Nuba ghrib, andalousian music from Algiers

Omar Benamara

Although Omar Benamara comes from Algiers’ pure musical tradition, he presently sings at the Paris National Opera. His long experience and practice of classical Western music have given him a new perception of traditional music. This has allowed him to make a remarkable comeback to his cultural origins as an interpreter of the great nubas (cantatas) from the Algiers’ School of the Arab-Andalusian repertoire.

The nuba presented here is a striking example of this. Its very name (ghrib) can mean at the same time strangeness, exile and nostalgia! Like a haunting complaint, the theme of the ghrib comes again and again as a leitmotiv in the tushia (the nuba overture) and reappears several times as a reminiscence in the m’saddar, the second movement of the cantata. Noble and refined, this piece shines with the dark beauty and the “pure sob” sung by the poet.


1- Touchia – 8’41
2– Instrumental solos – 3’00
3Krissi – 0’54
4M’saddar Khadam-lî sa’dî/Fate has granted me joy and serenity – 18’58
5Istikhbar – 5’43
6Krissi – 0’53
7B’tayhî ‘Alayya ‘uhûd/I made a vow to love no one but you – 6’28
8Krissi – 0’26
9Dardj Dumû‘î rasâ’il/My tears are my messengers – 7’22
10Krissi – 0’51
11Insirâf Zâranî al-malîh/My beloved came and visited me – 8’04
12Insirâf Ya sâ’atan haniyya/Such a delightful hour, such true felicity – 4’15
13Khlas Kaliftou bi-l-badri/The star I am enamoured of – 6’06

Interpreters and instruments

Omar Benamara (singing and mandole)
Smaïn Abdessamad (alto)
Nourredine Aliane (oud)
Youcef Allali (derbouka)
Mokrane Bousaid (snitra)
Rachid Brahim Djelloul (violin)
Farid Khaznadji (târ)
Isabelle Rettagliati (viola de gambe)


The Music of the lost paradise

What has often struck me when listening to or practicing this music, and especially the nuba (cantata) ‘Ghrib’, is the solemn, melancholy atmosphere that it gives off.

This music form, which generally excludes all jubilation and exultation, can at times have almost pathetic accents. Even the most lively and swinging movements are performed with modest restraint. The nuba presented here is a striking example of this. Its very name (Ghrib) can mean at the same time strangeness, exile and nostalgia! Like a haunting complaint, the theme of the Ghrib comes again and again as a leitmotiv in the tuashia (the nuba overture) and reappears several times as a reminiscence in the msadder, the second movement of the cantata.

Noble and refined, this piece shines with the dark beauty and the “pure sob” sung by the poet. It seems that both the founders of this art and its initiated adepts were aware that they were vestiges of times past, living under the threat of imminent death. From both a formal and poetic standpoint, the Arab-Andalous music of those times indeed displays the profusion of carnality, sensuality and luxuriant sophistication of this civilisation, at the same time as the painful premonition of the unavoidable end of this paradise world. Leaving the desert, these men created, in distant countries, the verdant Eden promised by Allah. They were to be expelled as Adam was from paradise. All the ingredients of nostalgia are gathered: dream palaces, fountains and gardens of delight, ecstasy and sensual pleasure. In the 17th century Romancero, Ibn Abdulla (Bouabdil) lamented in these terms:

Ô beautiful Granada
My joy and comfort
Ô my high Albaîcin
And my rich Alcaîcera
Ô my Alhambra and my Alcazar
Along with my sumptuous mosque
My baths, my gardens, my rivers
Where I used to go and rest!
They have separated me from you
Will I ever see you again? …
Yesterday I was a powerful king
And today I am left with nothing…

Following the Christian reconquest of Andalucia, which lasted for a period of time, and the massive exodus or Moors and Sephardi to Northern Africa and the Middle-East, music, the sole remainder of those amazing ages, was to crystallise and become the rallying cry of all exiles longing for Andalucia — as Marcel Proust put it, “the true paradises are lost paradises”.

The great historical events that followed were but an endless series of ordeals for these expatriates and music to them was an outlet and a refuge, in the same way nature was a daydream haven to the German romantics at the dawn of the great industrial and political upheavals.

