Algeria’s Andalusian Classical Music

The music genre most readily associated with modern-day Algeria is that of raï, derived from the folk music of Bedouin shepherds in Oran, and blended with aspects of French, Spanish, African and Arabic music. But other genres of music are also popular in this fascinating North African country, including that of ancient Andalusian classical music, enjoyed mainly in Algeria and southern Spain, with similar musical traditions found in Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, where it is also referred to as al-Maaluf. Algerian chaabi music, which was formalized by renowned musician El Hajj Muhammad El Anka (1907-1978) from the city of Algiers, incorporates distinctive characteristics of Andalusian classical music.

While there is a certain amount of disagreement among scholars as to the exact origins of Andalusian classical music, the most widely accepted theory is that it originated in the 9th century in a region then known as Al Andalus, or Moorish Iberia, ruled by the Caliphate of Córdoba. Some claim that the Persian musician Ziryab, who was the court musician of the Caliphate of Córdoba, Abd ar-Rahman II, was the composer of the first Andalusian classical music, with Andalusian poet and composer, IBN Bajjah later combining Ziryab’s compositions with his own style of music, which was later spread across North Africa.

Whatever the genre’s origins, once it reached North Africa, Andalusian classical music was carefully guarded from changes by both Muslim and Jewish musicians who wanted to maintain the pure form of the music as they had first heard it. In his book entitled Jews of Andalusia and the Maghreb, author Haim Zafani notes that they were “ardent maintainers of Andalusian Music and zealous guardians of its old traditions”, making reference to a directory of Andalusian music written by Al Haik of Morocco, in 1786.

The 11th to 13th century traditions of troubadours – travelling musicians telling stories in song – are believed to have been inspired by Andalusian classical music. Today there are Andalusian classical music orchestras to be found in the Algerian cities of Tlemcen, Algiers, Blida, Bejaia, Constantine and Oran, as well as in Morocco and Tunisia, all dedicated to preserving the traditions of this ancient style of music.