sister culture that influenced it centuries before. It does not take a musicologist’s knowledge to hear the similarities which resonate across the vast space of time that separates, and yet somehow also unites them:

Flamenco has also become hugely popular in Turkey and Iran:

And the feeling’s mutual. Numerous Spanish musicians have performed Andalusi in collaboration with Moroccan musicians. One example is the group Cálamus, led by the Paniagua brothers, who perform

North African nubahs:

Both flamenco and Middle Eastern vocal styles are rich in floridly ornamented vocals, complicated rhythms, and impassioned voices expressing the depths of sorrow or loss – largely in the Phrygian scale, the minor scale with a distinctive augmented second interval that makes flamenco, Arabic and Persian music seem like long lost siblings. The late Lois Lamya al-Faruqi wrote that “The ornamental melodic style, the improvisatory rhythmic freedom, the sometimes ‘strange’ (to Western ears) intervals, the segmental structure, and the repeated excursions from and returns to a tonal center are some of the features that indicate Arab influence on cante flamenco.”

In 1922, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla organised a Cante Jondo competition for Granada, which many classical musicians and popular literary figures – such as the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca – contributed to, the results of which were presented in the Alhambra in June of that year. Lorca went on to present an entire conference on Cante Jondo, in the conference notes of which he writes:

‘”Cante jondo” approaches the rhythm of the birds and the natural music of the black poplar and the waves; it is simple in oldness and style. It is also a rare example of primitive song, the oldest of all Europe, where the ruins of history, the lyrical fragment eaten by the sand, appear live like the first morning of its life.’


Written by Medina Tenour Whiteman
for Al-Andalus Experience in 2014.

Al-Andalus Experience recommends:

Tablao La Maestranza in Córdoba, beside the Cathedral (old Mosque)

Los Gallos, Barranco de los Negros, Sacromonte, Granada

El Museo de Flamenco, Sacromonte, Granada

Museo del baile flamenco, Sevilla

Contact us for information about cultural tours and custom trips in Andalusia, Spain.

May 2, 2022

An Introduction to Arabic Calligraphy

The written word in Arabic has always been, throughout the history of Islam, one of the most important and exquisite ways in which minds are touched by information and hearts are moved by the grace of the forms.

It is not only a simple transmission of meaning, but a means of contemplating the words in a visual way, accessing both the intellectual and the emotional or spiritual realm of the reader. For the calligrapher, it is also a meditative experience in itself, as you can discover in our upcoming workshops with Iranian calligrapher Asghar Alkaei Behjat.

Calligraphy literally means ‘beautiful writing’; graphs and graphics in general are shapes that represent something, be they statistics, music, or words. The earliest use of symbols in place of sounds dates from about 3200 BCE, by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. The Chinese seem to have invented their very different writing system independently, in about 1200 BCE, as did the Olmecs or Zapotecs of modern-day Mexico in about 600 BCE.

The phoneme-based alphabets of Eurasian scripts are by far the most flexible and varied. Our Latin script actually shares a common ancestor with Arabic. Greek and Latin scripts all evolved from Phoenician, which developed along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. On the one hand, Phoenician developed into Greek and later Latin scripts, while in the other direction, it developed into Aramaic (the language of Jesus Christ). Aramaic later split into Hebrew and Nabataen; Arabic evolved from Nabatean.

Of course, Arabic has a parallel source: according to Islamic doctrine, it existed before the beginning of the universal and cosmic time. While not being the most logical of histories, this explanation is in keeping with the non-linear approach to existence that Islam often takes (i.e. Allah is the ultimate Source of all, yet there are ways and means by which things come into being – human history being one of them).

Thus the Arabic language and script is a vehicle for a sacred, timeless message; according to various legends, the letters are associated with angels, or the light that fell upon the pen with which the destinies of all beings were written. Another story tells of the Prophet Adam writing a book each for numerous people who came after him. This mystical approach to the Arabic letters might account for the appearance of certain isolated letters at the beginning of some Qur’anic surahs (Saad, Lam, Mim…). So the letters depicted in the art of calligraphy are not simply letters, but part of a vast, subtle, interconnected approach to the universe.

