Open Seas: Homage to Granada


I visited Granada at the end of spring when the drifting pollen of its olive trees was triggering severe asthma. Some unfortunate locals were forced to wear allergy masks out in the sunbaked streets. But luckily I had no asthma and ample time to sit in the shade with friends enjoying beer and tapas. For me, it was pleasure to stop and take a breath in the city.

Granada’s air was also filled with musicmostly frequently the hit ‘Despacito’. It took me several days of scouting to find quality flamenco. I finally discovered El Tabanco del Tío Gregorio on the edge of Albaycín, the old Moorish quarter. Unlike the tablaos aimed at tourists, El Tabanco is a modest and inexpensive peña flamenca designed for intimate recitals. Obviously run by true believers, it can accommodate no more than twenty-five listeners, who sit on tiny wooden stools that wobble on the smooth stones cemented into the floor. We drank beer and ate cheese, pickled carrots, and bullet-shaped crackers. María García Toque, a young dreadlocked singer, introduced her fandangos and ferrucas with courtly grace and sang with fire. She was accompanied by a suited, ponytailed guitar player named Pablo Giménez.

Later, out on the descending cobblestones of Cuesta de San Gregorio, the smell of jasmine travelled with the breeze. A cross-legged busker was playing two hang drums in the moonlight. Surprisingly, these drums do not originate in, say, ancient Persia, but are recently invented and catching on with hippies everywhere. A hang looks like a upside-down wok that has been attacked by a man with a hammer. The drums are permanently tuned. People were sitting on the stones in rapt contemplation of the melancholy and resonant timbre. Without discounting the skills of the percussionist, I wondered if musical profundity should be harder earned.

After some manoeuvrers, I snared a ticket to wander through the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, the last reconquered site in Muslim Spain. In The Buried Mirror (1992), Carlos Fuentes wrote, “Perhaps only a people who had known the thirst of the desert could have invented this extraordinary oasis of water and shade.” I also come from a desert country, so maybe that explains why I was so awed by this voluptuous monument to flowing water. Back outside, I was also awed by the view from the gardens of the Generalife. Looking down at the neighbourhoods of Sacromonte and Albaycín, I contemplated the high-leaping dark-green poplars, the narrow streets notched into the hills, the terracotta roofs and interior patios of the white houses. The hazy air above the city beautifully diffused the sunlight. It wasn’t always that way. Inscribed on the wall of the Hall of Two Sisters: “Never have we seen a palace so exalted, with so clear and broad a horizon.”

A less exalted palace is that of Charles V, an ugly Renaissance addition to the Alhambra, the Spanish reconquistadores metaphorically pissing on the site to mark their reclaimed territory. A few years ago its open-air patio was the stage for a summer concert by Jordi Savall, the Catalan musical archaeologist, viola da gamba player, and cultural impresario of boundless ambition. He attempted to use music and texts to narrate the history of multi-faith, medieval Granada. I was curious about the pre-flamenco musical traditions of this great and ancient city, so I bought the recently released recording of that concert, Granada 1013-1502 (Alia Vox). The performers are Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, with a number of solo instrumentalists and singers.


This is not the first time Savall has created early music programs centred on cities with shared Jewish, Christian, and Islamic histories. There is one on Jerusalem (subtitled The City of Two Peaces: The Celestial Peace and the Earthly Peace) and two on Istanbul (The Sublime Gate 1430-1750: Voices of Istanbul and Dmitrie Cantemir 1673-1723: The Book of the Science of Music and the Sephardic and Armenian Musical Traditions).

Savall’s laudable purpose goes beyond the merely musical and historical. When Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Seville, it was an idealistic political gesture: to have Jewish and Arab musicians playing music together in defiance of the political stalemate and apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories. Still, the West-Eastern Divan play music in the European classical tradition. I saw them perform Pierre Boulez with formidable panache at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Like Barenboim, Savall is also engaged in defiantly humanistic political gestures, reassuring in this era of rising European nationalism and Islamophobia. But Savall not only brings together musicians of different religious or ethnic backgrounds; he also juxtaposes different musical traditions within his narrative programs, a timely reminder that Europe has always been multiculturalalthough rarely peaceful.

A terrifically prolific recording artist of dauntless ambition, Jordi Savall calls the more lavishly-packaged recordings ‘CD-Books’, but that still does not indicate the idealistic scope of these multilingual, multimedia musical-historical projects. In fact, Granada is one of his more modest presentations. In the past I have contemplated Erasmus of Rotterdam: In Praise of Follysix hybrid CDs/SACDs containing two alternate versions of the same musical program (with French narration or without) and a heavily annotated hardback book in multiple languages with glossy colour illustrationsbut quickly put it down in total intimidation.

Lest we allow the evocative music to simply inspire Orientalist fantasies, Granada comes with a full-colour 280 page booklet with numerous illustrations, photographs, and dense explanatory texts in six European languages. (Strangely, considering its focus and idealism, there is no Arabic translation.) I had to set aside an hour or so to come to terms with this project’s scope. Unfortunately the method of annotation is inconsistent, forbiddingly pedantic yet without precision, a hurdle to be jumped by those unacquainted with early music performance conventions. What exactly is this music? Who were the composers and who are the performers? How did these pieces survive centuries to be performed today?

The English text of Savall’s essay is a slog through translatese. The text is pointlessly repetitivewe’re told twice in successive paragraphs that ‘Garnata al-Yahud‘ means ‘Granada of the Jews’. Spellings are inconsistent, too. Is the Arabic musical genre called ‘muwashshah‘, ‘muwashah‘, or ‘muwassah‘? Somebody should decide, or else stick with ‘موشح‎‎.’ Definitions of unfamiliar terms arrive paragraphs after they have already been used. There are also confusing leaps back and forth in time as Savall attempts to explain historical cause and effect. (Comparing the printed booklet cover and the one on the Alia Vox website, the title of the disc is not even consistent. Does this story end in 1502 or 1526?).

The show is presented chronologically with bridging passages narrated in Spanish. We start a thousand years ago in the time of the city’s founding as a Moorish kingdom on the site of the ancient Garnata al-Yahud (which means ‘Granada of the Jews’, in case you’ve already forgotten). We pass through dynasties, wars, massacres, and persecutions until Isabella and Ferdinand take the city in the fateful year of 1492 and decree the expulsion of the Jews. Muslims are forcibly converted.

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval music is reconstructed from disparate sources, and performed with elements of improvisation. The Visigoths had been in Spain before the Moors, and influenced forms of Christian religious music that continued to be practiced in what became al-Andalus; this is now called ‘Mozarabic’ music. Savall includes prayers from the Mozarabic repertoire, songs from the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Codex Las Huelgas, and other surviving ballads and villancicos. Much early Christian music was preserved in imprecise and difficult-to-decipher forms of musical notation, but Savall makes an attempt to interpret these scores.

The Jewish pieces are settings of Hebrew texts by medieval poets, by the rabbi Maimonides, and from the Song of Songs, performed in the traditional styles of the Sephardic diaspora, specifically in communities that endure in Morocco and Thessaloniki. The Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh is prominently featured in these pieces. The Muslim segments include muwashshahs and improvisatory maqams, texts and poems, and dances surviving in Muslim communities in North Africa and the Middle East. I’m sceptical that these musical forms have endured essentially unchanged after half a millennium, but I guess that’s a question for the musicologists.

It is difficult to encompass five hundred years of a city’s history in any sort of dramatic narrative. Instead there is a parade of historical figures and wavering levels of religious tolerance and persecution leading to the fall of Granada. It must have been serious stuff in the stifling air of a summer night, but the music is evocative and beautifully performed by the solo singers, the choir and an embellished ensemble that stretches from Savall’s viola da gamba to the ney, the oud, and the kanun. Putting the heavy scholarship aside, the recording works as a perfect stimulus for anybody who wants to drift into dreams of this glorious and tragic city.

Edinburgh, September 2017


2 thoughts on “Open Seas: Homage to Granada”

  1. Hi Matt

    nice piece. Always a good idea to write about your overseas experiences. Takes more effort, but you can revisit them with a lot more detail than photos can provide.

    Im wondering how you produced the Arabic symbols with your keyboard? Did you just copy them?

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