It is astonishing to see the fate of this music and its evolution according to where it developed. In Spain, it has brought about a rich national folk repertoire that has gone far beyond Spain’s borders, inspiring such great composers as Saint-Saens (“la Suite Algérienne”), Bizet (“Djemileh”), Francisco-Salvador Daniel (“Zohra”) and many musicians of the Orientalist movement in Europe. It was certainly the main source of inspiration for Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Alhambra Garden”. Then on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, this music style closed in on itself despite internal and external contributions and influences in both style and instruments. At present considered as Algerian classical music, it is an integral part of the Maghreb cultural heritage.

The poems put to music generally deal with courtly love in a verdant and flowery surrounding, where women are sublimated and become an allegory of the lost paradise. Sometimes these texts may conceal a code where eroticism mingles with mystic illumination. The lyrics of the istikhbar could be translated as follows:

On my soul, body and mind, you are reigning
And gazing at your prodigious beauty,
I search for my place in the universe of your love.

Later on, in mystical poems (poems of the soul to its god) where divine and carnal love are blending, San Juan de la Cruz (St John of the Cross) 1542-1591 is said to speak in these terms:

So sweet and amorous
You are resting within my breast
Where you remain alone, concealed
And in your savoury breath
Full of beauty and glory
So delicately you enamour me

A music of words, mainly vocal, it is the replica of the formidable and very elaborate decorations of chiselled stucco and lace arches. This richly ornamented musical weft, sinuous and melismatic, is like endlessly repeated variations on the arabesque theme, or the calligraphies of mystical and profane poems which can be seen on the friezes or in the star-shaped polygons covering the inside walls of Andalucian Moorish palaces from floor to ceiling.  A true musical calligraphy, it combines motifs and crosses, intertwines and embellishes them to create admirable sound laces and arabesques.

Erudite and quite formal, this music is presented in the shape of cantatas called nubas. The cantata’s character and general atmosphere are determined by the mode, chosen in principle according to the interpreter’s mood and psychological state, as well as the time of day when it is performed. As far as we know, there used to be twenty-four different modes corresponding to the twenty-four hours of the day. Only twelve have reached us. Doctors could attribute therapeutical values to these modes, which, it was said, had the power to ease the body and elevate the soul. 

As is the case with Gregorian music, listening to these long, repetitive, smooth and serene chants brings about appeasement for both the performer and the listener. This music, mainly modal and homophonic as opposed to polyphonic music, is thus consubstancially connected to the souvenir of an era, a culture and an aesthetics. In such conditions, one can question the pertinence of polyphonic or harmonic ‘manipulations’ aiming to make it fashionable at the risk of denaturing its linear modal character, of turning it into a hybrid style and dissolving it into the ocean of staple music.

Omar Benamara

The structure of Algiers’ Nuba

Algiers’ nuba generally develops in the following fashion: 

A short instrumental solo, sustained in unison by the mode’s fundamental note played as a drone, establishes the mode’s uniqueness. It is followed by a rather lively orchestral overture called tuashia, aiming to attract the attention of the audience before attacking msadder, the cantata’s main part. The tuashia featured on this recording is one of the best-known in Algeria. Like a tower  rising towards the sky, it spirals up around its famous plaintive theme —which is played eight times— and reaches extremely high-pitched tones. The msadder is sung in a slow, grave and solemn concertante movement. After each versus (jawab), the orchestra plays the melody to a faster tempo. Following the msadder comes an interlude of long phrases sung to a rhythm freely agreed upon among the musicians, a cadence called istikhbar. It is punctuated with instrumental soli. The istikhbar is like exhaling a huge sigh; it is also one of the most moving and awaited moments of the nuba, where the singer gives the full measure of his vocal and musical mastery. It is also the opportunity for instrumentalists to play solo.

From then on, the successive movements of the nuba gradually accelerate, first with the btaîhi whose character is close to the msadder, but which is generally shorter and livelier. The btaîhi featured here is especially remarkable in its unusual and skilful intrusion into the zidane mode. The darj, the last piece of the nuba’s first part, is played twice as fast as the preceding movement. Like the msadder and btaîhi movements, the dardj is preceded by a short orchestral introduction called krissi, which serves as a transition and a link between two movements.

The second part of the nuba continues with one or several insiraf, in a tempo that breaks with the preceding rhythms. It comprises a compound 5/8 bar combining a ternary beat and a stressed binary beat, resulting in a ‘limping’ aspect.

The final movement, khlaç, is based on a bouncy 6/8 beat, a famous rhythm typical of Maghreb music, which has been exported to most Latin American countries.

