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Flight of the

Blackbird
Wr i t t e n b y R o b e r t W. L e b l i n g , J r. Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

I
f you eat asparagus, or if
you start your meal with
soup and end with dessert,
or if you use toothpaste,
or if you wear your hair in bangs,
you owe a lot to one of the
greatest musicians in history.
He was known as Ziryab,
a colloquial Arabic term that
translates as “blackbird.” He lived
in medieval Spain more than a thou-
sand years ago. He was a freed slave who
made good, charming the royal court at Córdoba with
his songs. He founded a music school whose fame survived
more than 500 years after his death. Ibn Hayyan of Córdoba,
one of Arab Spain’s greatest historians, says in his monumental
Al-Muqtabas (The Citation) that Ziryab knew thousands of
songs by heart and revolutionized the design of the musical
instrument that became the lute. He spread a new musical
style around the Mediterranean, influencing troubadours and
minstrels and affecting the course of European music.
Ziryab is most renowned in the Arab world for his improvements to the ‘ud. He added a second pair of red strings between
the second and third courses, making five pairs of strings in all—a change credited with giving the instrument a soul.

Al-Andalus 3
H
e was also his genera- The musician’s dark skin, sweet character
tion’s arbiter of taste and
style and manners, and and melodious voice earned him the nickname
he exerted enormous Ziryab, a colloquial Arabic nickname for
influence on medieval
European society. How people dressed, a black-feathered thrush.
what and how they ate, how they
groomed themselves, what music they Kingdom of Granada, was conquered Renaissance that followed. Muslims,
enjoyed—all were influenced by Ziryab. by the armies of King Ferdinand and Christians and Jews interacted in a
If you’ve never heard of this remark- Queen Isabella in the same year that convivencia —a “living-together”— of
able artist, it’s not surprising. With the Columbus sailed for the New World. tolerance and cooperation unparalleled
twists and turns of history, his name The Arabs called their Iberian in its time. Influences from Arab Spain
has dropped from public memory in domain Al-Andalus—a direct reference spread to France and throughout
the western world. But the changes he to the Vandals, who occupied the Europe, and from there to the
brought to Europe are very much a peninsula in the fifth century and Americas. It was in this context that
part of the reality we know today. whose legacy was still pervasive when the achievements of Ziryab became
One reason Ziryab is unknown to us Muslim forces arrived in the eighth— part of western culture.
is that he spoke Arabic, and was part and that name survives today in the Ziryab’s achievements were not
of the royal court of the Arab empire in name of Spain’s southern province, forgotten in the Arab world, and it
Spain. Muslims from Arabia and North Andalusia. At its peak, Al-Andalus is from historians there that we know
Africa ruled part of Spain from AD 711 experienced a golden age of civilization of his life and accomplishments. As
until 1492. The last remnant of Arab that was the envy of all Europe, and the 17th-century Arab historian al-
rule in the Iberian Peninsula, the which set the stage for the European Maqqari says in his Nafh al-Tib

4 Al-Andalus
(Fragrant Breeze), “There
never was, either before or
after him, a man of his pro-
fession who was more gener-
ally beloved and admired.”

B
lackbird was
actually named
Abu al-Hasan
‘Ali ibn Nafi’,
and he was born
in about the year 789 in the
land now called Iraq, perhaps
in its capital, Baghdad. Some
Arab historians say he was a
freed slave—apparently a
page or personal servant—
whose family had served al-
Mahdi, the caliph or ruler of
the Baghdad-based Abbasid
empire from 775 until his
death in 785. In those days,
many prominent musicians
were slaves or freedmen, Opposite: Blackbird
some of African origin, others from flourished in the stim-
Europe or the Middle East (including ulating atmosphere
Kurdistan and Persia). Historians of Harun al-Rashid’s
differ over whether Ziryab was African, Baghdad, developing
Persian or Kurdish. According to Ibn his musical skills
Hayyan, ‘Ali Ibn Nafi’ was called while implementing
Blackbird because of his extremely dark new ideas. Above
and left: Performing
complexion, the clarity of his voice and
before the caliph,
“the sweetness of his character.”
the young musician
Blackbird studied music under the upstaged his teacher,
famous singer and royal court musician Ishaq al-Mawsuli,
Ishaq al-Mawsili (“Isaac of Mosul”). who forced him to
Ishaq, his even more celebrated father, choose between
Ibrahim, and Ziryab are the three artists exile and death.
known as the fathers of Arabic music.
Baghdad was then a world center for
culture, art and science. Its most famous
ruler was Harun al-Rashid, who suc- “Yes, I’ve heard some nice things from numbers. If Your Majesty permits, I’ll
ceeded al-Mahdi. Harun was a lover of Ziryab, some clear and emotional sing for you what human ears have
music, and brought many singers and melodies—particularly some of my never heard before.”
musicians to the palace for the enter- own rather unusual renditions. I taught Harun raised his eyebrows, and
tainment of his guests. Ishaq, as Harun’s him those songs because I considered ordered that master Ishaq’s lute be
chief musician, trained a number of stu- them especially suited to his skill.” handed to Ziryab. The Arabian lute or
dents in the musical arts, among them Ziryab was summoned, and he sang ‘ud, model of the European lute and
Blackbird. Ziryab was intelligent and for Harun al-Rashid. Afterward, when relative of the guitar, was an instru-
had a good ear; outside his lessons, he the caliph spoke to him, Ziryab ment with four courses of strings, a
surreptitiously learned the songs of his answered “gracefully, with real charm body shaped like half a pear and a
master, which were said to have been of manner.” Harun asked him about bent, fretless neck.
complex and difficult even for an his skill, and Blackbird replied, “I can Ziryab respectfully declined the
expert. Ishaq did not realize how much sing what the other singers know, but instrument. “I’ve brought my own
Ziryab had learned until Harun himself most of my repertory is made up of lute,” he said, “which I made myself
asked to hear the young musician. songs suitable only to be performed —stripping the wood and working it
In Ibn Hayyan’s account (as related before a caliph like Your Majesty. —and no other instrument satisfies
by al-Maqqari), Ishaq told the caliph, The other singers don’t know those me. I left it at the palace gate and, with

Al-Andalus 5
your permission, I’ll send for it.” choice: Leave Baghdad, take up resi- the middle of the night and summon
Harun sent for the lute. He examined dence far from here, and swear that his own students, teaching them the
it. It looked like Ishaq al-Mawsuli’s. I’ll never hear from you again. If you melodies he had heard in his dreams.
“Why won’t you play your master’s do this, I’ll give you enough money to As Reinhart Dozy notes in Histoire
lute?” the caliph asked. meet your needs. But if you choose to des Musulmans d’Espagne, “None
“If the caliph wants me to sing in stay and spite me—I warn you, I’ll risk knew better than Ishaq that there was
my master’s style, I’ll use his lute. But my life and all I possess to crush you. no insanity in all this: What true artist,
to sing in my own style, I need this Make your choice!” indeed, whether believing in jinn or
instrument.” Ziryab did not hesitate; he took the not, has not known moments when he
“They look alike to me,” Harun said. money and left the Abbasid capital. has been under the sway of emotions
“At first glance, yes,” said Ziryab, Ishaq explained his protégé’s absence hard to define, and savoring of the
“but even though the wood and the by claiming that Ziryab was mentally supernatural?”
size are the same, the
weight is not. My lute
weighs about a third less
than Ishaq’s, and my strings
are made of silk that has
not been spun with hot
Constantinople
water—which weakens
them. The bass and third Córdoba
strings are made of lion
gut, which is softer and Algeciras
Kairouan
more sonorous than that
Mediterranean Sea Baghdad
of any other animal. These
Damascus
strings are stronger than
Alexandria
any others, and they can
better withstand the strik- Cairo
ing of the pick.” Ziryab’s
pick was a sharpened

Re
eagle’s claw, rather than the

d
Sea
usual piece of carved wood.
He had also, significantly,
Fleeing Baghdad, Ziryab moved west with his family. He stopped in the hills of Kairouan, in modern-day
added a fifth course of
Tunisia, before gaining an invitation to bring his musical skills to Córdoba.
strings to the instrument.
Harun was satisfied. He
ordered Ziryab to perform, and the Under the Umayyads, Córdoba was fast
young man began a song he had com-
posed himself. The caliph was quite becoming a cultural jewel to rival Baghdad, and
impressed. He turned to al-Mawsuli seemed a fit setting for Blackbird’s talents.
and said, “If I thought you had been
hiding this man’s extraordinary ability,
I’d punish you for not telling me about unbalanced and had left Baghdad in Ziryab and his family fled from
him. Continue his instruction until it’s a rage at not receiving a gift from the Baghdad to Egypt and crossed North
completed. For my part, I want to caliph. “The young man is possessed,” Africa to Kairouan in present-day
contribute to his development.” Ishaq told Harun al-Rashid. “He’s Tunisia, seat of the Aghlabid dynasty
Ziryab had apparently concealed subject to fits of frenzy that are horri- of Ziyadat Allah I. There he was wel-
his finest talents from his own teacher. ble to witness. He believes the jinn comed by the royal court. But he had
When Ishaq was finally alone with his speak with him and inspire his music. no intention of staying in Kairouan;
pupil, he raged about being deceived. He’s so vain he believes his talent is his eyes were on Spain. Under the
He said frankly that he was jealous unequaled in the world. I don’t know Umayyads, Córdoba was fast becom-
of Ziryab’s skill, and feared the pupil where he is now. Be thankful, Your ing a cultural jewel to rival Baghdad,
would soon replace the master in the Majesty, that he’s gone.” and Blackbird thought Córdoba might
caliph’s favor. There was a germ of truth in Ishaq’s be a fit setting for his talents.
“I could pardon this in no man, not tale: According to Ibn Hayyan and Ziryab wrote to al-Hakam, ruler of
even my own son,” Ishaq said. “If I others, Ziryab did believe that in his the emirate of Al-Andalus, and offered
weren’t still somewhat fond of you, I dreams he heard the songs of the jinn, his musical skills. Al-Hakam, delighted
wouldn’t hesitate to kill you, regard- the spirit beings of Islamic and Arab with the prospect of adding a Baghdad
less of the consequences. Here is your lore. He would wake from a dream in musician to his court, wrote back

6 Al-Andalus
inviting Ziryab to proceed to Córdoba. receive a handsome salary of 200 gold of the Arab world and not too long
He offered the musician a handsome pieces per month, with bonuses of 500 ago a “barbarian” Gothic land far
salary. Ziryab and his family packed gold pieces at midsummer and the new from the civilized centers of Damascus
their bags and headed overland to the year and 1000 on each of the two and Baghdad. The ruler’s own
Strait of Gibraltar. There they embarked major Islamic holidays. He would be Umayyad family had come as exiles
on a ship bound for Algeciras, Spain. given 200 bushels of barley and 100 from Damascus, where they had ruled
When Ziryab arrived in Spain in bushels of wheat each year. He would an Islamic empire for several hundred
the year 822, he was shocked to learn receive a modest palace in Córdoba years. Now the power rested with the
that al-Hakam was dead. Devastated, and several villas with productive Abbasids in Baghdad, and that city
the young musician prepared to return farmland in the countryside. Naturally, had become a magnet for scientists,
to North Africa. But thanks to the Ziryab accepted the offer; overnight he artists and scholars of all descriptions.
glowing recommendation of Abu al- became a prosperous member of the In fact, ‘Abd al-Rahman offered
Nasr Mansur, a Jewish musician of landed upper class in Islamic Spain. Ziryab employment before even asking
the Córdoban royal court, al-Hakam’s him to perform. And when he eventu-


A
son and successor ‘Abd al-Rahman II bd al-Rahman’s objec- ally did hear Ziryab’s songs, contempo-
renewed the invitation to Ziryab. tive in hiring the young raries say the ruler was so captivated
After meeting with the 33-year-old musician was to bring that he would never again listen to
wonder from Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Rahman culture and refinement another singer. From that day forward,
—who was about the same age—made to the rough-and-ready ‘Abd al-Rahman and Ziryab were close
him an attractive offer. Ziryab would country of Al-Andalus, the wild west confidants, and would often meet to

Al-Andalus 7
8 Al-Andalus
discuss poetry, history and all the arts symbolizing bile, the second was red for prodigious. He was also an excellent
and sciences. blood, the third white for phlegm, and poet, a student of astronomy and
Ziryab served as a kind of “minister the fourth, the bass pair, was black for geography, and a dazzling conversa-
of culture” for the Andalusi realm. One melancholy. Ziryab, it was said, tionalist, according
of his first projects was to found a gave the lute a soul, adding to Ibn Hayyan and
school of music, which opened its doors another red pair of strings al-Maqqari. He often
not only to the talented sons and daugh- between the second discussed the customs
ters of the higher classes and third courses. and manners of
but also to lower-class nations throughout
court entertainers. the known world,
Unlike the more rigid
conservatories of
Opposite: Blackbird
Baghdad, Ziryab’s
broke social barriers in
school encouraged
Córdoba, teaching new
experimentation in musical styles to the
musical styles and children of the wealthy
instruments. While as well as to ordinary
the academy taught entertainers. Left:
the world-famous Ziryab’s innovations
styles and songs of in Al-Andalus included
the Baghdad court, appropriate clothing for
Ziryab quickly began each of the four seasons.
introducing his inno-
vations and estab-
lished his reputation and spoke extensively
as, in the words of of the high civilization
the Encyclopaedia of centered in Baghdad.
Islam, “the founder of As his popularity in
the musical traditions Al-Andalus grew, so
of Muslim Spain.” did his influence. His
He created the rules suggestions and recom-
governing the performance mendations became
of the nuba (or nauba), the popular fashion.
an important Andalusian Many of his new ideas
Arab music form that gradually migrated
survives today in the into the land of the
classical music of North Franks—to France,
Africa, known as maluf Germany, northern
in Libya, Tunisia and Italy and beyond.
eastern Algeria, and simply

Z
as andalusi music farther iryab loved
west. Ziryab created well-pre-
24 nubas, one for each hour pared food
of the day, like the classical almost as
ragas of India. The nuba much as he
form became very popular did music. He revolutionized the
in the Spanish Christian com- Ziryab heightened the lute’s sensi- arts of the table in Spain, in ways that
munity and had a pronounced influ- tivity by playing the instrument with survive to this day.
ence on the development of medieval a flexible eagle’s talon or quill, rather Before Ziryab, Spanish dining was a
European music. than the traditional wooden pick. This simple, even crude, affair, inherited from
Adding a fifth pair of strings to the innovation spread quickly, and soon the Visigoths, the successors of the
lute gave the instrument greater delicacy no skilled musician in Córdoba would Vandals, and from local custom. Platters
of expression and a greater range. As consider touching wood to the strings of different foods were piled together,
music historian Julian Ribera wrote in of his lute. all at the same time, on bare wooden
the 1920’s, the medieval lute’s four Ziryab reputedly knew the words tables. Table manners were nonexistent.
courses of strings were widely believed and melodies of 10,000 songs by A wide array of foods was available
to correspond to the four humors of heart. Though this claim may be exag- in Al-Andalus—meats, fish and fowl,
the body. The first pair was yellow, gerated, his memory was certainly vegetables, cheeses, soups and sweets.

Al-Andalus 9
From chess to coiffure, and
from novel foods like aspara-
gus to tooled leather table
coverings, dinnerware and
table manners, Ziryab pio-
neered customs that were
later carried north, where
they influenced the manners
and customs of Europe.

nuts,” indicating a lavish,


multi-course meal, can
be traced back to
Ziryab’s innovations
at the Andalusi table.
Dressing up the plain wooden
dinner table, Ziryab taught local
craftsmen how to produce tooled
and fitted leather table coverings.
He replaced the heavy gold and
silver drinking goblets of the
upper classes—a holdover from
the Goths and Romans—with
delicate, finely crafted crystal.
He redesigned the bulky wooden
soupspoon, substituting a trim-
mer, lighter-weight model.
Ziryab also turned his atten-
tion to personal grooming and
fashion. He developed Europe’s
first toothpaste (though what
exactly its ingredients were, we cannot
say). He popularized shaving among
Ziryab combined them in imaginative soaked in saffron syrup—is believed men and set new haircut trends.
recipes, many originating in Baghdad. by many Algerians to derive its name Before Ziryab, royalty and nobles
One of these dishes, consisting of from Ziryab’s, a claim impossible to washed their clothes with rose water;
meatballs and small triangular pieces confirm or refute. An Indian version to improve the cleaning process, he
of dough fried in coriander oil, came of zalabia, the jalebi, can be traced introduced the use of salt.
to be known as taqliyat Ziryab, or back to the 15th century within India For women, Blackbird opened a
Ziryab’s fried dish; many others bore but no earlier, and could be a borrow- “beauty parlor/cosmetology school”
his name as well. He delighted court ing from the Arabs and ultimately not far from the Alcazar, the emir’s
diners by elevating a humble spring from Ziryab. palace. He created hairstyles that were
weed called asparagus to the status With the emir’s blessing, Ziryab daring for the time. The women of
of a dinner vegetable. Ziryab devel- decreed that palace dinners would be Spain traditionally wore their hair
oped a number of delectable desserts, served in courses—that is, according parted in the middle, covering their
including an unforgettable treat of to a fixed sequence, starting with ears, with a long braid down the back.
walnuts and honey that is served to soups or broths, continuing with fish, Ziryab introduced a shorter, shaped
this day in the city of Zaragoza. In his fowl or meats, and concluding with cut, with bangs on the forehead and
adopted home, Córdoba, the musician- fruits, sweet desserts and bowls of pis- the ears uncovered. He taught the
gourmet is remembered today in an tachios and other nuts. This presenta- shaping of eyebrows and the use of
old dish of roasted and salted broad tion style, unheard of even in Baghdad depilatories for removing body hair.
beans called ziriabí. or Damascus, steadily gained in popu- He introduced new perfumes and cos-
The staying power of Blackbird’s larity, spreading through the upper metics. Some of Ziryab’s fashion tips
reputation is such that even today in and merchant classes, then among he borrowed from the elite social
Algeria, where Andalusi influence con- Christians and Jews, and even to the circles of Baghdad, then the world’s
tinues to echo, the sweet orange Arab peasantry. Eventually the custom most cosmopolitan city. Others were
pastry known as zalabia—here it takes became the rule throughout Europe. twists on local Andalusi custom. Most
the form of a spiral of fried batter The English expression “from soup to became widespread simply because

10 Al-Andalus
Ziryab advocated them: He was a
Desserts like guirlache, an age-old
celebrity, and people gained status
concoction of walnuts, honey and
simply by emulating him.
sesame that is still popular today in
As an arbiter of courtly dress, he Zaragoza, Spain, may well reflect the
decreed Spain’s first seasonal fashion continuing influence of Ziryab, who
calendar. In springtime, men and combined arrays of ingredients in
women were to wear bright colors novel ways.
in their cotton and linen tunics, shirts,
blouses and gowns. Ziryab introduced
colorful silk clothing to supplement
traditional fabrics. In summer, white
clothing was the rule. When the weather musical career, though not all became northward from the Iberian Peninsula,
turned cold, Ziryab recommended long celebrities. The most popular singer more than one had been channeled
cloaks trimmed with fur, which became was Ziryab’s son ‘Ubayd Allah, by Ziryab.
all the rage in Al-Andalus. though his brother Qasim was said to
Ziryab exercised great clout at the have a better voice. Next in talent was
emir’s court, even in political and ‘Abd al-Rahman, the first of the chil-
administrative decision-making. ‘Abd dren to take over the music school
al-Rahman II has been credited with after their father’s death—though Robert W. Lebling, Jr. is head of electronic pub-
organizing the “norms of the state” arrogance was said to be his downfall, lishing for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. His aca-
in Al-Andalus, transforming it from for he ended up alienating everyone, demic background includes studies in the history,
a Roman-Visigothic model to one set according to Ibn Hayyan. politics and anthropology of Arab North Africa
up along Abbasid lines, and Ziryab is Ziryab’s daughters were skilled and Al-Andalus. He is collaborating on a book
said to have played a significant role musicians. The better artist was on natural remedies of Arabia.
in this process. Hamduna, whose fame translated into Norman MacDonald is a Canadian free-lance
Ziryab brought in astrologers from marriage with the vizier of the realm. illustrator who lives in Amsterdam. He has been
India and Jewish doctors from North The better teacher was her sister sketching the war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav
Africa and Iraq. The astrologers were ‘Ulaiya, the last surviving of Ziryab’s president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague.
grounded in astronomy, and Ziryab children, who went on to inherit most
encouraged the spread of this knowl- of her father’s musical clients.
edge. The Indians also knew how As ‘Abd al-Rahman II and Ziryab
to play chess, and Ziryab had them departed the stage, Córdoba was com- Related articles have appeared in these
teach the game to members of the ing into its own as a cultural capital past issues of Aramco World and Saudi
royal court, and from there it spread and seat of learning. By the time Aramco World:
throughout the peninsula. another ‘Abd al-Rahman—the third Al-Andalus: S/O 92, J/F 93
—took power in 912, the city had Tunisian maluf music: J/A 01

N
ot surprisingly, Ziryab’s become the intellectual center of
all-encompassing influ- Europe. As historian James Cleugh The Ornament of the World: How
Muslims, Christians and Jews Created
ence incurred the jeal- said of Córdoba in Spain in the
a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
ousy and resentment Modern World, “there was nothing
María Rosa Menocal; Harold Bloom, forward.
of other courtiers in like it, at that epoch, in the rest of 2002, Little, Brown and Company, 0-316-56688-8,
Córdoba. Two celebrated poets of the Europe. The best minds in that conti- $27.95 hb.
day, Ibn Habib and al-Ghazzal, wrote nent looked to Spain for everything
The Rise and Fall of Paradise: When Arabs
scathing verses attacking him. Al- which most clearly differentiates a and Jews Built a Kingdom in Spain. Elmer
Ghazzal, a prominent Andalusi satirist, human being from a tiger.” Bendiner. 1990, Hippocrene Books, 0-880-29466-3.
probably viewed the Baghdadi Ziryab As the first millennium drew to a
as a high-toned interloper. Ziryab close, students from France, England Umayyad Spain:
maintained the friendship and support and the rest of Europe flocked to www.nmhschool.org/tthornton/mehis-
of the emir, however, and that was all Córdoba to study science, medicine torydatabase/Umayyad_spain.htm
that mattered. and philosophy and to take advantage Arabs in Al-Andalus:
But ‘Abd al-Rahman II died in of the great municipal library with its www.artopedia.com/reading.html
about 852, and his remarkable inno- 600,000 volumes. When they returned Córdoba:
vator Ziryab is believed to have fol- to their home countries, they took with www.islamonline.net/iolenglish/
lowed about five years later. Ziryab’s them not only knowledge, but also art, dowalia/art-2000-may-11/art4.asp
children kept alive his musical inven- music, cuisine, fashion and manners. An Andalusian cookbook of the 13th century:
TOR EIGELAND

tions, assuring their spread throughout Europe found itself awash with http://daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/
Europe. Each of his eight sons and new ideas and new customs, and Cookbooks/Andalusian/andalusian_
two daughters eventually pursued a among the many streams that flowed contents.htm

Al-Andalus 11

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