Calligraphy began to raised up into an art in its own right during the classical age of the Arabic world, in the 9th and 10th centuries. There are a wealth of styles in Arabic calligraphy, from the classic Thuluth and the much-used Naskh to sweeping, elegant Eastern styles such as Nastaliq and Diwani, and the bold, graphic shapes of western Arabic calligraphy such as Maghrebi and Andalusi. Arabic calligraphy, in all its styles and uses, is by far one of the most important contributions to art that the Islamic world has made; quite apart from transmitting meanings, it beautifies them and makes them visual, tactile, and textural.

The skills needed for successful calligraphy are learned over a long period of time. But as our resident calligraphy teacher, Asghar Alkaei Behjat, says, if you can master one calligraphy form, you can very easily master any of the others. It is a matter of how you use the pen and the ink.

As a meditative practice, Asghar describes how calming and centring the practice of calligraphy is. Even though it may take years of dedicated practice to master one form, the time goes so quickly that you wonder where you were while you were practising – perhaps in a place beyond time itself. Indeed, tapping into an ancient tradition and using tools that can be made at home from natural materials certainly sends one into a timeless world, untroubled by technology.

However, technology is helpful if you wish to follow Asghar’s advice and play some traditional music, such as that found here, while you put away your worldly worries and concentrate of perfecting the shapes of the letters, and the movement of the ink over the paper. “You very soon discover that you don’t want to do anything else!”

The workshops will be held at Workshoptaller, a wonderfully quirky place that teaches various crafts in Granada. The first of three workshops will be held this Saturday from 10-1, with a break midway. Materials will be provided such as reed pens (which you will be taught how to cut and make for yourselves), paper, ink and two posters of different styles and usages of Arabic calligraphy to get you inspired. Another two workshops will be held on the 25th of May and the 29th of June.

We look forward to seeing you there!

March 14, 2014

Introducing the ‘Zende Mini’

If the idea of our Zende retreat later this year – featuring calligraphy, ecstatic poetry workshops, walks in nature, talks and a concert of classical Arabic music – seems tantalising but just out of your reach, never fear: we are pleased to present the ‘Zende Mini’, a one-day workshop of calligraphy and poetry that can come right to your hotel, anywhere in the Granada area!

For groups as small as six, Persian master calligrapher Asghar Alkaei Behjat will give a full morning’s introduction to Nastaliq calligraphy, for complete beginners and experienced calligraphers in other styles. Beginning with a brief history of Arabic calligraphy, Asghar will then give a practical demonstration of how to cut the bamboo correctly to make your own pen, and useful information about the right kinds of ink – even making your own.

The students will then have the opportunity to experiment with different letter forms, as explained on our useful worksheets, with Asghar on hand to show how to manoeuvre the qalam (reed pen) throughout each shape. In the course of the morning each student will not only experience the tranquility of this ancient meditative practice, and but come away with a unique piece of calligraphy of a verse or word of their choice, calligraphed by Asghar.

After lunch, the group will take a leisurely walk with writer and poet Medina Tenour Whiteman through the landscape nearby. This might be the streets and plazas of the magical Albaicín in Granada, the luscious hills and dramatic mountains of the Sierra Nevada, or even the beaches along the Costa Tropical. This workshop is fully compatible with children, even small babies; you might be surprised how quickly young people get into the swing of their creativity, given a little spark!

To put the students in a writerly frame of mind, Medina sets thought-provoking and engaging exercises to do during various stops along the way. Both poetry and prose are covered in a variety of forms, such as haikus, acronym poems, or inventing a story based around a found object (a pebble, a leaf, a piece of broken tile…).

The ‘Zende Mini’ can be organised through Al-Andalus Experience at any time and can run for two or more days if so desired. Please check availability at least one month in advance, and preferably more, especially in summer. The ‘Zende Mini’ presents an ideal opportunity for a group of friends or families to plan their own educational, artistic trip to the jewel of al-Andalus together, according to their own needs and convenience.

Granada has a rich, living heritage and as we explore it in this delightfully creative way, we delve deeper into the sense of what al-Andalus was and what it means to us now.

