Updated: Nov 18, 2021
How are the legacies of al-Andalus (Medieval Muslim Spain, 711–1492) interpreted musically in different social and political contexts? How is the utopia of al-Andalus performed and negotiated by individual musicians or groups to express identity, belonging and cultural memory? What does al-Andalus look like when viewed from the perspective of musical genres or contexts that have little or nothing to with the historical period? In an intense zoom workshop over the 9th – 11th September 2021, an international group of scholars addressed these very questions and more as they looked at the musical ‘afterlives’ of al-Andalus from a range of perspectives.
The idea of interfaith dialogue and ‘convivencia’ (coexistence) in al-Andalus has become something of a ‘commodity’ – it appears in tourism brochures and tours, is glorified in literature and visual culture, is performed through music, is instrumentalised by institutions and cultural organisations, and stands in for the ideals of intercultural dialogue. A number of historians have debunked the so-called ‘myth’ of al-Andalus as a ‘model of tolerance and coexistence’, but it still circulates frequently in popular culture. Jonathan Shannon has shown the multiple ways in which music has been used to ‘perform’ al-Andalus as something that is ‘good to think’. Music becomes a way of reliving the past of al-Andalus in the present, especially across the Strait of Gibraltar – the ancestral homeland of musical genres that allegedly trace the origins to the melting point culture of al-Andalus (e.g., Arab-Andalusian music and flamenco).
The idea for the workshop came to me in 2018, following a similar conference hosted in Istanbul entitled: ‘Al-Andalus in Motion: Travelling Concepts and Cross-Cultural Contexts’, which has since been published as a volume. The conference and subsequent publication analysed al-Andalus as a ‘figure of thought’, focusing on the ways in which the myth of al-Andalus relates to wider social and cultural issues today such as national identity, religious pluralism and intercultural dialogue. However, music was conspicuous by its absence, despite music being one of the most powerful mechanisms for performing al-Andalus as a ‘figure of thought’. There has been some excellent work on musical invocations of al-Andalus in specific national contexts, but asides from Shannon’s Performing al-Andalus and Ruth Davis’ volume Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diaspora (2015), there is no comprehensive book project that draws together musical case studies from across different geographical contexts and music genres. The workshop examined how musical invocations of al-Andalus, as performed by practitioners, institutions and governments, relate to various social and political issues, such as colonialism, intercultural dialogue, nationalism, cultural diplomacy and political protest.
The MESG team brought together a group of eleven international scholars in the first academic workshop to directly address this topic from a musical perspective. Ahead of the workshop, we shared provisional written work which was circulated amongst all of the participants. At the event itself, each person had 15 minutes to talk about their submission and where it fits in the context of their wider research and the workshop, followed by 30 minutes for discussion amongst the group. Those gathered at the workshop addressed a diverse range of topics, time periods, genres and geographical contexts. This wasn’t just about focusing on the ‘usual suspects’ of Arab-Andalusian music and flamenco, but of challenging and critiquing the ways in which al-Andalus is musically remembered. Themes that emerged included: depictions of al-Andalus in hip hop culture; music and cultural diplomacy; the role of colonialism in shaping the discourse around Arab-Andalusian music; performances of cultural memory; and musical critiques of al-Andalus in meme culture. The workshop also featured a public keynote presentation by Jonathan Shannon entitled ‘The Futures Past of al-Andalus: Reflections, Refrains, Returns’, which addressed what Shannon called the ‘staying power’ of the Andalusi trope through music and the need to move beyond the discourses of tolerance and influence, towards a more nuanced understanding of where al-Andalus fits in the current political and musical moment.
The workshop generated some in-depth discussions around the unique generativity and fertility of the Andalusi past as a site of musical innovation, creativity and power. The work of the participants demonstrated the continued ability of music to invoke the Andalusi past in contexts and for purposes that, at times, are far removed from the historical period itself. The conversation does not stop here. As a result of the workshop, myself and Charles Hirschkind are beginning work on an edited collection of essays based on the work presented at the workshop, which will be released as an open access publication. Watch this space!