A genius Iranian musician
Wednesday 4 June 2003, by
What is presented to the reader here is a brief account of the life of one of the most distinguished personalities of Iranian music, literature, and art, well known among music scholars. He is one of the musical icons who forged an unbreakable bond between Iranian and Spanish musical traditions. His name is Zaryâb. In fact, he who took eastern arts to the farthest reaches of the western world, has been the subject of much discussion and writing which has given birth to the field of “Zaryâb studies” and his role in cultural history and civilization, particularly the Andalusian music in Spain has been well known.
The life of young Zaryâb’s who left Fars, the ancient Persian homeland, and travelled to Baghdad to study music is sensational but it is not a Fable.
After two disastrous centuries of early Islamic rule, particularly the Bani-Omaie dynasty, Baghdad became the seat of Abbasids rulers, including Hâroon Al-Rashid and his sons. Living in pleasure and feasting and drinking which were perused by Arabs of that era were clearly visible.
Celebrations and mirth of the Sassanid court was the pattern to be followed in the caliphs’ court. Singers and dancers from far away lands would serve the caliph and Arab generals. In caliphs’ celebrations and audiences they would sing what they remembered of songs of past times and what they had learned from Iranian captives. These songs became the bases for new songs and music. Musicians who were familiar with songs and music of Khosrovani court gained fame and fortune thanks to their artistic acumen.
Baghdad at that time had become the centre of artistic activities, particularly music. However, prior to Zaryâb’s travels in North Africa and his arrival in Spain, music for the victorious Arabs of this land had not progressed beyond the music of the era preceding Islam which was known as the Jaheliat era and “no other personality before or after him became the subject of so much public respect and adoration”.
What has so far been written and said about this Iranian musician has been the result of research by musical scholars and historians writing articles and books on Arab music and many more about Spanish music particularly Andalusian and Flamenco. Among them one can name Erlanger in The History of Arab Music, Christiansen in Music in the Sasanide Era, Henry Farmer in Arabic Ood (lute) that has a turning handle and makes sound with a Bow, and The History of Arab Music and Its Influence on European Music, and again Farmer in an article on “Eastern music” entitled Ibne Sina’s Steps on the Ood, Larrea in The Music of Spain and Arab, and by the same author, Flamenco Music, and by Leblon, The Music of Zigan and Flamenco.
In his book, Al Aghâni, Abulfarag Esfahâni writes about Zaryâb as no more than he was a pupil of Es-hâq Mooseli. Unfortunately, in past and present writings, Iranian musical scholars’ understanding of Zaryâb does not exceed that of Abulfarag Esfahâni while Arab writers have written considerably more about Zaryâb. Thirteenth century A.D. Moroccan author Al-Tiffasi writes: “with the arrival of Zaryâb in Cordoba in Andalusia, the Arab music, which up to that time was the music of camel riders of barren Arabian Desert, was noticeably changed”. Dozy writes: “Not only was Zaryâb a distinguished musician but also an outstanding poet and astronomer and what was the source of astonishment was his spirit and understanding of things beautiful. No one cared about art and other life’s phenomena as did he”. These special appreciations were evident in his musical performance. Zaryâb had an outstanding personality and showed clear good taste and aptitude in his profession.
In that period no artist had regarded beauty and art the same manner as Zaryâb. A well-dressed man himself, he was able to influence the fashion of his time and teach people the fine art of dress. Albeit he spoke Arabic with a Persian, his command of Arabic made everyone enjoy his company. Even in his culinary skills he showed much artistic taste and elegance. But above all, his experience and training was in playing the ood. Louie Provencal, the renowned historian of Spanish civilization says about Zaryâb: “he was a genius and his influence in Spanish society of the time not only encompassed music but also all aspects of society.” Titus Burkhart the German historian of Islam writes: “he was a genius musical scholar and at the same time the one who brought Iranian music to Spain and consequently to all of the western world. He was able to replace the primitive ways of Arabs of that time with Iranian elegance.”
Julien Ribera, the great master of Spanish music, emphasizes the Iranian aspects of Zaryâb’s work and personality. In a speech delivered in Cordoba Academy he asserts “the style and method of Zaryâb must be seen as a tradition that began in the East which represents the movement this musical genius and innovator brought about. The continuation of this movement was instrumental in the development of the Arab world. And let us not forget that Zaryâb was an Iranian artist.”
According to historians, the Mooseli family was Iranians who had settled in Baghdad. Ibrâhim son of Mâhân, born to a woman named Shahak, was born in the city of Ray. Because he was musically gifted and blessed with high intelligence, he went to Baghdad where he first performed for Caliph Al-Mehdi and later served in the court of Hâroon Al-Rashid as the head of the singers and musicians. He was the first musician to construct Arab music on the basis of Iranian musical doctrine. His son, Eshagh, who was similarly known as Mooseli, became the most celebrated musician of the court after the death of his father. Among his most notable contributions was to arrange Iranian music, which at that time was performed widely in Arab Courts and gatherings. He arranged music on the basis of finger placement on the musical instrument ood.
In Al Aqâni, Abulfarag Esfahâni reports: “Es-hâq’s library was one the largest and richest in Baghdad”. Esfahâni also reports caliph Al-Motevakel claimed that: “with the death of Es-hâq my empire has lost some of its esteem.” Many of the young, who were thirsty to learn music, studied with Es-hâq and later achieved position of mastery. Among them was a young man named Ali Ibne Nâfe also known as Zaryâb, who according to all accounts was among his best pupils. He possessed such talent that he surpassed other students with ease and in a short time became the talk of the town. Soon word of his talent reached Haroon Al-Rashid who asked to hear songs and tunes. Zaryâb performed before the caliph with such skill that Hâroon became immediately enchanted with him and ordered Zaryâb to be included among the court’s musicians. However, envious of his gift, Es-hâq viewed the young Zaryâb as a threat to his position and gave him a word of warning, and advised him to move to another place away from Hâroon Al-Rashid and even suggested he should select the western-most part of the Moslem land for himself.
- Persian Miniature
- From La Guirlande de l’Iran, ed. Flammarion, 1948.
Ibne Hayyan and many other Arab writers and scholars who have narrated Zaryâb’s life story readily accept this story. However, the research by Dr. Shojaedin Shafâ leads him to view this story with caution and not to accept it simply. “Hâroon Al-Rashid died in 809 A.D. and Zaryâb reached Andalusia in 821. Even if we assume that Zaryâb had left Baghdad in the last years of caliph Haroon’s life, he must have spent 13 years between Baghdad and Andalusia. However, given the events of his life one of which is his relatively short stay in Ghairouân, the most important period of his stay in North Africa, this period has to be considered as too long. It is conceivable that an attempt is made to conform his life to that of Bârbod, the musician and singer of the court of the Sassanide king, Khosro-Parviz. He too was the target of jealousy of the head of musicians. The fabulous story of Barbod, the skilled musician of the Sassanide court, is written by Ferdossi in his book Shah-Nâmeh or “The Book of Kings.” Borhan-e-Ghâteh says about this well known musician: “his origins were in the town of Jahrom, near Shirâz. He was unmatched in the skills of playing the barbat … and the songs of the kings are of his work”.
In Shah-Nâmeh we are told the story of Sarkesh who was the leader and best musician of Khosro-Parviz court’s minstrels, one day heard the news that a highly talented young ood player with a divine voice had come to the court in hopes of having an audience with the Shah as a musician. Sarkesh became disturbed at the news and tried to keep him away from the shah, bribing the courtiers with money and charity not to speak of Bârbod. However, Bârbod learned of the plot against him and asked the royal garden guard where the shah rested to inform him of shah’s arrival and to allow him to climb a tree where he waited. When the shah finally came into the garden, Bârbod, dressed in a green outfit, began to play his ood high above the ground. The music pleased the shah immensely. He inquired after the musician’s identity to no avail and ordered servants to look for him. Finally, after the third song, shah demanded that the performer reveal himself. Bârbod climbed down from the tree, and kissed the ground as a sign of respect for the shah. Khosro-Parviz praised him, his music, and singing and placed him in charge of minstrels and musicians in the court. However, Sarkesh’s jealousy and distrust did not subside. He lied in waiting and eventually succeeded in killing Bârbod by poison. It has been said that Bârbod had composed seven pieces of music for the seven days of the week, thirty for the thirty days of the month, which are also known as See Lahan (“Thirty Melodies”), and 360 pieces for the 360 days of the year, all of which are known as Khosravâni. The common thread between Zaryâb and Bârbod is known to be Zaryâb’s 24 Nowba which are composed for 24 hours of the day.
Another narrative about Zaryâb has it that after Hâroon Al-Rashid, his son Amin (809 AD) became the caliph. Soon thereafter, his other son, Ma’moon rebelled against his brother, taking away the caliphate from him (813 AD) and doing away with all his brother’s agents and supporters under the pretext of corruption and treason. To avoid being seen as among Amin’s supporters and admirers, Zaryâb fled Baghdad.
Zaryâb’s name has been the subject of varying interpretations. Arabs and Europeans have called him “Ziryab”. Others have said that since Zaryâb had added a fifth string to the ood and this string is the lowest string on ood, he is called the founder of Zir — Persian word for beneath - or Ziryâb. Others have thought that Zaryâb’s name was the same as and linked to a black bird. The name of this bird that looks like a crow is “Abu Zaraq” which Europeans call Béo. This bird is very intelligent and has a good memory. The comparison of Zaryâb to this bird was due to Zaryâb’s dark skin. However, it is acknowledged that Zaryâb is completely an Iranian name. Its meaning as “the founder of gold” or “melted gold” is more reasonable and convincing. Ferdossi has used the name Melted Gold. In Al-Aghani, Abulfarag Esfahâni believes the name Zaryâb is made of two words, gold and water — Zar meaning gold and Ab is the Persian word for water — and has translated it as water like gold or melted gold. Ibne Al-Arabi believes the name Zaryâb is from the Persian term Melted Gold.
Arabs consider Zaryâb to be from Baghdad because of their desire to connect this major personality of music to Arab nationality and civilization. They claim him as of their own on the basis of the time Zaryâb had lived in Baghdad. However, according to Dr. Shojâedin Shafâ, in that time period (809 A.D.), Baghdad was a young metropolis and had not yet achieved its identity and importance. As Henri Pèrès reminds us in his book, Andalusian Poetry in Classic Arabic, being from Baghdad meant to be Iranian since the city had become Hâroon Al-Rashid’s capital only in 762 A.D. and at that time the major political and artistic personalities of the court were Iranians.
Because of Zaryâb’s efforts, Arab Music and poetry was transformed from its primitive form. The elegies of desert nomads were influenced by Iranian poetry, literature and music. Joy, freedom, grace and elegance penetrated Arab art. The Court of Abbasid caliphs moved away from Islam’s strict rules. No longer were music and wine considered to be sinful.
In that period a window of hope opened to music scholars and poets alike. Music scholars such as Ibrahim and Es-hâq Mooseli were able to leave their imprint on history. Similarly, beautiful Iranian dancers, music scholars and musicians entered Arab courts, bringing with them joy into the gatherings of Arab generals and Caliph’s celebrations. Music scholars gained the prestige that they deserved and many Iranian artists laid the foundations of Arab music and art at the same time.
Sâdeq Neshât, the Iranian scientist and professor at the University of Cairo, describes Zaryâb in the following manner: “Zaryâb was a tall and thin man who, while he had maintained his Iranian accent, could speak and write poetry in Arabic. He could speak Persian to Persian speakers and overall his manners and habits testified to his rich cultural background”.
Many Western writers and historians have objectively referred to Zaryâb as an Iranian musician. Among them are Dozy in Het Islamism and R.A. Nicholson in his book entitled The Literature of the Arabs and Farmer in A History of Arabian Music and Henry Pèrès in La poèsie Andalouse en Arabe classique au 10ème siècle and Henry Levy in The Legacy of Persia.
The journey from Baghdad to Cordoba was wrought with hardship for Zaryâb. From the start, his heart was filled with fear and anxiety. To make matters worse, he was forced to make multiple stops on the way. His first stop was the court of sultan Aglabide in the city of Ghairouan where he was received with much warmth and affection. He continued to enjoy peace and quiet in the sultan’s palace until he performed a newly composed song, recounting the story of a black mother, likening her to a crow. This angered the king. As it so happened, the king’s mother was a black woman herself. While he did not order Zaryâb’s execution, he was sentenced to 80 lashes and deportation. Once again, Zaryâb left his residence and the city in a great rush for Algeciras by way of Afrigyya (Northern Africa), and the Gibraltar where he was enthusiastically awaited.
Zaryâb met the Emir of Cordoba through a Jewish musician named Abou-Nassreh-Mansour, also a townsman. Abou-Nassreh-Mansour had heard Zaryâb’s performance in Ghairouan and told Emir “Al-Hokm”, successor of Abdol-Rahmân Omvi what he knew of Zaryâb’s work and good reputation. However the Emir died before Zaryâb arrived. The Emir’s son and successor, Abdol-Rahman the second honoured his father’s wishes and in so doing provided Zaryâb with a thirty-year contract, in effect ensuring his lifetime stay in Cordoba, where Zaryâb lived until his death.
Ibne Khaldoon writes: “When Zaryâb entered the royal court, Emir Abdul Rahman the second personally greeted and welcomed the beloved musician. Between 822 and 857 AD., Zaryâb remained in Cordoba, and devoted all his time and effort to the improvement and innovations in the music of Andalusia.”
Zaryâb lived in the Emir’s palace for some time but soon moved to his own palace, offered by his royal patron, where he lived in the lap of luxury on a 40,000 Dinars stipend until his death thirty years later. Without ever leaving Cordoba, Zaryâb was able to establish himself as a major and innovative modern Andalusian musician.
Among the innovations of the time, aside from societal events, establishment and management of a music conservatory are of special importance. It is rather difficult to imagine the establishment of an educational institution in the third century solely for the purpose of teaching music. Nevertheless, what Zaryâb accomplished is considered to be one of the most genius cultural innovations of his times.
Zaryâb’s music conservatory provided music instruction in a systematic and methodical fashion whereas until then, not only was music taught one-on-one but it was also a forbidden fruit in the Islamic world. Soon numerous schools and conservatories modelled their own music instruction programs after Zaryâb’s institution. Various authors point out to the remarkable fact that many nations, government and educational institutions across Europe began to follow and implement Zaryâb’s instructional methods. Further, he was the first artist ever to wed orchestra to chorus.
It is said Zaryâb created an orchestra that included one hundred flute and ood players. One can assert with confidence that Zaryâb’s orchestra created the foundation of modern orchestras.
While today’s experts agree, an orchestra made up of one hundred flute and ood players hints at an imbalance and further warn us to approach the subject with caution, it is also widely accepted among scholars and researchers that Zaryâb’s innovations and orchestral organization revolutionized principles and practices of the era.
The techniques Zaryâb used in his musical teachings were completely new and unprecedented for his time. He based musical composition on the three fundamental factors of rhythm, melody and understanding. Rhythm is the basis for the marriage between music and words. Melody is the fabric of beauty and emotion; and finally, understanding and knowledge convey the preceding two factors and play a crucial role in the marriage of melody and rhythm.
Zaryâb discovered these three fundamental factors of music making, thus undoubtedly impacting western musical arts, for in his era church music was making great strides in new musical innovations and research. Zaryâb paid special attention to syllables and correct and clear pronunciation of lyrics. Today’s conservatory pupils are taught to observe proper phonetics as clarity, manner of expression and accent are praised qualities any experienced vocalist must possess. In addition to his technical genius, Zaryâb studied music from a psychological and astronomical standpoint as well. He believed music played a prominent role in the psychological relationships between individuals and helped to increase empathy among all people. He further believed in a special connection between the art of music and astrology. This connection is manifested in various forms in pre-Islam Indian and Persian compositions. Zaryâb believed in an eternal bond between the four strings of ood and the four essences that ruled the human spirit. Even modern Iranians hold dear certain believes which may very well be remnants of ancient beliefs. Among these is the belief that a rhapsody played in morning-time would cause flowers to bloom, and birds to sing and twitter.
Iranians divided each of their musical scales into groups so as to correspond to parts of the day. There’s no definitive information available on the four musical scales, which Zaryâb divided into 24 sections. To make this riddle more complicated, what Zaryâb himself had written on the topic was forever destroyed during the siege of Cordoba by Moroccan Berber tribes.
The twenty four sections of Zaryâb’s composition called Nobeh can be found in many Andalusian and Flamenco songs, many of which carry Iranian names such as Dougâh, Segâh, Chahargâh, Panjgâh, Navâ, Zirkolâh, Norouz, Esfahan, Mâyeh, Nahovand, Dastân, Râst and Shahnâz, to name a few.
After the fall of the Caliphate in Cordoba in 1031 A.D. and the defeat of Nâsseri kings in Cordoba, the art of singing and music making based on Zaryâb’s Nobeh principles spread throughout Northern Africa. According to Al-Magri, Zaryâb had composed 10,000 pieces, all of which he had memorized. The pieced were called Marâssem (“ceremony”) or it can be also mined and remember the Iranians musical Dastgahs. There are some who believe that today’s Iranian musical organizations are based on Zaryâb’s musical conventions because he used a triad of tempos in his work. Even though this is not a convincing explanation, because, after a long time, the Iranian music was rebuild by Fârâbi, Ibne Sina and others, musical compositions were place on the Khorassan and Baghdad lute and thus regained their identity. However, what is important in this discourse is the link and correlation between the music of Iran and that of Andalusia. Zaryâb’s music influenced all neighbouring countries. In Morocco it was called Gornati and in Tunisia, Aulof, but regardless of the names, all these musical traditions found their roots in Zaryâb’s methods.
Ibne Hayyan reminds us in the 8th century that Zaryâb’s teachings were widespread in all of North Africa and his “protocols” were performed over many years by professional singers and lay people of Andalusia alike.
Ibne Khaldoon also takes note of the prevalence of Zaryâb’s methodology and influence throughout Northern Africa. “The beauty of Andlusian music is evident in a series of concerts called Nobeh”. In performance since the 12th century in Morocco, Zaryâb’s art is a grand legacy left for future generations. Not only did he teach us the new science of musicology, but he also educated us about music as a complete and inclusive art form.
Zaryâb’s music spread through North Africa and Andalusia by Iranian musicians who introduced Iranian tunes and musical instruments to these nations. Indeed, oriental scholars and researchers write at length about musical instruments commonly used in Arab music which have Iranian names such as sournie, robob, tambour, ood, santour, târ, daf, nay, kamâncheh, and chang. Among these writings are An Introduction to Andess Musical Instruments, by Reynaldo Ferrandez Manzano; History of Arab Music, by Henry Farmer; Arab Music, by Erlanger; Musical Instruments in the Muslim World, by Jenkins; and First Performance with String Instruments, by Hafni — an Arab writer.
Zaryâb died in 857 A.D. in Cordoba, the city where he lived the last 30 years of his life and where also he had achieved fame and fortune. Zaryâb’s family played a critical and significant role in the preservation of his works and the stewardship of his artistic legacy. Zaryâb had six sons and two daughters. However, scholars have not agreed on the number of Zaryâb’s children. Al-Maghri reports 12 boys and tree girls while Ibne Hamzeh puts the number of his children at 10. What all historians do agree upon however is the fact that all Zaryâb’s children were musicians and singers. His eldest daughter, Alieh, married the Emir Abdul Rahman’s chancellor, Mohammad Ben Rostam, from the Iranian root Rostamieh who ruled North Africa. His second daughter, Hamdouneh, married Hessam Ben Abdul-Aziz. With the help of her brother-in-law, Asslam, she collected and published her father’s compositions and tunes in a book called “Al-Aghâni Zaryâb”. Sadly, this publication too was lost in the Moroccan siege of Cordoba.
Zaryâb’s influence on music and society at large is inconceivable; so much so that Henry Terrese, the 20th century French scholar writes: “undoubtedly one person alone cannot change a society so deeply”. The Arab historian Al-Maghri, who has written the most about the life and work of Zaryâb, writes: “Never before or since Zaryâb has an individual become the subject of this much affection and admiration”. Ibne Khaldoon, the most prominent Arab historian also addresses Zaryâb’s popularity: “Andalusian music was advanced by Zaryâb and passed on to generation after generation. His influence was an ocean that swept over all of Africa and left us an eternal legacy”. R. Nicholson, the distinguished British orientalist of the 20th century observes that “he was a complete artist, leaving behind important works not only in the areas of culture and art, but also in every societal aspect. So much, so that even kings imitated him as a model until the very last day of Islamic rule in Andalusia.”
As we have said, nothing is left of Zaryâb’s music. This is a tragedy that nations who suffer invasions by savages and victorious tribes have faced. Throughout Iranian history, invaders, ranging from Alexander “the Great”, who was Aristotle’s pupil and thus could have been expected to be a civilized man, to the Arab nomads and the northern tribes who attacked Iran repeatedly and caused much death and destruction, all savagely eliminated the defeated nation’s culture and art. In the western world invasions of neighbouring nations have caused much death and destruction. However, in these instances, the artistic works have not only been preserved, but also by recording the existing works and providing them to others, were saved from possible destruction. The invention of printing prevented the destruction of numerous works. Thus, future artists can benefit from the works of the past and can help the development and dissemination of their nations’ art and culture. The history and the culture of European civilization suggest that western scientists and artists preserved their works for future generations. Even if those intellectual, artistic or spiritual works were in their preliminary stages or had not born the expected fruits, they were still recorded so others and the future generations could use them in achieving innovations. Eastern artists and scientists, in particular Iranians, in contrast, locked their discoveries and works in their memories in the hope that someone can use them in the future. Often times artists and scientist who faced the wrath of rulers or the religious fanatics washed their writings with water to save their life from the executioners.
In the western world, the extreme ravages of intellectual suppression during the Middle Ages, imposed by the religious fanaticism of the ruling elite, was mostly limited to this period of European society and politics. In Iran, however, it can be said, that Islam has been able to extend this kind of intellectual suppression for 1400 years. As a result, in today’s Iranian society there are scientists, writers and artists who are still burning in the fires of inhumane prejudices and laws. Their works are censored and banned. They are thrown into prisons and tortured or are quietly writing and creating fully expecting to be subjected to another cultural attack and massacre.
Cap d’Antibes, March 27th 2001
I would like to express all my gratitude to Dr. Shojâedin Shafâ for his help and precious advises regarding this article.
Translated in english by:
Kathy and Farhad Malekafzali.