Catherine Bott sings undiscovered songs from Spain in the 15th century.
released: 13 Nov 2006
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Convivencia – the Spanish word for living together harmoniously. It’s also the term used to describe the co-existence of different faiths in medieval Spain. For the Christians, Moors (Moslems)and Jews who had to do the co-existing, the code of convivencia was about tolerance. In places like Toledo, Córdoba and Granada it meant more than that: mutual respect and an appreciation of science and scholarship created towns which were more agreeable to live in than medieval Paris or London.
Spain, Al-Andalus, was under Moslem rule for more than 700 years, during which time religious toleration ebbed and flowed between the opposing poles of admiration and hostility. A process of Christian reconquista gradually gathered speed over centuries until Fernando and Isabel, los Reyes Católicos, initiated a ruthless programme of ethnic cleansing. This began by making everyday life difficult for Moors and Jews and culminated in forced conversions to Christianity and exile.
Modern Spaniards don’t go in for nostalgia. Neither do they let their history and heritage crumble away, nor deny the existence of past conflict. Their patron saint is Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-Slayer, and annual Moors v. Christians re-enactments are popular all over the country. The Christians always win, of course, but they’re often outnumbered by Moors – the costumes are more alluring.
The Moros y Cristianos procession I saw recently was an extravagant and noisy affair. 'Are those the Catholic Kings?' I asked the man next to me, as a huge float drawn by oxen passed by. 'Mas o menos' (more or less) he shrugged. It didn’t really matter to him who the regal couple on the float might be. The important thing was the annual commemoration of Spain's Moorish past.
Reminders of that past are everywhere in Spanish life today, in masterpieces of Moorish architecture like the Alhambra in Granada, in the food and the language. From your first ¡Hola! to ordering atún or albondigas (tuna or meatballs) or sweetening your coffee with azúcar (sugar) you’re dipping into a huge vocabulary of Spanish words that derive from Arabic.
Moorish patterns are subtly woven into the music of Spain too. Medieval and reanaissance songs are a heady blend of the erotic and the bawdy, the idealistic and the practical, epic romances of Moorish chivalry and street songs about Christian boys and girls coming out to play. Andalusia, the sunburnt southern kingdom that was the last stronghold of convivencia, is the setting for most of this album, and the beautiful words and music from these two contrasting yet complementary cultures inspired this musical convivencia.
Sensual and beguiling these songs may be, but it would be naïve and dangerous to romanticise convivencia. These days, everyone you talk to in Spain has a different take on it. For some it represents an agreeable exchange of cultura y gastronomía, others see it as a sort of apartheid. One thing is clear: it was a concept of its time, nothing to do with today’s well-meaning, amorphous jargon about multiculturalism or celebrating diversity. By the time most of this music was written, convivencia was waning, and as several of the lyrics make clear, Moors and Christians fought each other valiantly and fiercely. But it’s encouraging to be reminded of how hard they also tried to get on together, each tolerating, respecting and sometimes enjoying each other’s traditions. Convivencia has a lot to teach us today.
Catherine Bott, Andalucía, August 2006.
Catherine Bott:soprano; David Miller:vihuela,lute; Abdul Salam Kheir: oud; Stephen Henderson: tar,tablah,tbilat, douf