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Al Andaluz Project
Al-Maraya
Galileo ( www.galileo-mc.de)

One of the most endearing aspects of human experience is the notion of a ‘Golden Age.’ Each successive generation seems to enter a period of lament as they grow older, pining for a time when life seemed easier and less complicated: perhaps conditions appeared to be more equitable, and the world generally appeared to be a calmer place. The view of history through such rose-tinted glasses is never so simple, as societies are constantly subjected to periods of stasis and upheaval. One need only look at the representations of American social life through television in the 1950s and 1960s: as American streets began to roil with the conflict over Civil Rights, the mass mediated images frequently portrayed a mythical small town America that was predominantly white and where minorities were relegated to minor roles, if not absent altogether. The concept of a ‘Golden Age’ frequently tells us more about what people fear they have lost, but it could be possible that such lamentation may form the basis for human activity in the present.

A period of history that has often been regarded as a ‘Golden Age’ would be that of Moorish Spain: the Al-Andaluz era of the Spanish Middle Ages, an age that spans the early 700’s up until the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. During this time, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in close proximity with one another, fostering a fertile artistic and cultural exchange that affected the architecture, music, language, economics, and politics of the Iberian Middle Ages. The modern Celtic artist Loreena McKennitt found fertile ground in providing a hazy, mysterious, new-age spin on this era, culminating in her 2007 Nights from the Alhambra project, where western musical forms met eastern traditions. In truth, many early music groups have also mined this rich seam of material for inspiration, such as Jordi Savall (i.e., Sephardic Romances from the Age before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain 1492) or the Ensemble Unicorn (On the Way to Bethlehem [1995]). The point is that such musical material is often framed within an aura of tolerance and diversity for such different religious traditions: a point not lost in our contemporary period, when the Middle East remains a flashpoint for religious conflict.

The Al Andaluz Project was formed in the mid-2000s by musical director Michael Popp, who has spearheaded many interesting early music ensembles, and he is especially renowned for his work with the group Estampie and their medieval repertoire. (Worth seeking out is the group’s stunning production Crusaders: In Nomme Domini, which does not shy away from a combination of period instrumentation with subtle modern enhancements.) Estampie has built up a vast catalogue of early music work for over more than twenty years, and about six years ago Mr. Popp was introduced to the repertoire of the Valencian band L’Ham de Foc. L’Ham de Foc was a Spanish band (they are now, sadly, defunct) likewise interested in reinvigorating traditional and early music material. L’Ham de Foc also was engaged in a highly regarded project, the group Aman Aman, which explored Sephardic music and its diasporic influence before and after 1492. Sensing a similar artistic spirit, Mr. Popp expressed to me in an interview that L’Ham de Foc’s combination of Spanish and oriental influences spurred him to contact the group. Mr. Popp journeyed back and forth between Munich and Spain, even learning Spanish in the process to foster a collaboration that would explore “…the Spanish culture of ‘tres culturas,’ that means the ‘convivenza’ of three religions and cultures [as] the most fertile in the field of science and art…[There] exists an almost natural interest of all artists interested in the past, for this theme.”

The Al Andaluz Project weds the main female voices from Estampie (Sigrid Hausen), Aman Aman and L’Ham de Foc (Mara Aranda), together with Iman Kandoussi (from Morocco) to a tapestry of lush acoustic instrumentation evocative of the Iberian Middle Ages. Al-Maraya is the Al Andaluz Project’s second CD, and according to Mr. Popp, it carries a bit more of his input, as multi-instrumentalist Efren Lopez had left the Project and L’Ham de Foc. According to Mr. Popp, three singers, three cultures, and three languages are represented within the Al Andaluz Project, and so it is interesting to compare the material. Several songs on Al-Maraya are credited to the medieval body of work known as the "Cantigas de Santa Maria." Others are traditional Sephardic songs, or otherwise have Arabic text.

Mr. Popp said, “In the Arabic tradition there are no religious text allowed in music. The lyrics are high poetry dealing with themes of nature, love, fate, hope, etc. The Sephardic lyrics have a popular tradition. You feel they come from the small ghettos, they tell stories about the family and neighbors, of everyday life. Wedding, birth, sometimes political issues are being told. Whereas in the Christian tradition, music is mostly connected to devotion, to the service, and to praise Jesus Christ, Mary and the Saints."

"So we have something of the opposite of what we would think nowadays. We (the Western, Christian world) regard ourselves to have the most secular societies, whereas Jewish and, especially, Arabs are more religiously motivated societies. You see -- times are changing!”

The result is that the music on Al-Maraya, whether secular or religious, is ecstatic and even trance-like in its execution (the Al Andaluz Project understands the power of droning instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and saz, coupled with brisk percussion). The aim here is, as Michael Popp maintains, to “…transport a part of these [vibrant] experiences across the music to the listeners.” Indeed, one can feel the Al Andaluz Project’s deep fusion of and reverence for this period music, which hangs in the air and surrounds the listener like incense. The cultural interrelationships are such that it would be difficult to imagine the Sephardic songs "‘Dezilde A Mi Amor" and "El Regateo de las Consuegras," for instance, without their northern Morroccan influence. Listeners are clearly encouraged to draw comparisons across the languages and cultures invoked on Al-Maraya.

Michael Popp envisions the Al Andaluz Project as a kind of trinity project; the first CD was recorded in Spain, and this second in Munich. The third installment will see the group recording in Morocco in 2012.

Gazing back on this Golden Age, one can hear through the Al Andaluz Project a historical current of exchange wherein three major world religious traditions listened to and tolerated each other in a specific time and place. What are the consequences of not listening to each other thusly? We are still finding out, and working towards such utopic understanding, to this day. -- Lee Blackstone

More info about the project: www.alandaluzproject.de

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