Andalusian music from Algiers


The nubas were originally considered to be a mystical practice and as such were the prerogative of the intellectual elite.

The nuba consists of a suite of vocal and instrumental pieces composed in the same key and on a rhythm that moves crescendo towards a dance rhythm; the texts are poems whose main theme is love.

The sika nuba is part of the tradition known as san’a. This idea refers to a more craft-like interpretation of musical practice (music was a skill and not an art) and has given rise to a rich national heritage left by generations of anonymous musicians. The repertoire is held in particularly high esteem in the cities of Algiers and Tlemcen.

Nassima is recognised as one of the finest mezzo-sopranos in Algeria for Andalusian and hawzi music; she is also well known for her work in helping to preserve this living oral tradition that has existed for so many centuries.


1 – Instrumental prelude on the nay flute – 0’19
2Touchia – 4’49
3 – Instrumental solo on the alto violin – 0’50
4M’saddar Yâ nâs a-mâ ta‘dhirûnî/Good people, be indulgent with me – 7’47
5 – Instrumental solo on the mandolin – 0’48
6 B’tayhî Mâ dhâ nahît qalbî/My friend, I’ve tried in vain to stop my heart from loving – 6’37
7Istikhbar Salâmun ‘alâ al-ahbâbi/Hail to my friends… – 5’26
8Darj Hibbî al-ladhî rânî na‘shaqu/The beloved I’m smitten with – 6’07
9 Insirâf Tuwayyarî masrâr/My little bird with its hidden charm – 3’48
10Dlidla Ifarraj rabbî/God will bring consolation – 1’22
11Insirâf Lâ taqta‘ rajâk/Love, never despair – 2’21
12Khlâs Qabbaltu yadâ-h qâla lî/I kissed her hands – 2’02
13Khlâs Yâ man darâ/Who can tell me? – 3’02
14Khlâs Dîr al ‘uqâr/Pass round the goblets of wine – 1’55

Interpreters and instruments

Nassima (singing and mandole)
Farid Ben Sarsa (direction)
Noureddine Aliane (oud)
Farid Ben Sarsa (luth from Maghreb)
Rachid Brahim Djelloul (violin)
Abdelghani Belkaïd (alto)
Djamel Allam (mandoline)
Hind Bellamine (piano)
Youcef Allali (derbouka and târ)
Kamal Labassi (nây)



The nuba sika presented here is part of an Algerian musical tradition called san’a particularly prevalent in the cities of Tlemcen and Algiers, where the best connoisseurs and lovers of the genre are also to be found, as well as the most devoted musicians. The term san’a can be translated by craftsmanship, trade, which would point to a rather different concept from our own, where music is an art in the European sense; in the urban milieu of old-time Algeria the practice of san’a was considered more as a skill than an art where individual expression of ideas and feelings has its place. This concept of music as a craft is perhaps the reason why quite a number of compositions have been preserved, but not the name of their composers. San’a now constitutes a national heritage, the legacy of generations of anonymous “artisan-musicians”.


Our knowledge of the history and development of the san’a is very limited because of the lack of documents. However, certain researchers have tried to piece together a history of the genre, either of the san’a alone or in a more general survey of music from the Maghreb. The basis for this work has been first and foremost literary and historical data of general nature, and the results are therefore to be interpreted with care…

In 822, a famous musician called Ziryab arrived in Cordoba, the cultural and political centre of Islam in the West at that time. He became the emir’s favourite musician, with his responsibilities extending as far as the organisation of musical life at the court. Several centuries later, two new musical and literary forms saw the light of day: the muwashshah and the zajal; their most famous practitioner was Ibn Bajja (1138), whose poems and musical compositions quickly became known throughout the Arab world.

But in the 13th century, Arab political power in Spain began to wane; the Golden Age of culture was drawing to its close. The fall of Granada in 1492 was the last act in the tragedy that ultimately led to the expulsion of all the Muslims in Al-Andalus to North Africa. Arab culture then found refuge in the various towns and cities of the Maghreb and the classical musical heritage was maintained in the form of three traditions known as ala in Morocco, san’a in Algeria and malouf in Tunisia.

