An Iraqi black immigrant musician who revolutionized the musical traditions of medieval Spain


During the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun (d. 833), In the first half of the 9th century BC there lived in Baghdad, a genius black musician, who excelled not only in music but in astronomy, geography, meteorology, botany, cosmetics, cooking art and fashion, in a word he was called the walking encyclopedia.  ThisAfrican-Arab Iraqi born was a medievalcelebrity whose real name was AliIbnNafi‘(789-857) or Ziryab, the nickname those who loved him gave to him, which means a black singing bird in Arabic.

This great musician, singer, oud player, composer, poet and teacher, wasborn in Mosul and brought up in Baghdad, Iraq, and was a student of the great Iraqi musician and composer, Ishaq Al-Mawsili. Ziryab had to leave his home country, Iraq, to Northern Africa, where he stayed for many years there beforehe finally settled in Cordova of medievalSpain. He was accepted there as a court musician in the court of Abd Al-Rahman II of the Umayyad Dynasty (822-52). He was sponsored and protected by the caliphs of Andalucía, who gave him a palace to live in with his family and servants and a big monthly salary.

When he left Baghdad he was already a bigcelebrity there, being a courtier and the musician of the royal palace and the court entertainer and friend of caliphs. However, he had to leave quickly to save his neck as it was said he had inspired the jealousy of his teacher who introduced him the royal class. He gave an impressive performance for the caliph Harun Al-Rashid, which might have been considered as an insult to his musical teacher, or he might have slighted the honor of some important personality, with the result that Al-Mawsili, his teacher,told him to leave the great city or bear with the consequences that could amount to death.

Ziryab left Baghdad during the reign of Al-Ma’mun, the son of Harun Al-Rashid, sometime after the year 813, travelling first to Syria, then to Tunisia, where he lived at the Aghlabid court. Ziryab was invited to Andalucía by the Umayyad prince, Al-Hakam I, after falling out with the prince of Tunisia. Upon arrival in Spain, he settled in Córdoba, where he was honored with a monthly salary and a fancy place to live in. Once he settled down in his new home country, he gradually began adding more elements of fame to his already great reputation as a musician and poet, as he came to be known as a food, fashion, hair styling and singing guru.

He introduced high standards of excellence in all these fields as well as setting new norms for elegant and noble manners. He created a new type of perfumes to get rid of bad smells and also promoted morning and evening baths and emphasized the maintenance of personal hygiene. Ziryab is thought to have invented an earlykind of toothpaste, which he popularized throughout Islamic Iberia. He introduced new hair styles to the Iberian Peninsula and created new lotions for hair conditioning, to keep the hair of men and women healthy and attractive. He was an inspiring personality in many fields such as fashion, hygiene, and food. His recommendations in relation to these important aspects of living standards quickly spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. His styles were imitated throughout Medieval Europe and the Muslim world and were added to existing styles.

Ziryab became such a prominent cultural figure and became one more time an intimate companion of the princes and noble personalities. He established a school of music to train singers and musicians which influenced musical performance for at least two generations after him, using Baghdad’s musical heritage and mixing it with the local Spanish and North African music trends to come up with new and unprecedented forms of musical forms. During that period, there were manygreat musicians and artists who flocked to Spain from across the Islamic world, but Ziryab surpassed them all.

At the musical institute he established in Iberia to teach musical arts and entertainment, he took rich and poor students alike, teaching them the traditional musical styles and songs of Baghdad, Mosul and Persia, mixed with new twists gained from his long experience and innovations. This school had both male and female students, particularly slave women, who were very popular amongst the aristocracy of the time.. He even added a fifth string to the traditional instrument, the lute, which later paved the way for the development of the guitar. He was very highly acclaimed in his new home, Spain as the foremost musician of the day.

In short, Ziryab was a genius who transferred to the society of Andalucíaand Europe later not only the different styles of music and singing of the Orient, but different aspects of the civilized life lead by the people of Baghdad at that time, thus turninghimself into one of the main connections between the cultures of the East and West. He died in Cordova in 845 BC.

Translated by: The translation department of Nanar