Andalusian music from Algiers

Andalusian music from Algiers

Al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya

The al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya association was founded in the thirties out of the merger of two associations. Some remarkable results have been achieved in the conservation and highlighting of this heritage as well as in musical education, thanks to both the leadership of its president, the late Sid Ali Ben Merabet, and to its conductor Sid Ahmed Serri, one of the foremost masters of the Algerian school of Arab-Andalusian music. Today, the al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya Association has the virtuoso mandolin player Nacer Eddine Ben Merabet at its head. With its rich past and the wealth of knowledge it has accumulated over time, it has become more concerned than ever to carry on this heritage in all its authenticity, whilst taking into account the changes imposed by modernism.


1– Instrumental – 10’14
2Tahiyya bikum kullu arden/Every shore you reach will welcome you – 6’10
3Da’û muqlatî tabkî/Shed tears, mine eyes, for the loss of thy beloved – 6’26
4Law kâna al-milâh…/O, gracious ladies… – 9’10
5Lawlâka mâ himtu wajdâ/If you did not exist – 3’58
6Fî ‘ichqatî hâr at-tabîb/The doctor is astounded by the passion that makes me so distraught – 9’39
7Bittû achkû al-gharâm/Licked by the flames of passion, sleep evades me; I complain unceasingly – 2’50
8Yâ tura tura… – Atânî zamânî – Qudûm al-habîb – Mâ kuntû adrî/May the good times returns – Fate has crowned me with joy – The arrival of my beloved – I did not know – 11’23

Interpreters and instruments

Nacer Eddine Ben Merabet (direction, violin, mandolin, choir)
Ali Ben Merabet (rabâb, choir)
Mohamed Bendiba (rabâb, choir)
Farid Ben Sarsa (oud, chœur)
Lyes Dahimene (oud, chœur)
Selma Touati (oud, chœur)
Abdelkader Moured (mandole, choir)
Kheireddine Bestanji (mandolin, chœur)
Mahmoud Hadj Ali (mandolin, choir)
Souad Ben Sarsa (violin, choir)
Mohamed Reda Boukoura (violin, choir)
Omar Mouhoub (violin, choir)
Abla Rahal (violin, choir)
Lamia Touati (violin, choir)
Sabiha Ben Merabet (kouitra, choir)
Nadia Boutaleb (kouitra, choir)
Houria Larinouna (kouitra)
Djamila Maalem (kouitra, choir)
Bedreddine Ghezah (cello, chœur)
Youcef Allali (derbouka, chœur)
Abdelhalim Ikerbouchen (tar, chœur)


Some historical landmarks

Specialists in the subject are all agreed that so-called “Arab-Andalusian” music was composed and developed from the 9th century onwards. In fact both music and song of this genre took shape in the Iberian peninsula, under Muslim occupation at the time. To be even more precise, it was the Cordovan Umayad Emir of Spain ‘Abd al-Rahman II (822-852) and ‘Abd al-Rahman III, the first caliph of al-Andalus (912-961) who gave the necessary encouragement and impetus to the development of this art, which continued to evolve during the successive reigns of the muluk attawa’if (or kings) of the inland states (1012-1141), the Almoravids (1056-1146), the Almohads (1129-1268), and the Nasrids of Granada (1235-1491). The whole art of music soared into being, and over time, gradually took on the forms that constitute the aesthetic basis of music and singing so typical of the Greater Maghreb for the last five centuries.

Muslim civilisation of the Occident has enriched the world’s heritage with some remarkable creations, not only in the field of architecture but also in that of philosophy, to name only two examples. As testimony to these splendours of the past, mention should be made of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada and the works of Avicenna (Ibn Rushd), the first philosopher to introduce a rationalist discourse as a pose to traditional, monotheistic religious thought. So-called Arab-Andalusian music is yet another testimony to the refinement of this civilisation, in other words to a way of life and thought that could be described as the Maghrebi-Andalusian form of epicurism. Music fitted well into the political landscape, where all the arts flourished and were widely encouraged and patronised by the kings, anxious to add yet more lustre and brilliance to their court by attracting the services of the best creative artists, poets, musicians…