The first attempts at research into the musicology of North Africa were undertaken in the late 19th C. These studies contain the first references to terms such as “Arabo-Andalusian music”, “Hispano-Arabic music”, used instead of the usual san’a, ala and malouf. These new terms were in keeping with the “orientalist” theory, by which Maghrebi musical traditions originate in medieval Spain rather than in Arab countries. They also suggested that once the Arabs had been driven out of Spain, no new developments took place in North African music, and that ever since then, musicians had contented themselves with preserving and transmitting the vestiges of a bygone musical culture.

This kind of viewpoint leaves aside the lessons to be learned from the accounts written by European travellers such as Thomas Shaw (the early 18th C.) or Filippo Pananti (the early 19th C.); these early travellers were surprised not only by the high quality of music in the North African countries but also by the importance it was given. Again, this kind of opinion fails to explain the differences existing between each of the three major traditions of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, even though they apparently have a common basis. In fact, these differences lead one to believe that the musicians in this part of the world did not just stop at preserving the repertoire in respectful, even servile manner; they were more likely truly creative, and played an active part in forming and developing these traditions. Alas, we simply don’t have enough information to enable us to follow these different stages prior to the early 20th C.

The san’a today

The main centres of san’a are Tlemcen and Algiers. This tradition does not merely consist of a simple repertoire of tunes and words, it’s much more complex than that. The texts are sung to melodies belonging to rhythmic modes created originally by musicians and passed on from one generation to another. This was of course a dynamic process and during recent centuries the san’a has been subject to all sorts of changes. To give one example, the corpus of melodies that constitutes the basis of san’a has gradually been renewed over time, so the melody that Thomas Shaw wrote in his notebook in the early 18th century, with the accompanying words “Man yu‘ti qalbuh lil-milah”  still exists in musicians’ notebooks today, but the original melody has fallen into oblivion and been replaced by another one. Another example of the san’a‘s evolution concerns the size and instrumentation of the performing ensembles. Right up to the 19th C. the traditional ensembles that used to play at the family parties of the upper-class bourgeois or in cafés consisted of a few musicians who would accompany themselves on the kuitra1, the rabab2 and the tar3. But in the late 19th C. Arab instruments such as the oriental lute and the darbuka were introduced; in the 20th C. it was the turn of European instruments such as the alto violin, the cello and the piano to make their appearance. During the same period the ensembles increased in size and virtually became orchestras. Changes of this kind in instrumentation have had a noticeable influence on the way the nuba is performed on this record. Instruments introduced relatively recently such as the mandola, the violin and the reed flute (the nay) are found side by side with the usual core instruments of the traditional Arabo-Andalusian ensemble.

The nuba

The central concept of san’a is the nuba that can be defined as a concert programme and a vocal and instrumental suite consisting of five ‘sections’ in its classical form. Each section contains at least one melody composed in a specific rhythmic mode, this term implying a number of features concerning time such as the beat, the rhythm and the tempo of a composition4

The five sections of the nuba are called respectively: m’saddar, b’tayhi, darj, insiraf and khlas. The melodies are performed to a gentle binary rhythm in the first three sections, and to ternary rhythms in the next two, with a gradually increasing tempo.

Another main principle of the classical nuba is that of total unity, this means that all the compositions performed within one nuba belong to the same melodic mode (or key), whence the custom of calling a nuba by the name of its mode. There are twelve modes in existence altogether nowadays, and therefore twelve nubas. Some of these are very typical, others resemble one another a great deal, their modal differences have gradually disappeared over time. The sika mode, the basis of this nuba, has the following characteristics:

• the mode recalls the Phrygian mode of European music;
• the basic key is E, supporting keys are G and A;
• the G is often preceded by an F sharp instead of F natural;
• similarly, the A is accented by G sharp instead of G natural.

The poems, the texts, the words

The poems sung in the nuba, known as the muwashshahat, are usually five-line verses in an ab/ab/ab/cd/cd scheme. The last two lines of each verse end with the same rhyme, whereas the three other lines change rhyme from one verse to another, giving an ab/ab/ab/cd/cd// ef/ef/ef/cd/cd// etc. scheme. If the last line of each verse is a refrain, the work is called a zajal rather than muwashshah.

Sometimes an introduction or prelude – the matla’ –  precedes the muwashshah or zujal. It is always constructed in the same way as the two lines that finish the verse: cd/cd//ab/ab/ab/cd/cd//ef/ef/ef/cd/cd// etc.

The zajal  “Ya nas a-ma ta‘dhiruni” that Nassima sings at the beginning of this recording, opens with a matla’, whereas the second zajal, “Ma dha nahit qalbi” starts directly into the verse. This difference in poetic structure has repercussions on the music too, as explained below.

The touchia

The nuba often begins with an instrumental prelude called the touchia played by all the musicians on a 4/4 or 2/4 rhythm. Each musician adapts the melody to his instrument and can paraphrase and embellish as he wishes. These individual interpretations all being played at the same time produce a very lively and varied tapestry of sound. Otherwise, the touchia has a clearly defined structure – it must unfold as a series of different musical phrases, where each one develops naturally from the preceding one.

Nothing is known about the touchia’s origins. Comparable words such as tchanbar and bachraf used to denote instrumental compositions that are also part of the san’a suggest a Turkish origin. But it is worth noting that the touchia sika was scored and published in the early 20th C. by Edmond Nathan Yafil, the head of a relatively important music ensemble in Algiers. This copy is of real historic value because it dates from a time prior to the existence of recordings.

The m’saddar

Like most of the other sections of the nuba, the m’saddar always begins with a kursi, an instrumental prelude played in unison. Motifs and even whole phrases from the touchia can be recognised in these kursi-s. On this recording, the kursi is preceded by a short improvisation on the viola. These few improvised phrases anticipate the istikhbar sika heard later in the recording. Next begins what is considered the most noble and moving part of the nuba – a melody in a low adagio, constructed on long periods. A brief scheme of the first melody has been drawn up, so as to give an idea of the general structure of the melodies contained in the nuba repertoire (cf the end of this booklet). This first one is sung to a zajal with a matla’ that opens thus  “Ya nas a-ma tadhiruni “. For the purposes of greater clarity, the ornamentations and instrumental repetitions have been omitted and only the melody lines notated. The scheme shows clearly the three distinct parts of the melody:

• an introduction carrying the same weight as the two lines of the matla’, and consisting of two phrases, A and B. A is sung twice;
• a central part in which the first three lines of the verse (with an identical rhyme) are sung. The melody of this part is identical to the second phrase (B) of the introduction.
• a final part that repeats the introduction except that the last two lines of the verse are sung here.

The m’saddar is sung in a gentle binary movement. The slow, solemn tempo offers the singer a multitude of possibilities for ornamentation and arabesques, for varying, linking and interpreting the melody exactly as he or she wishes. We hope the simplified chart will help the listener to judge the true value of Nassima’s musical imagination, the richness she brings to her rendering that nevertheless remains faithful to the Algiers tradition and the most important masters of the genre who sang in the second half of the last century, e.g. Dahmane Ben Achour and Sadek El Bejaoui5. She is always seeking new ways of expression within this tradition, one of these being the way she calls upon modern recording techniques to double the melody line at the octave.

The b’tayhi

Unlike the Tlemcen tradition, the differences in rhythm between the m’saddar, the b’tayhi and the darj have almost disappeared in that of Algiers. Generally speaking, one can say that the melodies of the m’saddrat (pl. of msaddar) and the b’tayhiyyat (pl. of b’tayhî) are ample and contain long melisma, whereas those of the draj (pl. of darj) are shorter and simpler. It is often only a matter of difference in tempo between the sections, with the m’saddar being the slowest part and the darj the fastest. The terms m’saddar, b’tayhi and darj  have therefore lost all their meaning in the stylistic sense, even though musicians continue to use them.

In this recording Nassima has chosen to sing a song traditionally considered to be a m’saddar, though she sings it as a b’tayhi. As in the first part of the nuba, the b’tayhi is preceded by a kursi, and the song then begins directly with the first line of the first verse (as a pose to an introductory matla’). The rest of the melodic structure here is identical to the previous section, but Nassima only sings two lines with identical rhymes instead of three.

The istikhbar

A contemporary nuba is often interrupted by an istikhbar, in other words a vocal improvisation with no fixed rhythm. The istikhbar was originally sung as the introduction to the nuba of the inqilabat, a suite of more simple melodies in lighter mood than those of the classical nuba.

The istikhbar gives the singer more chance of demonstrating his or her vocal skills, his ability to improvise and his musical flair than the measured songs of the nuba. This type of song usually unfolds to a four-line poem sung in a fixed order: 1/ 1-2/ 3-4/ 4. The melody lines corresponding to these four lines of verse are however only fixed in broad outline, with a few salient points that the improviser must respect. The final sentence of the istikhbar is always introduced by a lament-like vocalise on the syllable “ah”. The singer’s improvised phrases alternate with instrumental improvisations.

