North African music – Rhinegold Publishing

North African music


It was May 2004 when I landed at Tripoli Airport (Libya) – the land of petroleum, vast deserts, high temperatures that in 1922 even reached 57.8 °C, and never-ending coasts bordering the Mediterranean sea. Together with the other passengers, I headed on to the arrival lounge for passport checking. After queuing for a while it was my turn to approach the arrival’s desk.

‘What are you here for?’ asked the soldier at the desk, with a somewhat suspicious look at my passport. ‘I’m here to research Libyan music,’ I replied without divulging much detail. ‘Interesting! What will you be researching in music here?’ he asked, this time, with a slightly brighter look and lighter tone. ‘I’m mainly interested in Arabic classical music,’ I replied, ‘however, I’m not excluding Libyan folk music as well while I’m here.’ ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘Andalusian music. We have big orchestras here performing that music with
violins, cellos and Arab instruments as well. The greatest artist for ma’lūf here is Hassan Araibi. He’s known all over the Arab world ….’

He could have continued talking enthusiastically about the ma’lūf and the chief exponents of the tradition if not for the other passengers. It was quite an encouraging start. This article will unfold quite similarly to the way my first trip to Libya progressed. Although my main interest was in learning about the ma’lūf in Libya, this also brought me in touch with other musical genres, forms and musical practices diffused both in Libya as well as in neighbouring north African countries (mainly Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco) and the Arab world more widely. This article provides information about these, including suggested listening resources, along with performance and research activities and ideas for class discussion.

This trip, and the several others that followed, helped me experience and understand not just the music as sound but, moreover, the musicians that make it, and its role and meaning in Muslim societies and cultures at large.

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