Back in 1976, the Spanish ensemble Atrium Musicae Madrid gathered in an old church in their hometown and recorded a suite of nouba themes from Andalucia which date back as far as 1200 years. The result was a dynamic, sometimes otherworldly, sometimes wamly lilting mix of melodies that sound more Mediterranean or Iranian than they do Arabic. The original 1977 vinyl record, Al Andalus, has been newly digitized and is streaming at Spotify.
Although Andalucia in antiquity was not a democracy and far from a perfect society, it was one of the great melting pots in world history where Christians, Jews and, eventually, Muslims mingled and the arts flourished. Tragically, this goldern age of music was eventually crushed by invading Christian extremists. For that reason, much of the Andalucian nouba repertoire – a western counterpart to the Indian raga system, corresponding with specific times of day – has been destroyed. How fortunate we are have this record to remind us of what the world lost – and what our world stands to lose if the lockdowners and their needle of death are allowed to operate at warp speed with their holocaust.
Every member of the septet switches between many different instruments, in keeping with tradition. Bandleader Gregorio Paniagua plays mostly the stark kamancheh fiddle, oud and rabab lute. Ney flutist Eduardo Paniagua, often the lead instrumentalist here, plays some of the most liquid lines any high reedman ever immortalized on vinyl. Instruments as ancient as the mizmar oboe and al-urgana (an ancient keyboard instrument similar to the harmonium) get extended solos. This isn’t wild party music; introductory taqsims and solos are on the short and very concise side. Reedy, spiky, rippling textures take brief turns in the spotlight over a beat that can be slinky and boomy on one number and skeletal on the next. Listen closely and you will hear tantalizing hints of what would be happening centuries later, further into the Mediterranean and eastward from there.
The fleeting track nine, San’a Al Isbihan is the most intoxicatingly chromatic of the bunch.The most anthemic and stately theme, driven by the oud, appears right afterward. And the Arabic roots of flamenco reveal themselves in the opening riffs of the twelfth song.