Andalusian music from Fes

Andalusian music from Fes

Abdelkrim Raïs

For seventy-five years, Hadji Abdelkrim Raïs personified the best in Moroccan Arab-Andalusian music, with his famous orchestra which he named al-Brihi as a tribute to his master. he was the author of several books and the head of the Fez academy of music, one of Morocco’s most prestigious music schools. Up until his last breath, he led his orchestra with an allert hand. On August 27th, 1996, he put away forever his favourite instrument, the rabab, after handing down to us several of the eleven nubas, which we find in this recording made during on of his rare concerts in Paris.


Part 1
– The seven tawachi of the Hijaz al-Machriqi nouba – 20’06
2Basit Raml- al-Maya – 33’24
3 – Mawwal of Abderrahim Souiri Quddam Raml- al Maya – 19’20

Part 2
Btayhi al-Rasd Inchad abderrahim Souiri and Abdelfettah Bennis
Quddam Btayhi al-Rasd
– 43’13
2Insiraf Basit al-Istihlal – 11’41
3Insiraf Btayhi al ‘Uchchaq – 17’41

Interpreters and instruments

Hadj Abdelkrim Raïs (rabâb, direction)
Mohamed Briouel (violin)
Mohamed Arabi Gharnati (violin)
Idriss Bennis (alto)
Thami Semlali (alto)
M’hammed Bouzoubaa (luth)
Mohamed Taei (tar)
Ahmed Laabi (derbouka)
Abderrahim Souiri (chant)


A picture taken from the al-Brihi or the Brihi orchestra of Fez around 1939 shows the young Abdelkrim Raïs sitting to the right of the Maestro Mohamed al-Brihi. He is accompanying the latter with the oud, the Arab lute. Even though he may have a presentiment that he is going to succeed him (at his death in 1944), that he will assume the continuity, Hadji Abdelkrim Raïs cannot imagine the great stir that will be caused by Morocco-Andalusian art in the West in 1977, the date of his first concert in Basle, and which will make him into one of its most gallant representatives.

Abdelkrim Raïs was born around 1912. As a young student, he joined the guardian of this art in the city of Fez, Mohamed Benabdeslam al-Brihi (or The Brihi) who, in turn, had received his teachings from his father, Abdessalam The Brihi. It is at the former’s side that he perfected his musical education. From the moment Abdelkrim took over, his orchestra took on the name of The Brihi in memory of the master.

This orchestra would fill out to embrace more than twenty members, as was the case during its first performance in France at the Arab Music Days of Nanterre of 1984 or, on the contrary would perform with a reduced number of members. Currently, the Abdelkrim Raïs ensemble does not include more than a dozen members as was the case during the Paris concerts of 1993. On that occasion, the ensemble included the rabab, a boat-shaped vielle with two strings, two violins, two altos, two Arab lutes and a double percussion: the tar, a drum stretched on a frame with cymbals and the darbuka, a single-membrane, chalice-shaped drum.

As it turns out, the maestro must have already been very famous in his own country since, in 1969, he was participating, as an expert, in the Fez Congress on Arab music, where he was a member of the commission on the scales and rhythms of Morocco-Andalusian music. This commission was to ordain definitely on the nature of the scales as it was to determine that of the rhythms in use in this repertory. Ever since, all ensembles in Morocco are expected to conform with the technical decisions taken by this Congress.

We owe him, aside from his various musical activities, as well as the direction of the Fez music conservatory, the publication of two works. The first one published in 1982, is a compilation of his version of the al-Ha’ik poems who, as we all know, was the first person to compile, in the written form, at the beginning of the XVIIIth century, eleven noubas with their respective poems and the corresponding musical modes and rhythms. A second title saw the day in 1985. Abdelkrim Raïs, with the help of his favourite pupil Mohamed Briouel, produced a transcription of the nouba gharibat al-husayn into western notation.

Just as the name of Hadji Abdelkrim Raïs has been associated with that of his master, The Brihi, one cannot separate the former from his favourite disciple, Mohamed Briouel. He took on a more and more preponderant part in the activity of the orchestra as Abdelkrim Raïs grew older. Born in the Fez region in 1954, this young musician has studied music since 1963 with Abdelkrim Raïs in whose fold he has accomplished his whole career. In 1986, Briouel obtained the Moroccan prize for publishing the book he had co-authored with Raïs. In 1991, the Moroccan Minister of Culture entrusted him with forming a new ensemble named al-Ala which was placed under the administrative authority of the Ministry.

In Morocco, the Arab-Andalusian tradition is named Morocco-Andalusian ever since the historic 1962 conference or the ex-minister of Culture, Mohamed El-Fassi (deceased in 1991). He was right in believing that the present form of this art, although rooted in Andalusia, was later enriched by the contributions of its contemporary interpreters. These musicians never stopped enriching the music by providing it with varied and newer instruments and compositions. Therefore it was only justice to name it Morocco-Andalusian thereby showing that it was far from being a rigid art, that this tradition was alive and well, and that it had never stopped flourishing whilst maintaining a dazzling continuity between the past and the present. This form of art has been passed on to us through the assistance of groups situated in several Moroccan cities and of which Fez constitutes one of the centres of attraction. This is a tradition mainly dispensed at marriages and it is more and more given in concert on stage: its distinctive character requires that the members be musicians as well as choristers, and that is why in Morocco this music is also called instrumental music as opposed to samaa, or the vocal and religious music from which all musical instruments are excluded.

What is played in this Morocco-Andalusian art form bears the name of nouba, a term derived from the Arabic word nowba. The nouba is a form of music which can be compared to a suite. It is structured around small  units, a series of sung poems made of a few verses designated by the term of sanaa which, literally, means a piece of work or a work of art. These poems follow each other directly or are separated by instrumental interludes. The latter can often enter into and divide the unity of the poem. An instrumental overture also precedes the song. We can count approximately twenty sanaa in order to form each movement of the nouba. And, in turn, the latter is composed of five movements with their own metric characteristics. In total, we can count around a hundred sanaa for a complete nouba. Furthermore, each of the sung verses can be prolonged by a series of meaningless syllables that are called taratin in Morocco, the most common of which are ha-na-na or ya-la-lan. Therefore, while listening to the nouba we must think of an immense symphony with one major difference: not all movements are played because of their length.

Although some of their authors are known, the sung poems generally come from anonymous sources. Indeed old, the majority originate from the Andalusian period or from the Middle-East countries (machreq). But they could have equally been written later on. These poems generally revolve around three themes: love, nature and the drink. It all happens as if nature, with its flourishing gardens, its musical instruments and the song of its birds is offering an incomparable path for the outpour and emergence of lovers who are never designated by any specific name. Most often they are being expected and the songs depict the qualities of the lover who is being waited for with a pain that is only eased by the cup-bearer. Another theme of great importance is the night which favours the waiting.

The first nouba, based on the rainl al-maya mode, distinguishes itself from the rest of the poems constituting this thematic which is rich with embellishments, very vivid and which is repeated as a leitmotiv all through the musical discourse. We know today that these poems have been revised in the XVIIIth century in accordance with al-Ha’ik’s wishes who probably wanted to win over the scholars of Islam. Only, the first nouba therefore, possesses a religious content. It consists primarily of hymns praising the Prophet Mohamed. Large excerpts of this nouba are recorded on the second track of the first compact.

A Morocco-Andalusian concert consists of presenting excerpts of the eleven noubas. Even though al-Ha’ik has gathered and organised the poems as well as having set their modalities and indicating their rhythmic tempos; the Morocco-Andalusian tradition remains an oral one. That is to say that the melodies have been transmitted via orchestras that were once anonymous and lost in time but are now turning to living conservatories. What is more, this music is not improvised, but learnt and repeated. Nevertheless, soloist improvisations are played in between the chorus to give it time to rest.

On august 27th 1996, Abdelkrim Raïs ranges definitely his rabab, leaving behind a precious heritage among which this recording, made during a performance at the Institute of the Arabian world. Conscious of the message he was delivering, Hadji Abdelkrim Raise conducted until his last breath his ensemble with nimble hands. He could easily be heard in the midst of his group. He was the one who started off the incipit of the poems which he accompanied by the purr of the rabab, symbolic instrument of Morocco-Andalusian music. Today, not only is this music becoming universal, but it is also appearing as a series of links between the South and the North which concern both continents at the same time.

Christian Poché
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

Part 1

N° 1 –The seven tawashi of the bijaz almashriqi nouba

This is an instrumental introduction which links free and improvised measures, some of which are sung by soloists using meaningless syllables, to other measures. The measured instrumental introduction in Morocco-Andalusian music is called tushiya. Its object is to present the public with the mode of the nouba that is to be played. By exception, the nouba of the hijaz al-mashriqi mode (D mode with an F sharp) is comprised of seven tawashi (plural of tushiya).

N° 2 and 3 –Basit raml al-maya, followed by a mawwal sung by Abderrahim Souiri and a closing with quddam raml al-maya

These are important excerpts of the first nouba whose content is essentially religious. It is a hymn to the Prophet Mohamed. Basit means the first movement of the nouba with a 6/4 rhythm played in the raml al-maya mode (D mode). A mawwal, or poem, improvised by singing is inserted in the form of a phrase. This poem exceeds the Andalusian mode since it calls for the bayyati mode which is known to contain a three-quarter tone. The excerpt concludes by the fifth rhythm (koddam) of the same nouba which develops a 3-tempo time accelerating to 6/8.

Part 2

N° 1 – Btayhi al-rasd, inshad, quddam

The rasd mode (E mode) constitutes the sixth nouba as set by al-Ha’ik. Abdelkrim Raïis’ orchestra makes us listen to the 3rd movement of this nouba called the btayhi. The btayhi is structured on an 8-tempo time. The text insists on the moral qualities that any lover should possess. Next follows an improvisation (inshaad), alternated by the two soloists of the group, Abderrahim Souiri and Abdelfettah Bennis. This passage closes with the 5th movement (quddam) of this 6th nouba.

N° 2 – Insiraf basit al-istihlal

The insiraf, which signifies the exit, is the end of the 1st movement (basit) of the nouba in the istihlal mode (C mode) placed in fifth position in the order set up by al-Ha’ik. Therefore, this rendering takes place on a lively tempo.

N° 3 –Insiraf btayhi al-‘ushshaq

It is also the final of the 3rd movement of the nouba in the ‘ushshaq mode (G Mode) which is the eleventh and last nouba according to the classification of al-Ha’ik. Here, the poem evokes the sunrise.

  • Reference : 321.002.003
  • Ean : 794 881 472 529
  • Main artists : Abdelkrim Raïs (عبد الكريم رايس)
  • Year of recording : 1993
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style : Nouba arabo-andalouse
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Musique traditionnelle
  • Lyricists : Musique traditionnelle
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe