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Changüi to Invade the Cuban East

(Prensa Latina- Cumbancha) Guantánamo, Cuba – Chords from the “tres” guitar, marimba and maracas sound almost every day in different corners of Guantánamo city, venue for the First National Festival of Changüi to be held December 20 to 24, 2003. Helped by the “güiro,” the instruments identify this style of “Son,” created in the 19 century in the Eastern Cuban mountains; Changüi will be paid a deserved homage this year, along with its architect par excellence, late orchestra director Elio Revé Matos.

For two centuries, this rhythm has been the favorite dance music of farmers in the region that includes what are today the municipalities of Guantanamo, Baracoa, Yateras, El Salvador and Manuel Tames. The gatherings among musicians, dancers and experts will be a prelude to the theory workshop to be held during the Festival, dealing with different topics related to Changüi, the semantic and morphological aspects of the term, and the Loma del Chivo folklore.

Reve Matos (1930-1997) lived his childhood and most of his adolescence in a downtown neighborhood of Guantanamo, Cuba’s fifth biggest city. In his memory a monument will be raised during the celebrations. The versatile musician was the creator of the El Charangon orchestra, and he is considered the first to add kettledrums and unthinkable electronic elements to Changüí.


Indonesian Music

Indonesia’s music is as diverse as its people. Best known abroad are the Javanese and Balinese orchestras generally called gamelan, which consist largely of gongs and other metallophones, but gamelan is only one aspect (albeit an impressive one) of the whole. Solo and group singing and solo instrumental music (played typically on flute, shawm, plucked or bowed lute, plucked zither, or xylophone) are found everywhere, as are ensembles of mixed instruments and ensembles dominated by instruments of a single type (most commonly flutes, drums, xylophones, zithers, or gongs).

Much of this music may be termed traditional in the sense that its scales, idioms and repertoires do not in any obvious way derive from European/American or Middle Eastern (or other foreign) music. Nevertheless, some of the most prominent and commercially successful genres of popular music definitely do derive from foreign sources but since these are sung in Indonesian, disseminated nationwide through cassettes and the mass media, and avidly consumed by millions of Indonesians, they must certainly be considered Indonesian, regardless of their foreign roots. Finally, along with the indigenous and the clearly imported, there are many hybrid forms that mix traditional and foreign elements in delightful and unpredictable ways.

Indonesian music description courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.


What is Flamenco?

by Marie Jost

…an Andalusian loves flamenco because it is beyond any definition, any law–accepting as it does every style, modality, cadence, sound and rhythm…because each individual who dances, plays or sings flamenco can interpret it as he wishes, and no one more so than that individual. Flamenco is Tartesian, Persian, Byzantine, and probably Ancient Greek, too. It is Mozarabic and Latin and, in being all of these, it is something more flamenco is no more than what its most recent interpreter wanted it to be.

Eugenio Noel, Martín el de la Paula en Alcalá de los Panaderos. Madrid: La Novela Mundial, 1926.

Many new to flamenco typically ask, “What is flamenco?” This might seem like a simple question, one that could be answered with a few formulas, a short list of essential features that, taken as a whole, defines flamenco. The reality of flamenco is far from this simple, tidy picture.

In truth, there is not one flamenco, there are many flamencos. Flamenco exists in both space and time, changing from locale to locale and from epoch to epoch. By its very nature, flamenco is a mass of contradictions: it is a traditional art form passed down orally from one generation to the next, often within family dynasties, but it is only about 200 years old and is a constantly changing hybrid. Also, while it is a regional and an oral art form, it is not a folk art.

Flamenco singing and guitar playing are not taught in conservatories, though theatrical flamenco dance has been taught since the nineteenth century in dance academies, and today has attained a breathtaking virtuosity that has nothing to do with the technically subdued but highly expressive pueblo dancing that is still the backbone of so many flamenco fiestas. Flamenco is associated in the popular imagination with the Gypsies of Andalusia, though non-Gypsy artists have been every bit as important in the evolution of the art form, and the entire fandango family developed largely apart from the heavily Gypsy-influenced styles that developed in and around Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera and Seville.

Flamenco is a way of life for many of Andalusia’s Gypsies and plays a prominent role in all their important celebrations, yet it has been a highly professionalized art since the nineteenth century, presented before enthusiastic paying non-Gypsy audiences since the early years of that century. In the end, rather than trying to define flamenco, the intention here is to describe some of its most characteristic features, always realizing that for every “typical”element enumerated, there exists one or more common exceptions to this or any rule. Flamenco is a moving target, restless, never static for long, lovingly preserving the past, yet looking expectantly toward the future. For every aficionado of flamenco you ask “What is flamenco?”, you will receive a different and often contradictory answer. Just as the Sufi is taught there are as many paths to God as there are souls on the earth, there are as many kinds of flamenco as there are flamencos.

Although flamenco cannot readily be defined, there is much about it that is typical, usual or customary, and this can be described to give a picture of some of the most common features of the art form. Much ink has been spilled on the origins of flamenco, from the date when flamenco can first be said to exist as a distinguishable and recognizable art form (the most common arguments place the date anywhere from the Fifteenth Century (or earlier) to the 1860s), to the role of Gypsies in the formation and popularization of flamenco, to establishing the canon of accepted (and acceptable) song forms. In fact, there is very little that can be said for certain about flamenco. We do know that it originated in Andalusia.