May 2, 2013

From Moorish to Moreish: Food That Takes You Back 1000 Years

Between snow-peaked mountains and the sea, Andalusia boasts some extraordinarily fertile areas, where the subtropical-Mediterranean climate and the terrain work together to allow almost anything to be grown. From bananas, custard apples and mangos along the coast to almonds, olives, figs, oranges and stone fruits further inland, the Granada province is a real haven for lovers of fresh, real ingredients.

A great many of these fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and even grains were originally introduced to these lands by Muslims, mainly Berbers from North Africa who led a swift and relatively easy occupation in the year 711 CE. By the 14th Century many more had reached Granada, and the valleys of Lecrin and the Alpujarras, and declared them to be the lost paradise of man.

They got to work developing the exiting Roman system of aquedusts, dug into the mountain slopes to channel snowmelt to smallholdings in the valleys below; some of this water was diverted to refill underground reservoirs, which fed the springs, very much like the irrigation systems of Yemen [check].

With this system of watering – essential in an area like this, where there is no rainfall throughout the summer – small-scale farmers could begin to grow oranges, lemons and mandarins, thirsty trees that need a lot of water to produce their fruits. The Moors also brought almonds, which could be cultivated in stony, high-altitude slopes and didn’t need much watering; at about 1000m we also find peaches (including those delicious flattened ones, paraguayos), cherries, plums, apricots (the word in English comes from the Spanish albaricoque, itself from the Arabic al-barquq) and the Moorish berry pare excellence, mulberries – called ‘mora’ in Spanish, meaning ‘Moorish (fruit)’!

The mulberry trees, apart from giving excellent, juicy, purple or white berries, sometimes as large as a small plum, were planted quite extensively to provide leaves for silkworms, which will not eat any other kind of leaf – fussy eaters, indeed. The silk trade was one of the most important trades for the Moors of Granada; in the Albaicin there is the Corral de Carbon, the best-preserved medieval caravansarai in Europe, where silk traders from Venice would stay when on business trips.

However, it was simply for the benefits of the ordinary person’s plate that the Moors imported a great many plants. Honeydew melons, watermelons, quinces, loquats, persimmons, carob pods, and figs are among the many fruits that still make Spain a mouth-watering place to visit. Sugarcane and cinnamon were also introduced by the Moors, giving some idea as to their sweet tooth; even today, many pastries that are seasonal favourites of Spanish people, particularly ones flavoured with cinnamon, aniseed, almonds and sesame, are based on Moorish recipes.

We also have the Moors to thank for their introduction of spices and herbs, such as cumin, coriander (both still favourites for stews), nutmeg, cloves and peppercorns. The names of some of these reveal their Arabic origins: basil (albahaca), saffron (azafrán), aniseed (anís), and sesame (sésamo, or ajonjolí, from the Arabic simsim and the Arabic Hispianic agh-ghongolín respectively).

The ancient knowledge of the Moorish regarding cultivation and cooking was largely lost during the Reconsquista and subsequent persecution, ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the Moors. Nevertheless, those very few Moors who remained in Spain – it is thought that there were no more than 10,000 of them, scattered from Toledo to Seville and further afield – somehow managed to preserve some of their recipes. The Mudéjar style enjoyed a certain popularity for centuries after, in architecture and cuisine, if nothing else.

It is therefore with immense pleasure that Al-Andalus Experience is able to offer tailored tours of Andalusia, which incorporate visits to these richly fertile areas in the Granada province and beyond. AE can arrange visits to functioning ‘huertos’ (food gardens) run by Spanish Muslims today, where visitors can sample fruits picked freshly from the tree, learn how to cook a real paella – the traditional Thursday night rice dish in which the wek’s leftovers of meat, fish and/or vegetables would be cooked, to be served communally – and learn all about Moorish cuisine first-hand with resident chef, Jafar.

If all of this has whetted your appetite, contact us for more information about customised Moorish food tours. ¡Que aprovechen! (Bon appetit!)

Written by Medina Tenour Whiteman for Al-Andalus Experience, in 2013.