However, this musical art was nourished from other totally different sources, particularly in the Mesopotamian tradition, where the muwashshah flourished, and on Maghrebi and Spanish soil. Reference must be made here to the most recent work by the eminent musicologist Mahmoud Guettat who sheds convincing new light on the traces left by the Maghreb in the development of this type of music. So it can be confidently claimed that Muslim civilisation from the West is the central matrix within which this music took shape and developed to become one of the most beautiful creations in the world, represented, for example, by the ample Arab-Andalusian cantatas, a perfect symbiosis of traditions gleaned from all sorts of different backgrounds, and rendered coherently beautiful by the Arab language in its literary form (for the muwashshah) and by spoken Arabic (for the zadjel).

Islamic Arab civilization has been marked by centuries of decadence and the countries of the Maghreb have gone through several tragic upheavals, especially since the end of the 15th century. Nevertheless, this centuries-old musical activity has never ceased; generations of passionate music masters have composed or practised their instrument, thereby adding to an already rich repertory. Unfortunately their names have not all come down to us, but obviously such a living tradition must have been affected over time; to remain unchanged over the course of more than five centuries would be unthinkable! To get a quick grasp of what these changes represent, one has only to compare the aesthetics in the field of melody and singing that emerge on listening to early recordings of this music, made in the late twenties, with what is proposed today in the countless performances given by orchestras or soloists.

This musical tradition has been carried on by small circles of initiates who have passed on their knowledge by oral transmission; today it is gaining a new audience and a new vitality, encouraged in the context of the independence of the countries of the Maghreb. But the real merit for saving this marvellous heritage from oblivion and for its transmission must fall mainly to the mixed cultural or musical associations and clubs. Their members, both men and women alike, have often made enormous sacrifices so that this tradition may remain a living treasure, capable of bringing the feeling of sheer happiness to millions of other men and women.

The role of associations

Whereas each independent Maghrebi state was supposed to reserve a certain budget to help save this musical heritage – and they have done this, though very sparingly -, the hidden riches of these treasures, their literary value, their rhythms etc., still remain largely unexplored. And whereas, just like the malhun, this tradition is the faithful and truly symbolic expression of one of the vital facets of Maghrebi cultural identity, in reality the task of safeguarding has been largely assumed by cultural associations with only limited means (human and financial) at their disposal. In comparison, just remember that virtually every classical music orchestra in France receives state financial support or other public money to ensure its proper functioning. Yet Arab-Andalusian music, with harmonic structures similar to those of classical music, laid down by subtle but precise rules according to an ethos underlining its universality and its deep significance, calls for far greater financial support from the Maghrebi governments.

One should also remember that this music was at the origins of the school of troubadours in Europe, where the poetry of courtly love, le fine amor, was introduced at the end of the 11th century. Such examples are an invitation to take a fresh look at a chapter of world cultural history and instigate a fruitful dialogue between cultures. Finally, the teaching and the values inherent in this tradition and its literary texts can only help to form enlightened minds, and are bound to lead to a civic awareness that any cultured society needs and should encourage. The fact remains that the pioneering work in preserving this tradition and enriching its repertoire is a task largely undertaken by private associations and clubs with limited means quite insufficient to meet the basic demands summarized above.

The al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya Association

One of the most representative and one of the strongest of these associations. It was founded in 1932 with the symbolic name of al-Mossiliya; this name was chosen as a tribute to a legendary family of Iraqi musicians, Ibrahim and Ishaq al-Mawsili, who lived during the Abassidian Empire (8th-9th centuries). Arab historians have claimed in their chronicles that it was Ishaq al-Mawsili who brought about the exile of his pupil Ziryab, forced to stay in Kairouan, Tunisia, for ten long years, before settling in Cordoba in the year 822. In 1951 al-Mossiliya merged with another association, al- Djazaïriya, founded in 1930, and out of this merger the present association was born. Under the direction of its president, the late Sid Ali Ben Merabet and the conductor Sid Ahmed Serri, one of the most important masters of the Algerian school of Arabo-Andalusian music, this association has achieved remarkable results in several areas: in preserving and highlighting the rich repertoire of the genre, as well as in the domain of education (more than 300 pupils follow regular classes in music and Arabo-Andalusian singing). The association has also given numerous performances in music festivals or concerts in Algeria and abroad. It is thanks to the hard work and the serious approach and above all the passion, of personalities such as the ones we have just mentioned, that Arab-Andalusian music and song have been feted and honoured so magnificently on such occasions. Other self-effacing, talented, equally passionate people, just as enamoured of this music, go about this task of preserving and transmitting this heritage with the utmost discretion. It seems appropriate here to pay tribute to one of them, Farid Bensara, who carries on this noble task begun by the elders, throughout France, aided by a team of volunteers. Today, the al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya Association has the virtuoso mandolin player Nacer Eddine Ben Merabet at its head. With its rich past and the wealth of knowledge it has accumulated over time, it has become more concerned than ever to carry on this heritage in all its authenticity, whilst taking into account the changes imposed by modernism.

Rachid Aous

2 July 2000

translated by Delia Morris

The recording

This recording offers a glimpse of one of the many facets of Arab-Andalusian epicurism, a philosophy of life that was one of the glories of Western Arab-Berber-Muslim civilization. All music-lovers whose special taste is for the Arab-Andalusian genre will appreciate the maestria of the vocal and instrumental improvisations on this record, just as they will fall under the spell of its serenity and haunting sweetness. The al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya ensemble gives an extremely delicate rendering of a nuba, a piece that is totally representative of this Algerian school and its aesthetics. The sung poems in the nuba are set to music with subtlety and taste. The nuba is performed in the dhil and mjanba modes, both specific to Arab-Andalusian music of the Maghreb, and favourable to sweet dreams and whispered night-time secrets. The poetry is delightfully highlighted by the soloists’ voices, taken up and magnified by perfectly matched choirs. The crystal-clear voice of Souad Bensara in the btayhi mjanba (track 4) deserves special mention, for the sheer delight it provokes – here is a piece for an anthology, a model of aesthetic expression in the singing style of this special Algerian tradition.

1- Instrumental improvisations – 10’14
Touchia in dhil mode.

2- Tahiyya bikum kullu arden/Every shore you reach will welcome you – 6’10
Collective song in msaddar dhil mode.

3- Da’u muqlati tabki li faqdi habibiha/Shed tears, mine eyes, for the loss of thy beloved – 6’26
Istikhbar/ Improvisation in zidan mode.

Nacer Eddine Ben Merabet plays a wonderful violin solo, and sings in his warm, deep voice, charged with intense emotion. His whole performance is illuminated by his total mastery of this delicate exercise.

4- Law kana al-milah…/O, gracious ladies – 9’10
Song in dhil and mjanba modes.

Law kana al-milah yunsifu
Wa yahinnu ‘ala al-‘ashiq bihali

O, gracious ladies, may you render justice to those who like me, are in love,
And may you take pity on us!

5- Lawlaka ma himtu wajda/If you did not exist – 3’58
Song in darj mjanba mode brilliantly rendered by Mahmoud Hadj Ali.

Law la ka ma himtu wajda
Wa la ta‘achchaqtu najda

If you did not exist, I would not know this passion that makes me so distraught,
I would not be so in love as to suffer thus. 

6- Fi ‘ichqati har at-tabib/The doctor is astounded by the passion that makes me so distraught – 9’39
Insiraf in dhil mode.

7- Bittu achku al-gharam ‘araqi/Licked by the flames of passion, sleep evades me; I complain unceasingly – 2’50
Insiraf in mjanba mode.

8- Ya tura tura… – Atani zamani – Qudum al-habib tamam as-surur – Ma kuntu adri/May the good times return – Fate has crowned me with joy – The arrival of my beloved – I did not know – 11’23
A series of four khlas, dance-like pieces in dhil mode that close the nuba.

  • Reference : 321.031
  • Ean : 794 881 602 827
  • Main artist : Al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya (الجزائرية الموصلية)
  • Year of recording : 1996
  • Year of publishing : 2000
  • Music style: Traditional music
  • Country : Algeria
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Association Al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Association Al-Djazaïriya al-Mossiliya ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe