Andalusian music from Tangier

Sheikh Ahmed Zaïtouni

Sheikh Ahmed Zaïtouni is a remarkable master musician of the al-Andalus style; here he and his ensemble from Tangier (founded in 1981) perform one of the most beautiful of the eleven vocal and instrumental suites of the Moroccan âla, the nuba Al-Hijâz al-kabîr.

With a strict respect for tradition, vocalists and instrumentalists alike perform in close symbiosis, communicating with each other by a simple glance to produce music of subtle balance and strong emotion whose powerful effects transport listeners into the sumptuous medieval heritage of the legendary Ziryab.


1 – Instrumental introduction – 4’34
2Ahsanta yâ laylu/Blessed be thou, oh night ; Wa-l-ladhî anshâk/By He who has conceived you – 7’36
3Wa zâ’irin zâr/She came to see me ; Al-lawzu fâh/The almond trees are redolent ; Arâ al-lawz min bacd al-mashîb/Oh my companion, I see that once old age… – 8’48
4Yâ sâkinan qalbî al-mucannâ/Oh you who has settled in my captive heart ; Yâ farîd al-casri ahyaf/Your beauty is unique, you of the slender waist ; Qamarun min fawqi ghusn… /Oh beauteous star… – 13’49
5 – Violin solo – 4’00
6Afnânî dhâ l-hubb/Love for you has laid me low ; Kun fî cushqika/Be cautious in your love – 4’19
7Qad kuntu ahsabu/I thought that… – 9’33
8 – Ilâ dâr al-habîb/In the Beloved’s abode ; Jismî nahîl/My body is so frail ; Li-l-Lâh yâ zayn as-sighâr/I beseech you, fairest of maidens – 9’29
9 – Lâ farraqa l-Lâhu shamla l-‘âshiqîn/May God never separate the lovers – 2’56

Interpreters andinstruments

Abdelmoumen Abderrahmane (singing)
Mohsen Afilal (târ)
Larbi Akrim (oud)
Nabil Arfaoui (violin)
Jamal Eddine Ben Allal (violin)
Youcef Benaïssa (cello)
Najat Houssini (singing)
Mourad Kanjae (derbouka)
Abdelmajid Moudden (cello)
Larbi Serghini (singing)
Mohamed Temsamani (rabâb)
Mustapha Tsouli (oud)
Ahmad Zaïtouni (direction, alto)


The Arabo-Andalusian Nuba and the Moroccan Âla

The âla represents the classical tradition in Moroccan music. Like the Tunisian mâlûf or the Algerian sanca, it stems from the Arabo-Andalusian musical heritage. Current masters of this musical tradition are the heirs of the illustrious Ziryâb [1], an outstanding musician and a disciple of Ishaq al-Mawsilî [2]. Ziryâb (whose nickname, incidentally means ‘Blackbird’) settled in al-Andalus in the early 9th century. It was he who was behind the musical system brought to the Maghreb, with many adjustments and alterations, by the Moors (Muslim Andalusians) when they were hounded out of Spain. There are several styles of âla, according to where it is executed, the best-known in Morocco being those of Fès, Tetouan, Rabat and Tangier. Out of the twenty-four nubas constituting the original repertoire, eleven have survived to this day.

The nuba, named after the mode (tabc) in which it is played, is a suite of instrumental and vocal pieces [3], arranged according to five rhythmic cycles (mawâzîn, sing. mizân) of different tempi with the following characteristics:
Al-basît is a six-beat rhythm with the accent on thefirst, second and fifth beats.
Al-qa’im wa nisf is an eight-beat rhythm with the accent on the first, fourth and fifth beats.
Al-b’tayhî is another eight-beat rhythm, split into 3+3+2, with the accent on the first, fourth and seventh beats.
Al-darj is a four-beat rhythm with a syncopation extending over two crotchets.
– Al-quddâm is a simple three-beat rhythm which becomes ternary with two beats in the insirâf (the last stage of one of the rhythmic cycles: cf. later information).

The nuba, or instrumental and vocal suite, usually begins with a typical non-measured instrumental prelude known as the m’shâliya. This consists of a series of musical phrases resuming the basic themes of the mode, designed to bring the listener into the special universe of the tabc (mode, but also temperament or mood).

Each rhythmic cycle of the nuba forms an entity in itself, opening with a prelude (bughya), an instrumental overture (tûshiya) and sometimes a sung distich (baytayn or inshâd). During the non-measured inshâd, a solo instrument or occasionally several, provide discreet background accompaniment for the singer, who uses the occasion to demonstrate his vocal skill and set up a two-way communication with the audience of connoisseurs, only too happy to express their emotion in gratitude for his performance.

Next to enter the arena are the percussion instruments; the series of songs (sancât), with their strictly defined rhythms, can now begin; it will continue uninterrupted right to the end of the whole cycle.

The al-Andalus ensemble has not only to respect unity of rhythm and mode, but each phase (rhythmically speaking) must fit into the continuity of the whole. The musicians increase the tempo slightly at certain points and within recognized limits, so as to avoid boredom for the audience.

A rhythmic cycle has several distinct parts or phases:
– The tasdîra, the first song, rather slow and majestic. This is a favourite with connoisseurs because the repertoire contains some choice pieces;
– The sancât muwassaca, a series of songs whose tempo gradually increases in speed;
– Al-qantara al-ûlâ or the first “bridge”. This song provides the transition towards the rapid rhythm;
– An interval consisting of one or several songs (inshâd or mawwâl), usually performed solo with various instrumental solos providing “punctuation” and relief;
Al-qantara al-thâniya or the second “bridge” marking the passage over to the fastest phase;
– The insirâf, the lively, light-hearted phase particularly appreciated by the audience. The rhythm increases constantly right up to the closing song (al-qafl).

The orchestra and its instruments

The members of the ensemble conducted by Ahmed Zaïtouni come directly from the Tangier Conservatoire; they represent a group of remarkable personalities, whose performance remains faithful to the traditions of this kind of repertoire. Under the baton of their meticulously watchful conductor, the ensemble achieves a striking balance between voice and instruments. As well as traditional instruments such as the rabâb and the lutes, string instruments such as the violin, the viola and the cellos have a large part to play in the group performance.

Singing style and technique

The al-Andalus ensemble performs the nuba under the authority and baton of its conductor, the master or mcallem, who has an essential role to play in the nafqa (literally, the provision). He is the person who follows every step of the programme in its minutest detail and is responsible for its perfect execution. Communication between the master and the musicians takes place in the form of slight nods or a glance from one to the other. It is actually stated in a famous zajal (an Andalusian poem in several verses) that “those of al-Andalus always understand the most subtle of allusions”!

Al-munshid, the solo vocalist, and the real tenor of the group, puts his heart and soul into his performance of the nuba when he sings the mawwâl-s (sung improvisations). His place at the very heart of the performance means he communicates not only with the other members of the orchestra who provide discreet background support, but also with his audience who have been waiting impatiently for this supreme moment. Finally, all the vocalists take up the song together in a play of variations known as al-jawâb (identical, varied or with ornamentation), thereby heightening the emotion already at its peak amongst the audience.

The ensemble must adhere strictly to the spirit of the nuba, under the baton of the sheikh; a harmonious balance between the different instruments and the voice of each singer must be maintained throughout the performance. In spite of what seems to be improvisation on the munshid’s part, and the lively, even joyful performance of the instrumentalists, the whole ensemble applies itself to following the modal and melodic sequence fixed by the conductor, with the utmost respect. The mshâliya (whichopens the programme) is the only part where freedom of interpretation and additional ornamentation have any place. A talented musician does, however, have a sizeable margin for expressing his talent in a personal way. The play of vocalises (taratîn) may seem to be strikingly monotonous, but it is worth noting how “the song takes a consonant out of the text and articulates it around the corresponding note of music in a highly original flow of melismatic ornamentation (“a la la lla len” or “ha na na nana”, etc.); the point being to strengthen the relationship between words and music in an original but rigorous way”. [4]

Below we give the development of the first songs of the first movement, Basît nûbat al-hijâz al-kabîr, as an example of this procedure:
– The first line Ahsanta yâ laylu (Blessed be thou, oh night, who has brought us together!) is begun by the munshid, with backing by the vocal ensemble. An instrumental reprise replies to this song; it is slow, majestic, and identical in form (jawâb). A reply then comes back in the form of an instrumental dialogue with the lute in the central role.
– At the end of the second line, sung to the same melody as the first, the ensemble begins the second song, Wa-l-ladhî anshâk (By He Who conceived you out of pure water, dazzling, clear). There is no repeat from the instrumental ensemble.
– The munshid still has pride of place in the second song but the vocal ensemble makes its presence felt more and more. It begins a playful movement of drawing close to and then away from the munshid’s voice.
– The instrumental ensemble replies to the song in an exact echo (melody A). The rhythm is still restrained and majestic, with the violins dominating and a discreet intervention from the rabâb.
– After the second line, sung in exactly the same way (A), the instruments reply but the rhythm is faster now, with the beat more clearly marked on the tambourine, another device used to relieve possible monotony.
– At the end of the third line, sung to the same melody (A) there is a slight pause to allow a second munshid to take over, who immediately launches into a winding version of the first hemistich of the fourth line in a different melody (B). There is virtually no percussion at this point. Then the solo viola replies to the singer’s voice, taking up the melody of the song (B) in exact echo.
– The ensemble repeats the entire fourth line in the new melody (B), before going on to the fifth and last line in the initial melody (A). The singing slows down at the end of the line to mark a pause before the taqsîm (a non-measured improvisation) on the lute.

[1] Nickname of Abû al-Hasan ‘Alî Ibn An-Nâfic (789-857).
[2] As official musician to the Abbasid Caliph Hârûn al-Rashîd (786-809), he was head of the large music school in Baghdad founded by the sovereign.
[3] Cf. Alexis Chottin, Tableau de la musique marocaine, P. Geuthner, Paris, 1938.
[4] Cf. Abdel Ghânî Maghnia, “A l’écoute de l’orchestre de Fès”, in Horizons maghrébins, 43/2000, p. 92.

The programme of the recording

Thenuba performed here, Nûbat al-hijâz al-kabîr, is played in mode hijâz al-kabîr, as it name indicates. This is derived from the mode zidân, and is said to have been created by Hijâz b. Târiq, a Yemeni musician living in Iraq. It is based on the note D.

The term sanca as used hereafter is generally accepted by musicians of this kind of repertoire to mean a song performed according to the rules specified above.

The group of sung poems consists of muwashshahât and azjâl (pl. of zajal), compositions in verse form with alternating rhymes, both originating in 10th century Moorish Spain. The favourite themes are love and pleasure. They are often light-hearted poems whose function would seem to be to provide support or a framework for the melodies, the real treasure in this rich tradition from al-Andalus.

1- Instrumental introduction – 4’34
The instrumental piece opens with mshâliya (or bughya) lasting about 2’14, followed by a tûshiya.

2- Sanca “Ahsanta yâ laylu/Blessed be thou, oh night” followed by “Wa-l-ladhî anshâk/By He who has conceived you” – 7’36
The sung programme opens with a distich where a lover calls upon the night which brings the lovers together, then the morning, which separates them:

Blessed be thou, oh night who has brought us together!
I beseech you by God’s name to last, last, last!
Cursed be thou, oh morning who separates us
Repent now, do, and don’t ever come back!

The second poem describes the beauty and charm of the beloved and gives an account of the torments the abandoned lover is suffering:

By He Who conceived you out of pure water, dazzling, clear
Yet made you as a dark cloud casting shade in another’s soul
By He Who clothed the antelope in charming finery such as yours,
Endowed her with the same dazzling beauty as yours,
My love for you knows no end
I long for you and hope to meet you;
Come then, come visit me, calm my aching heart
Oh my executioner, before Death’s appointed hour.

3- sanca Wa zâ’irin zâr/She came to see me” followed by “Al-lawzu fâh/The almond trees are redolent”, then “Arâ al-lawz min bacd al-mashîb/Oh my companion, I see that once old age…” – 8’48
In the third poem the lover tells of his resurrection after the beloved has been to see him:

She came to see me in the depth of night:
You have ended my solitude, I told her,
May you never taste its bitter flavour
You have brought joy to one afflicted
By passion dwelling in his heart
Welcome to she who has not betrayed the oath that binds us.

The following song evokes the atmosphere of spring; it is an invitation to take part in Nature’s joyous festivity at that time:

The almond trees are redolent of sweet perfume
And spread their petals of blossom everywhere
Time to tell your fair one: May our joy last!
Come drink of this wine that revives the soul
Share the cup with the fair damsels
Whose beauty is finer than that of the stars.

In Nature, the lover finds good reason to remain hopeful:

Oh my companion, I see that once old age is over,
The almond tree regains its youth and blossoms forth once more…

Tracks 1 to 3 are performed according to the rules of al-basît rhythm.

4- sancaYâ sâkinan qalbî al-mucannâ/Oh you who has settled in my captive heart” followed by “Yâ farîd al-casri ahyaf/Your beauty is unique, you of the slender waist” then “Qamarun min fawqi ghusn/ Oh beauteous star…- 13’49
The lover’s only reason for existence is his beloved:

Oh you who has settled in my captive heart
To dwell there alone, for no other can stake claim
Why, oh why did you break it, when it belongs to you alone?
You broke it saying this heart was mine.
Oh you who does not know the meaning of these words
Can a distraught lover still possess a heart
When he no longer belongs to himself?

The lover laments the indifference of his beloved, and describes his sickly state:

Your beauty is unique, you of the slender waist
You of the dark, dark eyes;
Come now, and by your union bring comfort
To a tearful lover whose eyes are never dry.
My body is wasted, oh my gazelle,
I am consumed by the flames of separation
For I have succumbed, a slave to your charm.

The lover sings the beloved’s praises and gives thanks to the Creator:

Glory be to He who shaped
The beautiful star whose shining brilliance alights
On a branch sprung forth from purest sand.
Her forehead reflects the secrets of existence
And whosoever falls for her beauty
Will reach the highest firmaments

5- Violin solo – 4’00

6- sancaAfnânâ dhâ l-hubb/Love for you has laid me low” followed by “Kun fī cushqika/Be cautious in your love” – 4’19
The lover is hurt and begs his beloved to cure him:

Love for you has laid me low, in spite of my strong will
The tyrannous hold you have on me was written in my fate.
If you must hold sway over me thus, do so gently,
For whoever kills without just reason will burn in hell
You have inflicted such grievous suffering upon me,
Could you not tend to my wound now
With your sweet saliva and its promise of paradise?
Be cautious in your love,
Beg nothing more than a simple glance.

Tracks 4 to 6 are performed according in qâ’im wa nisf rhythm.

7- sancaQad kuntu ahsabu/I thought that…” – 9’33
This sanca is preceded by a mawwâl that lasts 3’35, then a tushiya lasting 0’59. The piece is performed in darj rhythm.

From the eleventh song onwards, there is a subtle change in the repertoire as it moves from the secular domain to the religious one. The love now sought after is the love of God and the Prophet, but nearly all the motifs and images are derived from the language of secular poetry.

I thought that gold and silver could buy Your love
I thought it easy to own Your Love, but I was ignorant
Until I understood that Your subtle favours
Are only granted to the chosen few.
Knowing it’s not through crafty ruse we merit You,
I hid my head under my wing, like a bird
Then went to dwell in the nest of love
‘Tis there my destiny will now be accomplished.

8- sancaIlâ dâr al-habîb/In the Beloved’s abode” followed by“Jismî nahîl/My body is so frail” then “Li-l-Lâh yâ zayn as-sighâr/I beseech you, fairest of maidens” – 9’29
In this song, performed in b’tayhî rhythm, the desire to visit the tomb of the Prophet echoes the desire to rejoin the beloved once again:

My desire to visit the tomb of the Beloved
Grows stronger every day,
The Prophet’s abode is the fairest of all
Friends of my heart, how can I bear your absence?
The wait is long and our reunion still far, far away.
My love for this maiden has made my body so frail,
That the censor, in his ignorance, much disturbed by this
Asked the reasons behind such love, since it leads to a lonely death
Get thee hither far from me, I replied, for love is a religion
And if you want me to confirm this on oath, oh man of such paltry faith,
I’m ready to swear it a thousand times over.
I beseech you, most charming of fair maidens
Why so much tyranny?
You have set fire to my heart, and its flames
Will never be extinguished;
What fault, what crime have I committed?

9- sancaLâ farraqa l-Lâhu shamla l-‘âshiqîn/May God never separate the lovers” – 2’56
This sanca is preceded by a short tûshiya (0’29). The piece is subject to the rules of quddâm rhythm.

May God never separate the lovers
Until stone becomes a flowering branch
And wine flows down the lips of he who drinks it
And the cup laughs in admiration
Of the cup-bearer’s handsome mien!

  • Reference : 321.076
  • Ean : 794881761821
  • Main artist : Cheikh Ahmed Zaïtouni
  • Year of recording : 2005
  • Year of publishing : 2005
  • Music style : Andalusian Nuba
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Hijâz b. Târiq ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe