Joglaresa / Brenda Sykes

Dreams of Andalusia

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"Joglaresa" was a medieval Spanish word for a professional singing girl in Arab-ruled Andalusia (the Arabic term al-Andalus, group leader Belinda Sykes reminds us in her fine notes, meant "land of the vandals"). The group Joglaresa is British, not Spanish or Arabic, but it includes a striking lead vocalist apparently of Arab background, Naziha Azzouz. Of all the various sounds that have been proposed for dealing with the multicultural (Arab, Jewish, and Christian) music of medieval Spain, this one is among the most musically convincing. It's also rooted in documents and iconography of the time. Sykes points to a text by al-Tifashi of Tunisia, who wrote before his death in 1253 of a female slave musician who "comes with slave-girls to beat the drum and play the reed for her." From this passage Sykes infers an attractively spare setting, with one or two voices (her arrangements sometimes split the vocal line between herself and Azzouz, with simple imitation effects), shawm or bagpies, perhaps a vielle, and percussion. Even more intriguing is what might be called the central thesis of this disc: that the music of the three cultures ran together. This development is credited to none other than Ibn Bajja, the Islamic philosopher, known in Latin as Avempace, who was the leader of the Islamic Aristotelians and transmitted a great deal of ancient philosophy to the European world. Here one learns, amazingly enough, that he "secluded himself with skillful singing-girls and combined the songs of the Christians with those of the East, thereby devising a new style found only in al-Andalus, toward which everyone inclined, so that they rejected all other styles." A poem by Ibn Bajja is even performed, using a Tunisian melody (most of the actual music is adapted in this way). Sykes extends this stylistic umbrella to the Cantigas de Santa María, which were not specifically Andalusian, and to Jewish music of the period, which may be a stretch. But it works. The three traditions are inflected differently in the vocals but presented as deeply interrelated. The repertory Sykes chooses is mostly secular, and often either romantic or humorous; the specifically religious pieces seem to flow naturally within this context and not to disturb the common culture presented. All texts are given in their original languages: Arabic (in one case written in Hebrew lettering), Judeo-Spanish, or Galician-Portuguese, with English translations by Sykes (Arabic and Judeo-Spanish) and Stephen Parkinson (Galician-Portuguese). The album is beautifully designed, with architectural detail, Arabic calligraphy, and a great epigraph from Ibn Zamrak of Granada: "And a dancing girl, twirling in the fountain, responded to the melodies of the singing girls by rising into the air -- when she descended, she scattered pearls over the surrounding spectators." A lovely release that makes the Spanish Golden Age come alive, and an ideal gift for anyone headed for southern Spain.

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