The first documents that feature eye-witness accounts of something that is recognizably flamenco date from the first half of the nineteenth century. The use of the term flamenco to designate the art form and its performers is even later, scholars have dated its first appearance in print to the 1860s. Yet there are theories, especially by those who champion the Gypsy origins and development of flamenco, crediting the Gypsies with the creation of flamenco within their family circles during the eighteenth century (if not before). Unfortunately scholars have been unable to document this theory, though there is some logic to the argument that anything developed within Gypsy family circles and not presented to a non-Gypsy public would have had little chance of showing up in the documentary record since the Gypsies themselves were largely illiterate.

Both Gypsies and non-Gypsies seem to have been involved in the development of flamenco as a performing art. Certainly today over half of professional flamenco performers are non-Gypsy, and in every era there have been major figures who have not been Gypsy. But the Gypsy contribution, especially in terms of interpretation, has been significant in every age. The rise of flamenco itself has been tied by some scholars to a vogue for Gypsy style clothing, language and music championed by certain members of the aristocracy beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century. Certainly there is ample evidence of Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike adopting a flamenco lifestyle, one heavily influenced from its inception by Gypsies and many of their habits and characteristics. Although until the 1970s there were always two different interpretative traditions in flamenco–one Gypsy, the other non-Gypsy—since the 1970s there has been an overwhelming triumph of the Gypsy style of flamenco.

While flamenco cannot be neatly defined, certain basic and typical elements can be identified. The most basic element of flamenco is the voice. Without the voice, or at least the corpus of song forms derived from the singing tradition, there can be no flamenco. A lone singer, accompanied only by hand claps, finger snapping or table rapping, or simply the naked voice, can be the quintessence of flamenco. The guitar has been accompanying flamenco since the nineteenth century and has developed certain techniques and accompaniment styles in concert with the development of the singing style. Contrary to what many foreigners believe, dance is not the motor that drives flamenco. The musical forms that the dances are set to all derive from the singing tradition. The musical structure derives in every case from song: guitar and dance are rooted in flamenco song.

There are several different types of flamenco performances characterized by different venues, and even different audiences. The most basic performance type is the juerga or party. A juerga can simply be a collection of a few musicians–singers, a guitarist or two, and perhaps a few knowledgeable non-performers. Dancing may occur, though it will be impromptu and informal and will bear little resemblance to what would be presented in a flamenco stage production. Often the singers and guitarists will dance a bit as part of a juerga, at other times non-professional dancers will spontaneously get up and dance and occasionally professional dancers will dance, but in the more informal fiesta style. This more informal type of flamenco is also part of Gypsy celebrations such as baptisms and weddings. Some of the more elastic flamenco song types, generally bulerías and tangos, will be sung and danced to for hours on end. Again, the focus is on spontaneous performances by party goers who may or may not be professional performers. The emphasis is on self-expression, wit, playfulness and spontaneity. Prodigious technique, theatrical effects, and highly structured productions are not the focus of a fiesta.

Already by the 1840s, there is written evidence that flamenco was performed for paying spectators. During the course of the nineteenth century, more formal venues, in particular music halls and theaters, became the most usual place for paying audiences to experience flamenco. Performing groups were formed of one or more singers , a couple of guitarists and a group of dancers. There is a mix of singing accompanied by guitar, guitar solos and dance accompanied by voice and guitar, with quite a bit of emphasis given to the dance. Although these dance numbers are more highly structured than those spontaneous dances performed at juergas or fiestas, and there is greater emphasis on technique, still the performers have a certain degree of freedom within the overall agreed upon structure. For example, when a tablao group presents an alegrías, all of the performers know what metrical and harmonic structure is most typical of that song form. Alegrías have particular melodies associated with them and the lyrics have a specific poetic meter. The dance por alegrías traditionally contains certain sections that often come in a particular order, though there is some flexibility. Because the basic elements are common knowledge between all of the performers, and certain signals are commonly used to communicate between them, tablao performers can perform together with minimal rehearsal. This is the type of flamenco most often seen in flamenco night clubs in Spain.

Since the 1920s, highly choreographed theatrical productions have become increasingly common. In such productions the emphasis is on dancing, and often the dancing itself is at the service of a highly developed plot. A complex choreography is created, often set to specially selected or composed music. The performers have less room for spontaneous improvisation (or none at all), for in these productions there is great emphasis on flamenco as a dramatic art form like opera or ballet, in which the plot, choreography, music, costumes and set design all work together to communicate a consciously designed experience to the audience. This is flamenco as a theatrical art, one presented before a large audience that often has little or no understanding of flamenco.

One of the most notable individuals associated with this type of theatrical flamenco has been Antonio Gades, whose works have been superbly documented by director Carlos Saura in a trilogy of dramatic dance films (“Blood Wedding”, “Carmen”, and “El Amor Brujo”). The dance technique of theatrical flamenco is worlds away from pueblo flamenco, though there is a clear connection with tablao flamenco, and the two styles have cross-fertilized to some extent. Yet for all the distance that divides theatrical flamenco dancing from the flamenco of a juerga or a fiesta, they all have in common the desire to communicate emotion directly and through the agency of the same flamenco song forms that are the basis of all flamenco.

These flamenco song forms are sometimes called “palos”. Palo simply means a stick in Spanish and perhaps refers to the wooden sticks that many flamenco singers performed with during the nineteenth century, sticks that they would sometimes rap on the floor as they sang to mark the compás. There are over a dozen flamenco palos. Among the most commonly performed today are alegrías, bulerías, tangos, fandangos, seguiriyas, soleá, soleá por bulerías, tarantos, martinete, saeta, malagueñas. There are other less commonly performed types, many of them derived from Andalusian folk music: bamberas, peteneras, farruca and fandangos de Huelva. There are also the so-called “cantes de ida y vuelta”, song types that went to the New World with the Conquistadors and Spanish settlers and returned at some point during the nineteenth century to be transformed into flamenco song forms, these include, among others, the milonga, rumba and guajiras. This plethora of different sources and song types has been characteristic of flamenco since the nineteenth century.

A palo is characterized by several features:

  • Compás–comprising both its musical meter and a particular pattern of accents within this metric structure.
  • Mode, key or scale. Flamenco is often modal music, though not exactly the accepted modes of Western music. There are also some examples of palos, or sections of palos, in major and minor keys.
  • Melody. Some flamenco palos, for example members of the cantiñas family, are associated with specific melodies. Other palos, like bulerías can and are sung to almost any melody, including popular songs transformed into the compás of bulerías.
  • Some palos are associated with characteristic lyrics, for example the petenera, whose lyrics speak of a woman named Petenera, or the bambera, whose lyrics tell of swinging on the bamba (an Andalusian word for swing). There are also certain lyrics normally sung por seguiriyas or soleá, and saetas have a religious text, sung as they are to the images processed in Holy Week.
  • Finally, each palo has a specific poetic meter to its verses that is, of course, compatible with the compás of the music.

Because of the rigidity of the compás in association with melody, and to a lesser extent lyrics, a performer or knowledgeable aficionado can identify the palo being performed before the end of the first sung line, and often before. The meter and the accent pattern quickly places the song into one of several compás families. The mode or key often further refines the identification. Finally the melody, characteristic guitar accompaniment and lyrics contribute to the positive identification. Seguiriyas will never be confused with malagueñas, nor bulerías with guajiras.

 It is quite frequent in Spanish to say that a singer or guitarist performs “in the style of”(por) a palo. For example, a singer sings por seguiriyas, meaning in a style that employs the characteristics of meter, compás, mode, melody and lyrics that are those of seguiriyas, and hence distinguishable from those of soleá, martinete, granainas, etc. Each flamenco palo is characterized by a number of commonly agreed upon elements. Taken together, these elements distinguish one palo from another. All a singer has to do is let the guitarist know he wants to sing por soleá, and the guitarist knows how to begin his guitar introduction. Once the singer begins singing his first line, the guitarist then identifies the specific melody the singer is singing and, from experience, knows how to accompany the singer. It is up to the guitarist to know the song tradition at least as well as the singer he is accompanying so that within seconds he can recognize what the singer is singing, and therefore accompany him appropriately. It must be remembered that flamenco is still an almost entirely oral tradition. The musicians are not working from any type of written musical notation, but are performing music that has been handed down orally from one generation to the next. This is beginning to change in recent years with the rise of flamenco compositions, especially on record albums. However, many of these songs have now become part of the oral repertory and are sung together with traditional verses and melodies in the same song.

So, we return again to the question: What is flamenco? Perhaps flamenco is not beyond description, though it might be, as Eugenio Noel believed, beyond definition. There is a corpus of commonly agreed upon characteristics that distinguish the flamenco palos from one another and create distinctions within flamenco as a whole. But these characteristics themselves are not flamenco. Flamenco is first and foremost an expression of the human heart. The formal elements of flamenco should ideally always be at the service of this expression: mutable, if necessary, to more fully explore our human experience.

While flamenco was born and grew to maturity in a certain time and place, it has transcended its origins to be recognized as an art form of universal appeal, one expressing the universal concerns of human experience, an art form that speaks to hearts from Tokyo to Topeka, from Sydney to Seville. The power of flamenco derives from its of social and geographical focalization combined with its exploration of general human concerns. Some modes of communication still lie beyond the boundaries of conventional language, communicating in ways that are more direct, more truthful: speaking the language of the heart and soul. To be touched deeply by flamenco, you need not know the difference between bulerías and alegrías all that is required is an open heart, one ready to be moved by the passion for living expressed with such naked conviction in this art.


An Introduction to Flamenco Cante

Camarón de la Isla - Photo by Mario Pacheco
Camarón de la Isla – Photo by Mario Pacheco


Flamenco has been graced by performers of great talent since its earliest days. The oldest account of a flamenco performance mentions two masters of flamenco song, El Planeta and his young follower, El Fillo. Already in 1842, the dawn of professional flamenco, performers were famous for their singing style and repertory, as is the case today. Because of its intense history, flamenco is replete with performers past and present, a bewildering maze of names and nicknames. There exist numerous accounts of the history of flamenco song that detail the basic events and figures in the history of cante. This is not such an accountrather, what you have here is an initial introduction to some of the most important artists currently available on CD. This is intended to be a guide to orient those new to flamenco cante. It represents a personal selection of some of the best in flamenco from the present and recent past, together with the historical figures that form the foundation of flamenco today. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to begin exploring flamenco cante. At the end, there is also a listing of several seminal anthologies and some of the best compilations and reissue series currently on the market.

The Three Pillars of Twentieth Century Cante

The twentieth century produced three pillars of flamenco cante: Antonio Mairena, Manolo Caracol and Camarón de la Isla. These three are without a doubt the most influential artists of this century and are constant points of reference for performers today.

Antonio Mairena possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of flamenco and dedicated his life to rescuing from oblivion and corruption what he deemed to be the truest expression of the Andalusian Gypsy soul—flamenco song. Antonio Mairena was one of the most knowledgeable flamenco performers who ever lived and he promoted his vision of flamenco through a vigorous recording career. He inspired many with his vision of flamenco’s roots and he helped to popularize a Gypsy-style cante at a time when it had little favor with the general public. Mairena’s recordings are always correct, tasteful and measured, and often revealed the fruit of his research into earlier cante: his is a Classic Flamenco.

Manolo Caracol was a contemporary of Antonio Mairena and a very different type of performer. Caracol was at the forefront of combining the flamenco of his day with popular musical forms. He was one of the stars of the opera flamenca era when large flamenco productions were presented in theaters all over Spain and Europe and in films. These were spectacles featuring singers, dancers and musicians, and typically included piano accompaniment and full orchestra. These productions were the antithesis of the type of intimate traditional Gypsy flamenco that Antonio Mairena was championing. Caracol’s singing style was also quite different from Mairena’s. In place of the correct and measured singing of Mairena, Caracol gave primacy to the emotional impact of a song and was willing to sacrifice a great deal to achieve a heightened emotional effect. But Caracol also had a deep and intimate knowledge of Gypsy cante, coming from an incomparable flamenco Gypsy clan in Seville. Some of Caracol’s finest recordings chronicle this traditional flamenco, sung only to guitar accompaniment, though sung in Caracol’s own heightened emotion-laden style. Until recently, flamenco artists chose their champion: they were either a Mairenista or a Caracolista. On many counts, the two styles were perceived to be the antithesis of one another.

The last of the three pillars of twentieth century flamenco song, and the only one born in the second half of the twentieth century, was a Gypsy by the name of Camarón de la Isla. In his short career of some twenty odd years, Camarón revolutionized cante. With his partner, guitarist Paco de Lucía, Camarón set flamenco on a new path, one it continues to follow today. Camarón began as a traditional flamenco singer influenced by the emotional style of Caracol, though also respectful of the encyclopedic approach of Mairena. (Camarón’s first nine recordings present an impressive array of flamenco song styles.) But it was the early and mid-1970s, both Camarón and Paco de Lucía were in their twenties and were part of the youth revolution that was sweeping even Franco’s Spain.

Camarón and Paco had a vision of flamenco that was broader and more expansive than that of traditionalists like Antonio Mairena. They wanted flamenco to appeal to young people and to people who had never cared about flamenco before. They were hip young men sporting the latest fashions and wanted to break the stereotype of flamenco as something of interest only to their parents’ generation. So Camarón began to sing lighter material—especially bulerías and tangos—but imbued with a deep emotional undercurrent communicated through his extraordinary voice. This is music that has profoundly effected every performer under the age of 40 (and more than a few over 40)but no one has ever equaled the audacious vision of flamenco, the ability to communicate with any and all audiences no matter how distant from traditional flamenco, nor the charisma and genius of Camarón. Even the way traditional flamenco palos are sung has been noticeably affected by Camarón’s legacy down to the very vocal technique employed by artists today. Truly Camarón revolutionized every aspect of flamenco cante, and his influence continues to dominate flamenco even today, six years after his untimely death in 1992 at the age of 41.

The Titans

There are other immortals of twentieth century cante, though they belong to an older generation and were the masters that Mairena and Caracol looked to. All of these artists were born in the nineteenth century and represent a direct link to the flamenco of that century. They were also the first generation of flamenco artists able to leave a recorded testimony of their art. These were the titans of flamenco cante, and they still influence artists today.

La Niña de los Peines was one of the most prodigious and inventive flamenco singer who ever lived. She popularized several flamenco song forms, most notably the petenera and bambera. She revolutionized the tangos of her day, transformed the soleá, was noted for her seguiriyas and saetas, and generally sang everything well. She also recorded prolifically, her discography extending from the 1910s to the 1950s. She is undoubtedly the greatest female flamenco artist who ever lived, and she has influenced every generation of flamenco singers from her contemporaries right down to the 20-something daughter of Enrique Morente, one of the brightest young lights on today’s flamenco scene.

A contemporary of La Niña de los Peines was Manuel Torre. He was a masterful singer from Jerez de la Frontera, a cradle of Gypsy cante, and was particularly known for his seguiriyas that have inspired all succeeding generations of flamenco singers, as well as for saetas, soleares, cantes de Levante and fandangos. He was especially famous for his powerful delivery and his ability, sadly not captured on his surviving recordings, to inspire intense emotional states in his listeners. His influence extends far beyond Gypsy singers and continues to influence the flamenco singers of today, and his recordings are a touchstone of cante jondo.

Another important figure whose career spanned the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century was Antonio Chacón. He was the major non-Gypsy singer of his age and a pupil of the greatest non-Gypsy singer of the nineteenth century, Silverio Franconetti. In many ways Franconetti was responsible for first shaping the flamenco tradition that has come down to us today. Chacón took the work of Silverio Franconetti and other singers of that era as his starting point and created a very personal flamenco that was intensely popular in his day. His singing style, a high falsetto, was the antithesis of the styles of Manuel Torre or La Niña de los Peines, with an emphasis on sweetness and flights of vocal virtuosity.


Enrique Morente
Enrique Morente


Chacón inspired a legion of followers who created the vogue for personal fandangos that characterized the opera flamenca era. Although some of his followers may have displayed less than good taste and a want of musical judgment, Chacón himself was an extraordinary performer and creator. The particular style of singing favored by Chacón fell out of favor with the revaluation of Gypsy-style cante championed by Mairena that triumphed in the 1960s and 70s, but there are still singers today who carry on the legacy of Chacón. One of the most notable is Enrique Morente, who received Chacón’s legacy directly from singers like Pepe el de la Matrona and Bernardo de los Lobitos, who in turn learned from and emulated Chacón in their early years.

Although Morente sings very differently from Chacón, favoring a Gypsy-style delivery even though Morente is not a Gypsy, yet the particular song forms created by Chacón and the lyrics associated with them survive in the repertory of this contemporary singer. Indeed, with the death of Camarón, Morente is the single most influential flamenco singer today. His work is widely hailed by critics and, though he is not the most popular artist on the scene today in terms of record sales, his work is a touchstone for younger performers. Morente is continually searching for new modes of expression for flamenco in the contemporary world. His recordings range from highly orthodox renditions of traditional cante to bold experiments that mix flamenco with rock music, the lyrics of major Spanish poets, popular musical styles from the New World, world music and even classical music. Yet despite the diversity of his musical output, it all bears the distinctive personality of Morente.

Other Noteworthy Artists

In addition to these universally acknowledged artists, there are dozens of important contemporary flamenco singers whose recordings are well worth seeking out.


Remedios Amaya


José de la Tomasa

El Lebrijano

Carmen Linares

Chano Lobato

Mayte Martín

Jose Menese

Jose Mercé

Ginesa Ortega


La Paquera de Jerez

El Pele

Miguel Poveda


María Soleá

Vicente Soto

Juanito Villar

There are also many older artists, now retired or deceased, who transmit the flamenco tradition ably and masterfully in their currently available recordings:

Bernarda de Utrera

Fernanda de Utrera


Pepe el de la Matrona

Pericón de Cádiz

La Perla de Cádiz

Rafael Romero

Manuel Soto, El Sordera

Juan Talega


Tío Gregorio el Borrico

Paco Toronjo

Miguel Vargas

Anthologies and Reissue Series

In the 1950s, interest in the flamenco of an earlier era, before the opera flamenca period, found expression. This is when the first of the flamenco anthologies of cante was recorded. The 1954 Hispavox Antología del Cante Flamenco was a watershed in flamenco history. An attempt was made on that anthology to record a wide range of flamenco song forms, including some that were in danger of being forgotten. Currently there are several other important anthologies on the market in addition to the Hispavox Anthology, which is now available on CD.

Antología de Cantaores Flamencos (15 CDs), EMI, 1991

Duende (3 CDs), Ellipsis Arts, 1994

El Cante Flamenco. Antología histórica (3 vols), Philips, 1987

Flamencología (7 CDs)

Magna Antología del Cante Flamenco (10 vols.), Hispavox, 1992

Medio Siglo de Cante Flamenco (4 CDs), Arioloa, 1988.

Historia del Flamenco (5 hardback books, 40 CDs), 1996

In addition to these anthologies, there are assorted compilation and reissue series currently available that are noteworthy for the wide variety of performers and styles and the quality of their performances.

Cultura Jonda (22 CDs)

Figuras del Flamenco (10 CDs)

Flamenco Viejo (14 CDs)

Grandes Cantaores del Flamenco

Grandes Figures du Flamenco (Chant du Monde) (20 CDs)

Universal, Grabaciones Históricas 2×1 (50 CDs)


The Musical Pulse of Tunisia

By Thorne Anderson

(From the Saudi Aramco World magazine July/August 2001 issue. Reproduced by courtesy of Aramco World Magazine)


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 Spirit – 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 speaker 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 Tunisian 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 kink 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 bac-2, rhythms while the second is dominated by bace-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.  “Its beautiful to think about,” says Jamel Abid, and 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-Fihi, 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 felling 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 8,000 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, the, 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, directory 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 compositions.  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 ground-breaking 1932 International Congress of Arabic Music,
hosted in Cairo by King Faud 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 reservation of the maluf through radio performance, 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 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 miliated against the spontaneity of improvisation and favored an agree-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 the 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 on a 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 lead 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 an “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 are waiters in round, flat red hats and stripped, 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 Bouallegue, the violin player of 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 tasks 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

I like maluf.  I teach maluf.  I understand maluf.  When I play with the
Rashidiyya I have a feeling of national pride – but my interest 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 include
pop iqaat along with the traditional, orthodox ones.

