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Volume 52, Number 4July/August 2001

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The Musical Pulse of Tunisia

Written by Thorne Anderson

Al-Andalus. Even without an appreciation of the region's place in history, it's a beautiful word, an evocative word. In Tunisia, mere mention of the name stirs potent nostalgia for a time, now five centuries lost, when the artistic creativity of Al-Andalus—Muslim Spain—nourished tastes so refined that the mere memories of them drive creative arts today and shape present-day Tunisia's national identity. And nothing conjures up this nostalgia more powerfully and mysteriously than the musical offspring of Al-Andalus, the Tunisian maluf.

Bouncing in the back seat of a taxi driving fast from the airport into the heart of Tunis, historical memories of Al-Andalus seem far from the chaotic currents of the present. It's a warm late-December day, but the car's faulty heater continues to blast from the dashboard, making open windows a necessity. A medallion spins from the rear-view mirror in the swirling streams of competing gusts. The car's stereo speakers buzz under the stress of Europop dance music turned all the way up.

But the taxi driver's face brightens when I mention maluf. "Of course I listen to the maluf" he chimes as he slides in a cassette tape of the Rashidiyya Orchestra, the premier performers and preservers of the art. "We are Tunisians. We must love the maluf. There are the stories of our people, stories of love, everything is there. Maluf is sweet music," he says, and we roll up the windows and endure the heat in order to hear better. "We Tunisians may be tough on the outside," he says, "but you scratch our skin and the maluf is there."

Maluf (pronounced mah-LOOF) survives today in public and private performances and at weddings and circumcision ceremonies because of a determined effort of preservation on the part of the Tunisian government, private patrons and dedicated musicians young and old. Although but a small part of a much larger, evolving contemporary musical-arts scene—indeed, it can be difficult to find maluf recordings except in specialized music shops—the history of the maluf is so enmeshed with that of Tunisia that maluf has become a sort of emblem of national identity, and its influence is ever-present and fiercely guarded.

Amjed Kilifi, a carpet dealer in Tunis, is all business, and he doesn't appear to be the kind of guy to take "high culture" too seriously. He says he rarely listens to maluf, but it's clear he holds the music in the highest esteem nonetheless. "Those who like the maluf tend, to be more intellectual," he says. "Most people don't prefer maluf these days, but it was born with us and we'll never let it go."

"Young people really do love maluf,'" says Latifa Fkiri, a journalist and actor, "but they don't listen to it often. Maluf really takes patience, but those with patience will discover that the maluf is in our blood, our pulse, our breath."

"We must sing the maluf," insists Rim Fehri, a voice student at the Institut Superieur, Tunis's leading music school. "We must love the maluf; we are the maluf."

Maluf, which means "familiar" or "customary," bears the auditory traces of music brought to North Africa by Muslims fleeing the Christian reconquista of Spain and Portugal between the 12th and 15th centuries. In Morocco, this genre is known as Andalusi or ala music; in Algeria it is gharnata. In Libya, as in Tunisia, it is maluf, with the Libyan maluf distinguished mostly by dialect differences in the lyrics. More subtly, these Maghrebian, or North African, genres also differ in the tuning of melodic modes and the articulation of rhythmic patterns. Those differences, at times scarcely perceptible to an outsider, are the musical equivalents of dialects.

The maluf idiom comprises all forms of Tunisian classical singing, which themselves are based on the classical Arabic poetry form known as the qasidah, or ode. The maluf forms include muwashshah, a "post-classical" form not rigidly governed by the qasidah; zajal, a newer poetic genre using special dialectical forms; and shgul, a traditional singing which is "elaborate," as the Arabic name implies. But the most important form, the structural heart of maluf, is the nuba.

