Ziryab:The Musician,Astronomer,Designer

The Great Musician

Abul-Hasan Alí Ibn Nafí, known as Ziryab, was born in Iraq in 789. He was nicknamed Ziryab because of his melodious voice and his dark complexion, features which people compared with mir it, a singing bird of black plumage.

He was a gifted pupil of Ishaq al-Mawsili, a renowned musician in Baghdad and a favourite of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.Moorish Statue

Ziryab’s talent and excellence in music slowly overtook the position of his teacher, which brought him close to the Caliph and his court. Al-Hakem, the Umayyad Caliph and father of Abd-Al-Rahman II invited him to Andalusia.

Zaryab settled in Cordoba in 822, at the court of the then Caliph Abd-Al-Rahman II. His arrival coincided with a new impetus given by Abd-Al-Rahman II to cultural life, leading Andalusia to one of its major flowering periods. In Cordoba, Ziryab found prosperity, recognition of his art and unprecedented fame. He became the court entertainer with a monthly salary of 200 golden Dinars in addition to many privileges. This promotion gave him a great opportunity to let his talent and creation break free from any boundaries. He not only revolutionised music but also made significant improvements to lifestyle and fashion.

In music, he was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U’d) to Spain and Europe in general. He is credited, with Al-Kindi, with the addition of the fifth bass string to it and substituted the wooden plectrum for the eagle’s quill. In Spain, as well as North Africa, he substituted the singing system of Medina with that of Iraq (Reference: Plaencia, G. (1928), ‘ History of Literature Arabic-Spanish’, Barcelona, page 41).

He established the first conservatoire in the world, which included the teaching of harmony and composition and was to develop even further in the following centuries. Regarding musical theory, he rearranged it completely, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters and creating new ways of expression (mwashah, zajal, and nawbah suites). Many, like Julian Ribera, even maintain that counterpoint and polyphony were first developed in the Cordoba conservatoire around 1000 CE. Ziryab is credited with compiling a repertoire with 24 Nawbaat (vocal and instrumental suites). Each Nuba was a composite of vocal and instrumental pieces organised in nine movements and each movement had its own rhythm. He knew more than one thousand songs, of which some, according to Al-Maqqari, belong to Ptolemy.

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