On the street, young people echo the desire for innovation.  “The problems 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, in 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 microphone, 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 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 here is
a beneficial give and take, and this is the way of God with creation


Zouk: Rhythm of the Lesser Antilles

This article first appeared in the Spanish magazine Nueva Música, which was published in Seville. It reappears exclusively on with permission from the editors. The text has been edited to update it. Author: Carlos Galilea. Translated by: Angel Romero.

They are two small islands of that Caribbean sea reminiscent of lost paradises. Dreams of rum, of white sand beaches and transparent waters, of available bodies and sensual dances. There, where music is always presentin the buses, in the stores and, indeed, in the Saturday night dances. In the neighboring islands, Spanish and English are the dominating languages, but in these isles people speak French and Creol, a mix of French with some English words and African syntax that the slaves, arrived from different parts of Africa, invented in order to communicate. The names of these islands: Martinique and Guadalupe. Barely 2,800 square Km and little more than 650 thousand inhabitants between both islands (although there are just as many living in continental France). And, they, however, have been able to generate music whose trail can be followed through most of the planet.Of the natives that populated the islands before Columbus arrived to their coasts, there are hardly any remains. Guadalupe and Martinique are now daughters of Africa and Europe. In 1946 they ceased to be French colonies in order to be converted to a French department. A paradoxical situation, since geographically it belongs to the American continent and, on the other hand, its economy is integrated in the European Union. In spite of a rate of unemployment four times superior to which there is in the French mainland, and aside from problems of political identity, they possess a standard of life superior to that of the immense majority of the Caribbean islands. Nothing to do with the insulting poverty of other places that are supposedly a holiday paradise.

Talking about music in Martinique and Guadalupe means talking about the ‘biguine’
that was born from the promiscuity of European and African forms. It was performed
in its early stages by an orchestra that featured clarinet, trombone, banjo
and a drum, that showed clear similarities with the small jazz bands in New
Orleans. It is the same ‘biguine’ that was danced in the 1930s in Parisian clubs
like the Ba Negre or the Boule Blanche. But at the end of the 1950s, with the
first microgrooves and the first record players, the musical expressions characteristic
of the French Antilles were going to be literally demolished. Just like those
hurricanes that sweep the region with certain frequency, leaving a desolate
panorama in its aftermath. The orchestras from Haiti imposed their cadence and
compás relentlessly. Without forgetting the boleros
and sones arrived from the Spanish-speaking islands. It was that way until 1984.
It was during that period when a group called Kassav (the kassav is a mandioca
cake with coconut and sugar) was going to release a strange manifest in ‘Creol’:
Zouk-lase sel medikaman nou ni (zouk is the only medicine that we have).
The zouk were, at the beginning of the 20th century, some fiestas, popular dances
that were very ‘hot,’ to which, it seems, many gentlemen of the bourgeoisie
were accustomed to go without their wives. That is, a synonym for black music
and licentiousness. The local culture was seen then by the dominant class as
something worthless as long as it was associated with a culture that was supposedly
inferior. On the other hand, there were no aesthetic concerns in the zouk. Its
only purpose: that everybody danced until exhaustion.

What Kassav proposed, in the decade of the 1980s, with the name of zouk is an explosive rhythmic mixture: a magic cocktail with the ideal proportions of Haitian compás, calypso, funk, rock and traditional rhythms of the French West Indies. It is shaken conveniently with the help of technology in any sophisticated recording studio, and it is served in any dance hall. All those whose ears are tuned only to music from the English speaking countries should abstain. Although, as a curiosity, one could mention that Miles Davis admitted the pleasure that kassav gave him, in his autobiography, and that the New York Times has praised the music.

Kassav was the first Antillean group to receive a gold album, in 1986, gathering more than forty thousand people in a concert celebrated in the L’Anse-Bertrand stadium, in Guadalupe. In Paris, on June 21, of that same year, it would be three hundred thousand. The members of Kassav have performed in the main capitals of the globe. And, as penitence for French racists and as form of sarcasm, it is the French group that sells more CDs.

Jacob Desvarieux (1.80 meters tall, weighing 100 kg) says that “when the people went to the disco, they could not listen to Antillean music because the records didn’t sound well.”That, in fact, was one of the tricks of the group created by the siblings Pierre Edouard and George Decimus, and Jacob Desvarieux: achieving that their albums sounded in a way that they could compete in the radio stations and the discos with the most sophisticated products of the international record industry. And, also, as Desvarieux explained during that time, “we were able to find a type of music that has the rhythm of black music and the harmony of white musicthe base of the Antillean culture: the spirit of hybridization.”

After the trail of Kassav there are artists like Ralph Tamar, Tanya Saint-Val, Joelle Ursull, MariJose Alie or the women of Zouk Machine. Zouk seems to have taken over the pop charts in the French Antilles. Even, often, with recordings that repeat the same outlines, without much inspiration. But, surprisingly, its success has allowed the recovery of musical expressions that were considered unacceptable earlier, because of its ties with the times of slavery. So, syncopated rhythms like the chouval bwa, or the bele, and drums like the qwo ka or the ti bwa, are being heard again. One of the artists that has become interested in the music roots is Kali, recovering a tradition with a brilliant band named Malavoi: Creolized European dances (polka, mazurca.) served by sugary voices, charming violins and elegant arrangements.

This record, wrote Jacob Desvarieux and George Decimus on the back cover of Zouk-la-se…, is dedicated those of us that have grown on the other side of the sea, so that they don’t forget their roots. And it is to the merit of Kassav to have returned the pride of being Antillean. For that reason, if you ask a young woman from Pointe-a-Pitre or Fort-de-France which is her favorite group, she will easily respond, without hiding her pride, that it is Kassav. That is, without forgetting to give you with a beautiful smile.



This article appears courtesy of the Fundación Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. Edited and translated by Angel Romero.

Vallenato is the name of those born in the Valle (Valley) of Valledupar. It is also a music style that is composed of four airs or typical rhythms of the region. The songs talk about the personal experiences of the writers and the feelings of the mestizo (mixed race) culture that represents most Colombians.

The melodies of these vallenato songs were first performed with the carrizo (millo cane flute) to which the caja was added, a small drum hand crafted from the hollow trunk of dry trees, and covered on one head with a piece of temperate leather; and the guacharaca, an indigenous instrument that is manufactured using a cut piece of cane, forming small successive grooves, creating a scraper rubbed with a bone.

The cantos de vaquería (Colombian cowboy songs) that were sung by the ranch hands of the large haciendas during early morning as they picked up and contained the livestock, were the base of what would later become sung histories, or musical narrations, that today are known as vallenatos. At the end of the 19th century, decades after its invention, the accordion arrived to Colombia through the port of Riohacha, in the Peninsula of the Guajira, in the hands of the sailors and European pirates and so it stayed forever, as a companion to those cowboys and peasants that figured out its melodic secrets and added it to their musical expressions. Gradually, it replaced the flute until it became the main instrument in vallenato music.Within the vallenato musical genre, there are four recognized rhythms which are: Merengue, Paseo, Puya and Son.


Unlike all the other airs of this folk style, the paseo (walk or walking dance)
has a beat of 4/4. The rhythm of the first bass is 1/ 3 and, sometimes, according
to the piece, of 2/1. For the performers it is the easiest air to play.
It literally collects, in a spontaneous manner, the histories and tales
of a group of people in a sung form known as paseo.

The historical-cultural
origin of the paseo is exciting and paradoxical, first because as a song genre,
conceived especially to perpetuate the history of a people through song, it
has deep roots in pre-Columbine times, when the Chimilas, as well as the Guajiros,
Tupes and other inhabitants of the Valley of Upar, created this oral form because
they did have a written language, and the second reason is because in spite
of this antiquity, that places this air in a situation of privilege versus the
other styles arisen from hybridization, the word “paseo”(walk) used to designate
this rhythm, within the vallenato context, is the newest of the four, to the
point of not being more than 80 years old in popularity.

Upon the arrival of
the accordion, beats were defined, melodies were perfected, and there was no
choice but to decide that among the three folk music airs that preceded it: Puya, Merengue and Son, there existed another form, a little confused among
them, that, upon its liberation, would turn out to be the spirit of all: the
paseo vallenato.


In Valledupar and its surroundings, the oldest rhythm was called “Puya,”that
was never sung and consisted of an imitation of the songs of the carricero (a
small insectivore bird), with a quick rhythmit was danced in lines, with each
person moving their closed hands chest high, with the fingers aiming forward
and simulating that you poked the person that danced ahead. The name of puya
comes from the verb puyar (to goad).

Through time, various elements of the regional
folk music were fused, so that the black puya which was sung, was added to the
indigenous puya which didn’t have any singing, to generate the “;puya vallenata,”with
a perfect balance between the song, the melody and the rhythm. The puya
has a typical beat of 6/8, with a melody similar to the song of the birds and
with satire.

The puya and the merengue are the same in their rhythmic and harmonic
patterns. The difference is in their melodic conceptionand naturally in the
performance that is made, characteristic of each piece. Thus, the puya has a
bass rhythm of 2/2 and sometimes, of 2/1 in certain passages of the performance,
although not in all the pieces. The speed given to the music does not make any


The word merengue goes back to colonial times and comes from the word muserengue, the name of one of the African cultures that was taken from the coast of Guinea to Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The traditional merengue vallenato, has a beat of 6/8, a derived rhythm, since the original beats were 4/4, 3/3 and 2/2from this point of view the merengue vallenato is the most complex air and at the same time the most original of the four traditions.

The merengue differs from the other airs in the performance and the first bass rhythm, which is usually 3/1 and sometimes of 1/ 3, according to the characteristic structure of the melody, although the performer can play it faster if he pleases. Melodically, it is the richer of the vallenato rhythms and its performance allows the player to show all his abilities and make a true display of cadence and harmony.


The word son comes from the Latin sonus, which means “pleasant sound produced with art.” Because of its own meaning this term has been always bound to music. The son vallenato has a structure with a beat of 2/4it is a form of song with mulatto ancestry, although it is not free of indigenous influence. An essential characteristic in the performance of this air is the prominent use of the bass sounds of the accordion, so much that the bass sounds can be more prominent than the same melody coming from the other keyboards in the accordion. This is very common with new generation players. It is believed that whoever doesn’t master the bass sounds, will never become a good son vallenato player.

The son has a very distinct 1/1 bass rhythm, specially when played by performers from the savannas and those influenced by bass sounds, versus the accordion players from the province (Valledupar, Villanueva, Fonseca, etc.), who play a more fluid, more subtle style, with a bass rhythm of 1/ 2 and sometimes 2/1. Just like the paseo, sones are a kind of chronicles, where the singular narrative of the singer captures the events of their existence. In this genre it is common to have nostalgic dramas that have constituted an important part in the life of the composer.

Vallenato Web sites:



Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Qawwali, an Arabic word eaning “utterance,” is the devotional music of the Islamic mystics, or, as they are known in their regions, Sufis. The term includes both medium and style in its performance, and has been a dominant feature of Islamic culture since the 12th century. The Qawwali form was introduced by Hazrat Amir Khusrou in Delhi. He was a disciple of the Sufi saint, Ali, whose shrine is also in Delhi. Like a Classical Indian Raga, Qawwalis are devotional songs, but like the romantic Ghazals (a slower and more secular Indian song-form also developed by Khusrou), they express their sentiments with poetry set to music, a lyrical and rhythmic form that stirs up the audience to sing and dance. Qawwalis typically have a lead singer or two, a harmonium, a dhol and/or a tabla player and can feature clapping and chorus singing.

It was the energetic recordings and concerts of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997), the late, great Pakistani artist, that first introduced Qawwali music to Western audiences. His singing effortlessly transcended language and cultural barriers, and his spirit reached and moved people all over the world.

Two mainstream artists, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (deceased August 1997) and the Sabri Brothers, first introduced fusion into Qawwali.

Today, Qawwali is seen as one of the world’s most passionate and vibrant forms of music.



A type of Creole folk music from Surinam, related to winti. Kawina arose at the end of the 19th century after the abolition of slavery in 1863. At the beginning of this century kawina developed into a major form of popular music for people from the city and the coastal areas of Surinam. Its texts are about all sorts of subjects from everyday life, but mainly about the relations between men and women and about public scandals. They are primarily entertaining songs to dance to, with long instrumental interludes of improvisation by the percussion ensemble. Aside from the texts, the main difference to winti music is in the instruments and times used and the greater freedom to improvise which the drummers and lead singer enjoy.

Excerpted from liner notes by Rein Spoorman. Courtesy of World Connection.



While kaseko music often used to be heard on the radio and at parties in the Netherlands, it seems to have been forgotten in recent years. It never really made an international breakthrough, even though all the elements of Caribbean dance music are well represented in it.Strangely enough, relatively little has been written about this unique music from Surinam. Although the US musicologist Herkovits did write on the strong African influences in Surinamese music, so far ‘Surinaamse muziek in Nederland en Suriname’ (Surinamese Music in the Netherlands and Surinam) edited by Marcel Weltak is one of the few books on the history of Surinamese music. The Surinamese-Dutch musicologist Ronald Snijders states in his postgraduate thesis that the word kaseko is probably derived from Surinam’s eastern neighbor French Guyana. It is believed to be a corruption of the expression ‘casser le corps’ (break the body) which was used in the slavery period to denote a fast ‘devil’ dance from rural areas in which dancers shook their bodies.

Kaseko is the dance and entertainment music of the Surinamese Creoles, the descendants of the African slaves. It is created from a fusion of western march music, chorales, jazz, calypso and other popular music from the countries surrounding Surinam with Afro-Surinamese folk traditions.

Interacting rhythmic patterns on the big drum (skratji) and rolls on the separate snare drum, solo and choir singing and riffs from the wind section (consisting of saxophone, trumpet and sometimes trombone) play a central role. The music-making improvises on the basis of an originally African interplay of question and response. This is a musical practice which also characterizes the traditional Creole folk music, the winti and kawina, from which kaseko largely derives its texts, melodies and rhythms.

What winti and kawina have in common is the call of a lead singer, alternating with a chorus which responds with a harmonized refrain, and the interacting rhythmical patterns. These elements also form the building blocks of popular kaseko music.

Kaseko’s immediate forerunner is the music which used to be played at open-air festivities using instruments from the military and police bands and the brass bands. An individual Surinamese playing style developed during the 1930s, based on the African winti and kawina rhythms. This street music was known as Bigi Pokoe, big drum music. It was a sort of Dixieland in which part of the band of five to ten players laid down the beat while the other part supplied playful improvisation. The rhythms of the skratji, a big drum with a cymbal on top, and the low tones of the bastuba provided the power behind the dance. The main genres of the undiluted instrumental kaseko in its old-fashioned acoustic instrumentation (of trombone, trumpet, saxophone, bastuba, banjo, big drum and separate snare drum) are devotional basso profondo chorales, bigi-pokoe and winti-pokoe.

After the Second World War the original sound of kaseko music was strongly influenced by jazz, calypso and popular music styles from Brazil, Venezuela and the Caribbean. However its Surinamese character remained fundamental. In the course of time, the influence of rock music resulted in amplified instruments replacing the acoustic originalsthe banjo was replaced by the electric guitar and the tuba or double bass by the bass guitar, and a drum set was also added. The music was further developed by urban Creoles and became a typically Afro-Surinamese form of rock music under the name of kaseko.

Various stylistic directions have arisen within kaseko over the years. The music is performed in quite different ways by Javanese, Hindustanis and Maroons from the interior of Surinam. With the growth of emigration from Surinam to the Netherlands in the sixties, there has also been a great increase in the influence of the huge range of western music forms.

Excerpted from liner notes by Rein Spoorman. Courtesy of World Connection.