A nuba might be described as a two-movement "musical suite" in a single mode or maqam, an Arab system of pitch organization by quarter-tones that allows for the construction of melodies and improvisation within a scale. Each nuba lasts about an hour, and contains varied instrumental and a dozen or so vocal pieces in a traditional sequence. The rhythmic patterns (iqaat) of each nuba are complex, but they are similar from one nuba to the next, and they generally progress from slower to faster rhythms within each movement. The first movement of a nuba is dominated by binary, or base-2, rhythms while the second is dominated by base-3 rhythms.

Legend holds that there was once a different nuba for every day, every major event and every holiday of the year, hundreds of nubat in all. About two-thirds of the way through a nuba, one improvisational section would be played in the maqam of the nuba of the following evening. "It's beautiful to think about," says Jamel Abid, an instructor at the Institut Superieur. "So fine were the listeners' ears that they needed tuning for the upcoming evening."

Only 13 nubat remain in the traditional repertory, each in a different maqam. But if they are few in number, they are epic in scope, addressing the natural and the divine, love and loss, joy and regret, simultaneously at home and in exile. The breadth of experience covered by the music is immense.

"Maluf touches the center of the identity of all Tunisians; it is the vessel of the maqamat, the modes that define us as a people," says Becher Soussi, director of the annual International Festival of Arab Music in Testour, Tunisia. "If a Tunisian really listens to a fine performance of the maluf then he or she will feel something like ecstasy—the experience of tarab," he says. "Tarab is the relationship between the performers and the audience. To understand it you must experience it. It's not concrete. It's connected with the emotions. It's the binding force that connects people with music."

The birth of the maluf may be traced back to Ziryab, a court musician whose expulsion from Baghdad in 830 sent him westward on a journey that became notable for discovery and artistic innovation. Across the Maghreb he stopped in Kairouan, in the heart of the region then called Ifriqiyya, now Tunisia. Kairouan, the first major Islamic city in Africa, had been founded 150 years earlier by the Arab leader 'Uqba bin Nafi' al-Fihri, some 50 years before the Arab conquest of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula. At the time of Ziryab's visit, Kairouan was the capital of the powerful Aghlabite dynasty and the heart of Maghrebian culture.

Ziryab collected the melodies and rhythms of the Maghreb as he traveled on to Cordoba. He arrived at the beginning of a brilliant cultural flowering in Al-Andalus that drew nourishment from all its distant roots and the diversity of its polyglot inhabitants. In this climate, Ziryab, newly re-established as a court musician, combined his Middle Eastern musical education with the influences of the Maghreb to create a distinctively Andalusian type of music. Ziryab's rhythms, modes and melodies marked out the boundaries of new genre which, like most Arab music, was highly improvisational in structure and spiritual in temperament. "Improvisation is the offspring of your feeling and a reflection of your soul," says Rashidiyya Orchestra 'ud player Mohammed Nabid Saied. "If your soul is good and clean, so will be your music."

In the 13th century, Tunis saw its first wave of 8000 refugees from the Christian reconquista. This influx peaked at the end of the 15th century, when Granada fell to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Andalusian music took root in the urban centers of the Maghreb, then, through centuries of transmission, repetition, memorization and adaptation, acquired its unique melodic, rhythmic, and dialectic character wherever it grew. "Maluf became a distinctly Tunisian pocket of culture," says Lassad Gria, director of the Tunisian National Center of Music and Popular Arts. "Tunisians are, of course, open to the world's influences, but an Egyptian person, for example, can't really sing maluf."

Tunisian (and Libyan) maluf was further distinguished from the music of the western Maghreb by the sway of the Ottoman Empire, which took Tunisia as a colony in 1574, ushering in new influences from its vibrant musical centers: Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, and, of course, Istanbul. In the mid-18th century Tunisia's Ottoman governor, Muhammad al-Rashid, a virtuoso musician, fixed the structure of the nuba, adding Turkish-inspired instrumental pieces of his own composition. In the absence of a written notation system, his melodies passed from instrument to ear to instrument, through generations, so that the composition of most instrumental parts of the nubat as they exist today may be attributed to him. Al-Rashid ultimately abdicated his political post to devote himself entirely to music, and today the Rashidiyya Institute, the center of maluf preservation, bears his name.

When the Ottoman Empire crumbled, France established a "protectorate" in Tunisia based on her claim at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, and the maluf, then in decline, underwent a dramatic transformation. In an effort to save it from extinction, the French-naturalized Baron Rudolfe d'Erlanger, an amateur musician of Bavarian birth who had settled near Tunis, commissioned Ali al-Darwish of Aleppo to produce the first collection of this ancient repertory in written musical notation, a 20-year project. Together, d'Erlanger and Darwish undertook one of the first academic studies of Arab music theory and assembled Tunisia's presentation at the groundbreaking 1932 International Congress of Arabic Music, hosted in Cairo by King Fuad I. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, one of the many renowned participants, supervised the Gramophone company in recording 360 performances by the musician delegations; most of the recordings have survived in the National Sound Archives of Paris, and some are available to the public on compact disk.

D'Erlanger died a few months after the Cairo congress, but the momentum of the event helped inspire the founding of the Rashidiyya Institute in 1934 for the preservation of the maluf through radio performances, musical training programs, and public concerts.

The institute immediately introduced radical alterations with the goal of promoting popularity and raising prestige: Lyrics considered "profane" were revised, and two spectacular rehearsal and performance spaces were constructed in the heart of the walled madina, or old city, of Tunis.

The music itself was also changed. Earlier, the maluf had been performed in small folk ensembles with simple instrumentation: usually an 'ud 'arbi (four-stringed lute) and a rabab (two-stringed fiddle) accompanied by a bandir (frame drum), tar (tambourine), darbukka (goblet-shaped drum) and naqqarat (small kettle drums). Lyrics were sung by soloists or in small groups. Through the efforts of the Rashidiyya, however, hybrids of Western symphony orchestras and Egyptian ensembles arose that performed maluf in a hybrid of traditional and modern musical styles using mixed traditional and modern instrumentation.

Led by the cosmopolitan Tunisian violinist Muhammad Triki, the Rashidiyya Orchestra arranged the nuba for a large, seated chorus and orchestra including the 'ud sharqi (six-string lute), nay (bamboo flute), and qanun (zither). Most of the rest of the orchestra comprised Western string sections: violin, cello and contrabass. (Western stringed instruments are adaptable to the Arab maqamat because they are fretless and can thus easily render the characteristic fractional tones, though the Rashidiyya sometimes included even fixed-pitch instruments like the piano or mandolin.)

Equally—perhaps even more—radical was the orchestra's adherence to written musical notation and the comprehensive Arab music theory introduced by the Rashidiyya Institute under the leadership of Salah el-Mahdi, Triki's successor. All 13 of the surviving nubat were painstakingly collected and distilled from the various, often quite divergent, interpretations of the Tunisian masters of the time. The orchestra chose to use western musical notation, modified to record the Arab maqamat. The difficulty of printing right-to-left Arabic lyrics on left-to-right musical staffs was overcome by printing lyrics left-to-right, word by word or syllable by syllable.

The use of notation brought fundamental changes in the formerly improvisational character of maluf. Whereas the unnotated maluf of the past had involved improvisation throughout a performance in reaction to audience responses, the Rashidiyya's notated maluf left only one instrumental section of each nuba open to extensive improvisation. But times were changing in other ways, too: The popularization of the phonograph record militated against the spontaneity of improvisation and favored an agreed-upon performance standard—a demand addressed in part by adherence to musical notation.

The Rashidiyya's transformation of the maluf, though frowned at by some, did succeed in elevating the maluf to the prestigious level of "art music" and repopularizing the genre by broadcasting it beyond the urban centers. Moreover, the Rashidiyya simultaneously became the most important musical training center in the country, due in large part to el-Mahdi's Arab music theory and curriculum.

"The Rashidiyya is the mother of all musical arts in Tunisia," says Youssef Malouche, administrative director and professor of the qanun at the still-lively Rashidiyya Institute. "Even if a musician hasn't studied here, his teacher has studied here."

It's easy to get lost looking for the Rashidiyya Institute, tucked away deep in the Tunis medina. Narrow alleyways not much wider than a donkey-cart wind in organic, millennium-old patterns. There are black-and-white checkered arches, passageways covered by vaulted ceilings and a jumble of densely crowded suqs, interrupted from time to time by the calm of mosque entrances. The metal-studded blue door of the Rashidiyya is set inconspicuously in the cracked plaster wall of a quiet street just around the corner from nothing in particular. Inside, the building opens to a large sky-lit performance hall covered floor to ceiling in Andalusian tile. Five days a week, the walls ring with the sounds of the Rashidiyya chorus rehearsing. In a nod to tradition, the vocal chorus, unlike the instrumentalists, rehearses without written music, following the lead of a maluf master, Tahar Gharsa, on 'ud. Apprentice musicians sit in on rehearsals for as long as two years before they are allowed to join the chorus.

Vocalist Chakri Hannachi, known throughout the Arab world for his recordings Ba Younek (1993) and La La Wallah (1994), studied for 10 years at the Rashidiyya and sang in the chorus. Though he is more likely to be heard singing international Arab classical music, he locates the source of his art close to home. "The maluf is the source for all Tunisian artists," he says. "And the Rashidiyya provided the basis of my art."

The impact of the Rashidiyya has gone far beyond simple preservation of the maluf. In the period surrounding Tunisian independence in 1957, the nation was eagerly searching for symbols of common identity. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's recently deceased first president, recognized the unifying potential of the maluf and was quick to support and expand the work of the Rashidiyya.

Salah el-Mahdi, by then director of the Rashidiyya Orchestra, was selected to compose the Tunisian national anthem. El-Mahdi's music theory likewise became the cornerstone of the curriculum of the newly formed national conservatory as well as its successor, the Institut Superieur, which is now part of the national university. For 18 years el-Mahdi also led a department of music and popular arts in the fledgling Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which featured programs to spread the teaching of the maluf through an extensive network of youth centers, cultural centers, and popular-arts schools. And professional musicians were—and still are—required to obtain a "qualifying card," which in turn requires a test of the musicians' knowledge of maluf.

The card does not, however, require that musicians feature or incorporate maluf into their own work. On the contrary, most musicians these days are drawn to popular forms from elsewhere in the Arab world—especially Egypt. And when the maluf surfaces, it may differ greatly from the "official" maluf of the Rashidiyya.

On a cool evening during Ramadan, most of the Tunis madina is transformed as the festival-like daytime crush of people slows to an erratic trickle of residents making solitary darts from one door to the next. But from the Hatters' Market come the sounds of a party, and there waiters in round, flat red hats and striped, collarless shirts pick their way through a dense crowd of people at round tables who are smoking fruit tobacco from water pipes and drinking tea laced with almonds or pine nuts. At the far end, hemmed in by a crowd of dancing men, the group Al Jazira floats the sound of an urgent violin on a turbulent current of tar, darbukka and bandir pulsing in double-time. The dancers close their eyes, open their arms, and enter the current. "I believe this is still the real maluf,'" says Habib Boual-legue, the violin player for the group, all of whom have studied at the Rashidiyya. "We play right out of the 13 nubat," he says. "We bring people the classical Tunisian songs in a way that brings them to their feet."

Salah el-Mahdi might frown on identifying such performances with the maluf. Still, though he's now retired from all official positions, he remains focused on his lifelong mission to expand and popularize the maluf. In addition to maintaining a busy private teaching schedule with more than 20 students in his own conservatory, el-Mahdi stays in close contact with governmental as well as art and intellectual circles, and his message is undiluted. "We're at a low point in maluf preservation now," el-Mahdi insists as he shuffles through stacks of paper, music, and appointment books on the desk in his studio office, searching for a lost note. The walls are crammed with awards, honors, and an international collection of photographs showing him with presidents, prime ministers and kings. "If we care for the survival of the maluf, then we must create musical troupes in our high schools." To this end, el-Mahdi has proposed to the Ministry of Education that four hours a week be set aside each Friday for compulsory maluf education in the schools. "We must not underestimate the importance of this," he says, pausing in his paper shuffle to make eye contact. "If maluf survives, then we Tunisians will remain Tunisians."