The darj

After the isitkhbar the ensemble opens the section known as the darj by playing its kursi. The darj is sung to a distinctly faster tempo than the previous sections, and to a zajal which, like the m’saddar, has a matla‘ introduction. ” Hibbii al-ladhi rani na‘shaqu.” As in the b’tayhi, Nassima only sings two lines from the part with three with identical rhymes.

The insiraf

The insiraf is the last section or movement of the classical nuba and is preceded by a kursi announcing the ternary part. The very special change in rhythm of the insiraf of the Algiers tradition probably happened in the early 20th C.; until then it was played in a six-beat rhythm. But about a hundred years ago the musicians in Algiers started to shorten the first and fourth beat of the meter without affecting the structure, so the first and third beats are strong. This way of playing this particular mode makes it unbalanced but dynamic. It’s very difficult to be precise about these shortenings and Algerian musicians don’t agree on the question anyway – it would certainly seem to be more a matter of intuition than intellect. 

The insiraf contains two melodies, and in the second, unlike what we’re used to hearing, Nassima inverses the first two verses of the zajal. Thus she sings “La taqta ‘rajak ” instead of “Ya lawn al ‘asal “.

The musicians have inserted a melody known as dlidla in the san’a tradition, into this section.

The khlas

The khlas is the final section of the nuba and the only one not to be preceded by a kursi. Sometimes the khlas continues in the same mode as that of the previous section (insiraf) before moving into its own specific mode; at other times it starts directly in its own mode as is the case here. The khlas‘s rhythm features a quite fast, dance-like ternary motion with numerous heliolias (a technical term denoting an ambiguous rhythm that can be heard either in 3/4 or 6/8 time and which oscillates between a simple ternary motion and a composite binary one. In this recording, it offers alternations between 5/8 and 6/8).

The motion gathers speed at the end of this section, before coming to a clean halt. The section ends with a non-measured ample vocal and instrumental phrase bringing all the features of the sika mode together for the last time.

Dr. Leo J. Plenckers, musicologist


1 : A small traditional lute from Algeria.
2 : A stroked string instrument placed in the musician’s lap.
3 : Small percussion instrument.
4 : Indications in Western music such as “waltz”, “minuet” or “tango” can be considered as rhythmic modes of this kind.
5 : Nassima has had other teachers who have played a definite part in her artistic itinerary. Amongst these, we should quote the Benguergoura brothers and Hadj Hamidou Djaidir.

The recordings

1- Instrumental prelude on the nay flute – 0’19

2- Touchia

3- Instrumental solo on the alto violin  – 0’50

4- M’saddar Ya nas a-ma ta‘dhiruni/Good people, be indulgent with me – 7’47

Good people, be indulgent with me
After what happened to me.
Even the censors have taken pity on me,
I spend my nights gazing so intently at the stars.
By God, how could I have let myself be smitten
With someone who refuses union?
But I swear that I’ll not lose hope
Until I obtain his love
And he comes to share a goblet of wine with me,

To the great annoyance of envious people and the censors;
And then I’ll say: o you with your subtle souls,
My drunkenness has become a pleasant thing;
Even the censors have taken pity on me,
I spend my nights gazing so intently at the stars.

5- Instrumental solo on the mandolin  – 0’48

6- B’tayhi Ma dha nahit qalbi/My friend, I’ve tried in vain to stop my heart from loving – 6’37

My friend, I’ve tried in vain to stop my heart from loving
But love is a gift of the Lord
So that our souls may find joy therein.
Be patient, then, my heart!
For patience is the key to happiness.
You have ensnared me with your languorous gaze
Created just to make loving hearts suffer.
The pupils of those eyes have decided my deathly fate,
And so I’ve revealed my secret,
Henceforth those who didn’t know it, do.

7- Istikhbar Salamun ‘ala al-ahbabi/ Hail to my friends…- 5’26

Hail to you all, my friends near and far!
May my greeting be as gentle as the breeze on the roses!
We’ve been separated too long, and I’m yearning for your company;
But God has decreed thus and His servant must obey.

8- Darj Hibbi al-ladhi rani na‘shaqu/The beloved I’m smitten with – 6’07

I share my goblet
With the beloved I’m smitten with;

God will demand an explanation
From whoever sows discord in his heart,
And teaches him tyranny and evasiveness:
Dear God, I want to repent of my fault.
We were living in harmony, a life of no reproach,
Not a single cloud darkened
our sky
And my soul belonged to him.
Dear God, I want to repent of my fault.
Each time I met him,
I would kiss his hand, humbly and submissive;
But his tyranny would be twice as fierce:
Dear God, I want to repent of my fault.

Iblis, the Cursed One, led him astray
And turned him away from me;
My suffering is such, I cry out in pain:
Dear God, I want to repent of my fault.
But yesterday, we were in each other’s arms
And today he abandons me
like this,
God will demand an explanation
From he who sows discord in his heart
And teaches him tyranny and evasiveness:
Dear God, I want to repent of my fault.

9- Insirâf Tuwayyari masrar/My little bird with its hidden charm – 3’48

My little bird with its hidden charm,
Does not accept tyranny of any sort.
With its golden beak and red breast
It sings high and clear
And keeps guests company.
But a stroke of its wings, and
it’s off and away
Abandoning our deserted homes;
It flits here and there, in search of happiness;
Then back it comes, and settles on my hand:
“For as long as your life lasts
No-one but me will be your friend”.  

10- Dlidla Ifarraj rabbi/God will bring consolation – 1’22

Oh my friends,
When will God bring consolation?
God will bring consolation
Oh my friends;
Happiness will return once more
And my heart will know joy.

11- Insiraf La taqta ‘ rajak/Love, never despair – 2’21

Love, never despair
Of he who has smitten your heart;
If he goes away, run to be near him;
Perhaps by his side you’ll find
A way out of your unhappiness.
But that’s how the beloved becomes sulky and evasive,
And there’s no trick will change him.
So let’s make the most of this moment of happiness
Amongst the budding branches and the jasmine,
And the air filled with the sweet sounds
Of birds and the eloquent nightingale ;
Make the most of it, my love, this moment of happiness here on earth.

12- Khlas Qabbaltu yada-h qala li/I kissed her hands – 2’02

I kissed her hands, she asked me:
– But what is it you want?
– Marriage, I told her.
– You’re dreaming, my poor friend;

– Why’s that? I asked her;
– My little heart has decided thus;
– Then I will die;
– You’ll be a martyr, she said.
 O my queen, my sultana.
I kissed her hands, she asked me:

– What exactly have you in mind?
– Marriage, I replied;
– Your wait will be long;
– Why should that be?
– My heart detests you;
– Then I will die;
– Go and die then, I’ve someone to replace you.
O my queen, my sultana.

13- Khlas Ya man dara/Who can tell me? – 3’02

Who can tell me the reason why
My beloved has turned away from me?

Every time he meets me,
He has but pitiless words to say.
May God punish the man who has sown discord within him,

He’s gone, he’s left me.
It was a jealous traitor who’d spied on us
Who turned he who was my friend away from me.
But I had sacrificed everything for him,
I beg God for courage that I may wait patiently.

14- Khlas Dir al ‘uqar/Pass round the goblets of wine – 155

Cup-bearer, pass round the goblets of wine
And fill mine up too.
May your wine drive away my worries,

And put some life back in me.
Today the light has come back into my eyes;
My gazelle has come to visit me,
She sat down before me,
And like a star, lit up my heart.
How sweet it is to drink
Cheek to cheek with one’s beloved.
My fair one paid me a visit,
And this feast I’m giving is for her;
I’ve prepared the best dishes
And marvellous wines, the best,
As for the spy looking in on us,
He’ll spend the night outside.
Rise now and serve my gazelle, cup-bearer,

Until her thirst is utterly quenched.
How sweet it is to drink
Cheek to cheek with one’s beloved.
By God, fill up the glasses, my friend!
May your wine drive away my worries,
Serve the light of my eyes as well!

Pour us some of your wine
In the shade of this leafy bower!
In the arbour here, how sweet it is to drink,
My heart is festive, at the peak of joy.
How sweet it is to drink,
Cheek to cheek with one’s beloved.

The poems were translated from Arabic by Saadane Benbabaali.

  • Reference : 321.046
  • Ean : 794 881 707 423
  • Main artist : Nassima
  • Year of recording : 2002
  • Year of publishing : 2002
  • Music style: Music of Sanaa
  • Country : Algeria
  • Town of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Compositers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe