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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Arts & Letters

Crossing the Bridge: Emil Zrihan and Judeo-Andalusian Music in Morocco

Vocalist Emil Zrihan is the embodiment of multiculturalism. Born in Morocco’s capital city of Rabat in 1954, he grew up with the Jewish liturgical music of his family heritage (including the traditions of shirat habakashot — supplications — and piutim, that is, liturgical poetry) as well as classical Arab-Andalusian music, Spanish flamenco, and traditional Moroccan music, which encompasses Arab, Berber, and other elements.

Judaism has long been a facet of the Moroccan mosaic: according to current research, the earliest evidence of a Jewish presence dates from tombstones of the second century CE. The largest influx of Jews, however, arrived in Morocco between the twelfth century and 1492, when the community was expelled from Spain en masse. According to some estimates, the Moroccan Jewish community was 250,000 strong in 1948; today, that number has dwindled to less than 5,000 (mostly elderly) people. Only a handful remain in Morocco’s mellahs, or Jewish quarters; the rest, over the years, dispersed to Israel, France, and elsewhere.

Emil Zrihan and his family were no exception to dispersal; they emigrated to Israel in 1965, where Zrihan currently serves as the cantor in Ashkelon’s main synagogue. (Ashkelon, incidentally, is another cultural crossroad: once one of the Philistine empire’s capitals, it was ruled at various points in history by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs.) Since the 1980s, Zrihan has also been the lead vocalist for the Israeli ensemble Andaluz of Azdot, whose focus is the Arab-Andalusian music of Spain’s Golden Age. While Zrihan is relatively well-known at home, he has of late garnered an international reputation within the world-music community. In 1999, the German label Piranha released his CD, Ashkelon; thereafter, Zrihan went on to appear at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival in Seattle, the acclaimed World Music Festival in Chicago, and the Hellenic Festival in Athens. Last summer, he also performed at a Cultural Olympiad event, the Sacred Sounds/Divine Dance tour of Greece.

When the singer visited New York City in October, I spoke with him about his artistic mission. “Jewish, Christian, Muslim — we are all the children of Abraham,” Zrihan told me emphatically. “And there are so many stylistic connections between these musical traditions, which are particularly clear when you understand that they developed and were performed side by side, such as in Morocco.” Zrihan’s own world-view to some extent parallels the Muslim notion of Ahl al-Kitab, or “People of the Book” (that is, the three Abrahamic religions), who share common roots and take their cue from divine revelation (and, therefore, should all be respected). For Zrihan, the history of Al-Andalus offers a richly documented past to uphold his cultural, and musical, ideas. The music that came to be called Arab-Andalusian has its roots in the ninth century, when Ziryab — a Persian musician from Baghdad — arrived at the court of Abd ar-Rahman II in Cordoba. Ziryab is credited with developing a distinctive style of song cycles called the nubat. From his time forward, Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) played an important role in developing and disseminating Andalusian classical music.

As inter-religious conflict loomed in Spain, the style gradually migrated to North Africa with Muslim and Jewish musicians. Some of Arab-Andalusian music’s most highly regarded and influential centers were located in Morocco, specifically in the northern cities of Fès (Fez), Rabat, and Tetouan. The bonds between Jewish and Arabic scholarship and arts were tightly woven in medieval life: texts included Arabic poetry in Hebrew transliteration.

Over the past several years, many early-music ensembles have set out to explore this medieval Andalusian repertoire, to a greater or lesser degree of esthetic and scholarly success. Some of the most notable recordings from this effort include Altramar’s Iberian Garden, Volume 1 (Dorian); Musique Arab-Andalouse by Atrium Musicae de Madrid and Gregorio Paniagua (Harmonia Mundi); the famous Cantigas of Santa Maria attributed to King Alfonso X (the Wise), recorded many times by now (the version to try is by Joel Cohen and the Camerata Mediterranea’s joint effort with the Abdelkrim Rais Andalusian Orchestra of Fès, directed by Mohammed Briouel [Erato]). But the best starting-point, to my mind, is the rightfully eminent ensemble Hèsperion XX (now known as Hèsperion XXI), directed by the masterful Jordi Savall (now on his own label, Alia Vox): one recording not to be missed is “Diaspora Sefardi,” which examines Jewish musical traditions post-expulsion. (Note that, given the present situation in the record industry, titles come in and out of print with alarming regularity; some of these suggestions might take time and effort to track down.)

As vibrant as these early-music specialists’ performances are, there’s a uniquely exhilarating charge that comes from an artist for whom every aspect of life is multicultural. Emil Zrihan’s performance at New York’s Symphony Space on October 16, 2003, presented by the World Music Institute, underscored these deep connections. Performing with a band of Jewish and Muslim musicians, the vocalist seamlessly switched between Hebrew and Arabic throughout the evening, supported by an ensemble of violin, ney flute, oud, handheld frame drums, and darbouka. (When asked, Zrihan shrugged off the question of why he doesn’t explore musical texts in Ladino, Spain’s Jewish language. “I sing in the languages I grew up speaking,” he said. “Ladino doesn’t figure into that.”)

When you hear Zrihan for the first time, however, it isn’t the Judeo-Andalusian style that grabs you; it’s his astonishingly powerful voice (quite out of proportion with his small stature) that hits you right between the eyes. Framed by his ensemble, Zrihan lets loose torrents of sound, currents of embellishments that bob and weave and climb up and down his register, with nary an indication that this singing feat is the slightest bit challenging. Indeed, mawalat — virtuoso vocal improvisations — are his specialty. As the singer commented dreamily, “The mawal is a beautiful, elongated carpet that leads to the doors or the gates of the maqam, the mode. You see and admire the colors and patterns in the rug, and in admiring its details you understand that this carpet gives a taste of what lies beyond the closed doors.”

Given his adeptness in the classical repertoire, however, Zrihan doesn’t shy away from newer material. Near the end of his New York concert (for which, unfortunately, there were no program-notes to accompany a short essay about Andalusian music and a brief biography of Zrihan), he sang a raucous version of “Ya Rayah,” one of the most enduring, popular Algerian raï songs. Written by Dahmane El Harrachi (1926-1980) and recently re-recorded by the Algerian French superstar Rachid Taha, “Ya Rayah” delineates the pains of emigration and exile — themes with which Zrihan is undeniably familiar.

Appropriately enough, given Zrihan’s zeal for promoting crosscultural harmony and interchange, this concert was given as part of “Daniel Pearl Music Day,” an event now in its second year that includes concerts given throughout the month of October. While remembering the life of this inspiring journalist (and violinist), the event is dedicated to the ideals of tolerance, friendship, and shared humanity. It’s worth noting, however, that upon arriving in Chicago for this tour, the Muslims (and only the Muslims) in Zrihan’s ensemble were “profiled” and pulled aside for several hours of questioning — “treated like dogs,” in Zrihan’s pained words — before eventually being released.

Despite this experience, Zrihan perseveres in his vision of pan-Abrahamic solidarity by crisscrossing musical genres. He speaks excitedly of an upcoming collaboration with the San Francisco-based musician David Harrington, a violinist and one of the founders of the famed Kronos Quartet (whose pioneering work in new music has often extended into the world-music sphere). “Music is a bridge,” Zrihan stated simply, “and my music is a bridge between Muslims and Jews. I hope more people cross this bridge.”

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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