The recording

1-TOUCHIA – Instrumental overture – 8’15

2-Instrumental solos – Oûd, viola – 4’33

3-KRISSI – Instrumental introduction-0’54

4-M’SADDAR – “Khadam-lî sa‘d î /First movement “Fate has granted me joy and serenity”-18’58

Fate has granted me joy and serenity
My goal has been reached and my desire fulfilled
Thanks be rendered to the Creator
Who has united our hearts
May this new happiness and this peace
Be ours forever.
As for the detractor blaming us
Let us leave him to his loathsome talks.

5-ISTIKHBAR – instrumental and vocal interlude, on a freely chosen rhythm 5’43

6-KRISSI – instrumental piece – 0’53

7-B’TAIHI “Alayya ‘uhûd”/Second movement “I made a vow to love no one but you” – 6’28”

I made a vow to love no one but you
And to renounce any other passion
I will not expose myself to the torment
Of desiring any other than you, my beauty
I was a lord, I am now your servant
I want us to be united and you play hard to get
In my prime I am annihilated
You are the powerful master whom I submit to
If you chose another one you would miss me
And experience the pain of separation

8KRISSI – Instrumental piece – 0’26

9-DARDJ – Dumû‘î rasâ’il/Third movement “My tears are my messengers” –7’22

My tears are my messengers
They speak for me, humble and submissive
Coming to beg the one who flees
Do not send me back or rebuke me
Noble people ask you on my behalf
Lady of my heart, you have decided to go
Leaving me lost with a wounded soul
From you I have learnt what love means
Leave in peace, my heart will love no more.

10-KRISSI – Instrumental piece – 0’51

11-INSIRAF “Zâranî al-malîh”/Fourth movement “My beloved came and visited me” – 8’03

My beloved came and visited me
On her own, in the dark of night
From her vermillion cheeks
I gathered two twin apples
To the one favoured by fate
Even the winds submit.
Bestow your favours
To him who looks at the stars
Why push off til tomorrow
What you can give today?

12-INCIRAF “Ya sâ’atan haniyya”/Fifth movement “Such a delightful hour, such true felicity” – 4’15

Such a delightful hour, such true felicity
Ô you whose face is as bright
As the rising moon
Charming virgin, I entreat you
To fill up my chalice with this old wine
My friends gathered here with me,
Let us drink and exchange kisses.

13-KHLAS “Kaliftou bi-l-badri”/Sixth  movement “The star I am enamoured of”  – 5’31

The star I am enamoured of
Is avoiding and deserting me
My body has turned skinny
My soul is full of sorrow
Caused by she
Who would not pity
Her forsaken lover
You have set fire to
My heart and chest
Ah! The pain has
Gripped my whole body

These poems were first translated from Arab into French by Saadane Benbabaali, lecturer at Paris III University

Tribute and acknowledgements

This Cd was recorded live on stage, on the 22nd of February 2003, at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, during the cultural programme “L’Année de l’Algérie” in France.

The main difficulty for me was not to mix genres, and to avoid as much as possible singing this music in a classical lyric technique. I think that the interpretation of Arab-Andalous music, an intimate genre par excellence, rather calls for some vocal modesty. The other difficulty came from the uncertainties of live recording, an always-risky exercise. Nowadays most recordings are made in a studio, with the singers and musicians playing separately before the musical fragments are edited and mixed.

In these conditions, I wish to thank the musicians who have taken part in this recording; all of them are top rank artists, very experienced and much solicited. The presence of Isabelle Rettagliati, who is an outstanding musician, was doubly significant: it was indeed the first time a viola de gamba (the heir of the rebeb) was introduced into an Andalous music ensemble as well as the first time a Western classical musician approached the traditional Algerian repertoire with such talent.

I also wish to thank Mohamed Metalsi, the cultural director of the Institut du Monde Arabe, without whom this recording could not have taken place. His encouragements, advice and help were a determinant factor.

Lastly, I wish to pay homage to the master Mohamed Khaznadji, whose magistral interpretation of the Ghrib nuba recorded in the eighties remains for me one of the very best references in the genre.

Translated by Dominique Bach

  • Reference : 321.069
  • Ean : 794 881 779 222
  • Main artist : Omar Benamar
  • Year of recording : 2003
  • Year of publishing : 2005
  • Music style : Nouba ghrib
  • Country : Algeria
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

Available album : Buy CD here