As a legacy, el-Mahdi has composed four modern nubat, each a monumental undertaking, to add to the traditional repertory of 13. Each year in July he attends the International Festival of Arab Music in Testour, where he urges composers to continue to add to the repertory—but to date, only two others have tackled the task of composing a complete nuba. "Many have tried and failed," he says, "but it is essential to the life of the tradition that we keep trying."

These days most of Tunisia's classical musicians use the maluf as a stepping stone to the exploration of the wider world of Arab or western music, but it remains a solid, universal first step. The cultural centers and schools of popular arts all also teach other forms of Arab classical music now, but the curricula still begin with a foundation in the maluf, beginning with singing the maqamat, progressing to playing the iqaat on the tar, and finally learning excerpts from the maluf on stringed instruments. Amateur classical-music clubs, like the Farabi Club and the all-woman Taqasim Orchestra, abound, and they tour to festivals around the world, playing maluf as a small part of a much wider Arab repertoire.

"I like maluf. I teach maluf. I understand maluf. When I play with the Rashidiyya I have a feeling of national pride—but my interests are much broader," says Khadija El Afrit, a star qanun student at the Institut Superieur and a member of the Taqasim Ensemble and the Rashidiyya Orchestra. "There are not so many new things for me to discover there. The maluf must grow. It needs new compositions and interpretations. Part of the problem is the small audience for maluf."

El Afrit is a serious musician. When not distracted by teaching or rehearsing she devotes up to eight hours of the day to her instrument. Like many of her peers at the Institut, El Afrit looks to the Sorbonne as her next educational step. She says she is intrigued by what's new in maluf, such as the experimental compositions of Nassar Samoud, who composes in the Tunisian maqamat but includes pop iqaat along with the traditional, orthodox ones.

On the street, young people echo the desire for innovation. "The problem with the maluf is that it hasn't kept up with modern life," says Muhammad Laribi, a student from Tozeur in southern Tunisia. "Modern life is complicated. All life's rhythms are changing—our environments, our clothes, our hairstyles. I like the rhythms of the maluf. It's calm. But young people are looking for musical rhythms that keep up with the beat of modern times."

Rabiaa Zammouri, a graduate of the Institut Superieur, is a young composer for television, radio, and stage who works to bring traditional music into modern times. Seated at a large wooden desk in his home studio, Zammouri, surrounded by a museum-like collection of string and percussion instruments, moves back and forth between the key-boards of his Intel 75 PC and his Korg X5 synthesizer. The two are connected in a haphazard-looking crisscross of wires through an Ensoniq ASR 10 Sampler, some microphones, and a large Roland amplifier at his feet. "And this still isn't enough to make the music in my mind," he says.

Zammouri has the slow-burning fire of the rebel in his eyes as he dims the lights and plays one of his compositions. It's the soundtrack for a promotional television piece for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), one of Zammouri's clients. He turns up the volume. Out of the silence rises the beat of a darbukka in the btaihi iqa. It's joined a few seconds later by a solo violin in the sika maqam. A few moments later the pair is confronted with a percussive piano in counterpoint to both the rhythm and the mode. The effect is seamless, innovative, and decidedly modern—distinctly Tunisian, traditional, and, at the same time, cosmopolitan.

"Those who understand the maluf know that it is very rich," Zammouri says. "But the classical maluf is related to a special period in history when people could only play the maluf; now we must open up to other forms of music. We cannot confine our inspiration to the past." The benefits, he says, go both ways. "I extract from the maluf that which blends with western music. In this way I think I can bring innovation to the West through my music."

Another of Zammouri's maluf-inspired compositions was commissioned by Sihem Belkhoja, Tunis's premier modern-dance choreographer. Belkhoja used the composition for a piece called "Iqa," which she says was intended to "touch the underlying rhythms of our Arab culture, and maluf is a faithful language of translation for our Arab culture."

Dance is not traditionally associated with maluf, so any choreography represents a startling innovation in the genre. "Our Muslim arts are rooted in music, architecture and poetry," Belkhoja says. "The concept of dance doesn't fit into old Arab traditions. For a strong foundation for dance, as a modern art, we must turn to music."

Belkhoja's dancers are carefully costumed and lit. They jump, turn, roll, crawl and stomp their way around the stage in the international freeform style of modern dance. It's a long way from the Rashidiyya. "I use maluf because a contemporary art must reach into tradition for a faithful approach to modern society," Belkhoja says. Artistic growth begins at the roots, but the ultimate survival of the art depends on the growth. "Music and dance," she says, "these are living arts. Innovation is preservation."

That is the lifelong story of the maluf, evolving through centuries of migration and cultural influences into a nation's binding musical vocabulary. In the early years of independence, when the freshly notated nubat were at last gathered for publication, Salah el-Mahdi wrote that, in the maluf, "we see to what extent Tunisia has been a crossroads of cultures and of schools, retaining and incorporating into her venerable heritage that which suits the disposition of her people, and enriching that heritage by what her sons produce. Thus there is a beneficial give and take, and this is the way of God with creation."

Thorne Anderson is an American free-lance journalist and closet musician based in the Balkans. His recent projects include youth culture in Belgrade and Chinese immigration in Serbia. He can be reached at [email protected] .


Maluf Glossary
Written by Thorne Anderson

Fergah: instrumental section of a nuba; literally, "empty" in Arabic

Iqa (plural: iqaat): rhythmic patterns, often based on the rhythms of qasidah poetry

Maqam (plural: maqamat): mode; an Arab system of pitch organization which allows for the construction of melodies and improvisation within a scale. The maqam determines the opening, final and prominent notes, as well as characteristic phrases and melodic flow, of a nuba

Muwashshah: a "post-classical" singing form not rigidly governed by the qasidah, thought to have originated in the Middle East and the Maghreb, and integrated into the music of Al-Andalus in the 10th century

Nuba (plural: nubat): a two-part "musical suite" in a single mode or maqam. Thirteen nubat make up the core repertory of the Tunisian maluf

Qasidah: classical Arabic poetry form found in nuba lyrics

Shgul: traditional singing, "elaborate," as the name implies

Taqsim: non-metric improvisational fergah; each nuba contains one taqsim played, by tradition, in a maqam which differs from the maqam of the rest of the nuba

Tarab: the intense connection between audience and performer in an ideal musical performance

Zajal: a newer poetic genre using special dialectical forms found in maluf lyrics



Bandir: hand-held round frame drum with snares lining the underside of the drum skin

Darbukka: goblet-shaped drum known elsewhere in the world as durbekki, dumbek, or tarambukka

Gimbri: a banjo-like instrument which disappeared from maluf in the 20th century

Naqqarat: small kettle drums attached in pairs, used less in modern times

Nay: airy-sounding diagonal bamboo flute, open at each end, with seven holes; the only wind instrument in Arab "art music"

Qanun (pronounced kan-NOON): trapezoidal zither with 26 rows of triple strings whose pitch may be modulated by flipping up or down one of dozens of tiny bridges, called orab, which effectively lengthen or shorten the vibrating portion of the string. Once almost extinct in Tunisia, the qanun is undergoing a revival

Rabab: two-stringed upright fiddle, all but vanished from Tunisian music, thought by some to have been the precursor of the European violin

Tar: tambourine

'Ud 'arbi (pronounced ood): fretless lute with four doubled strings, sometimes called the "Tunisian lute"

'Ud sharqi: fretless, pear-shaped Arab lute with six doubled strings, sometimes called the "oriental lute"



This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the July/August 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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