A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages

A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages

By Patrick Lynch
A Musician Slave Changed Fashion, Music, and Dining in the Middle Ages

Abul-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, also known as Ziryab, was one of the greatest innovators of his era yet his name is forgotten by all but the most fanatical lovers of history. He was a true Renaissance Man but lived hundreds of years before the cultural growth of that period. Ziryab was born in either Baghdad or Mosul in 789 AD and was probably African or African-Arab. According to several Arab historians, he was a freed slave, and his family had served Al-Mahdi, the caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty, until Al-Mahdi’s death in 785.

He was given the nickname ‘Ziryab,’ which means blackbird, because of the color of his skin and his melodious voice. He had exceptional knowledge in a variety of fields including geography, astrology, botany and even fashion amongst other things. Ziryab was centuries ahead of his time and was clearly head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

Depiction of Ziryab playing the lute. Warehouse 13 Artifact Database Wiki

The Musical Maestro

Ziryab’s main talent was as a musician, and he trained under the tutelage of an exceptional teacher called Ishaq al-Mawsili. At that time, Baghdad was the music, art and cultural center of the Muslim world, so it’s likely that if Ziryab wasn’t born there, he moved there at some stage. The Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, was a renowned lover of music and regularly brought musicians and singers to his palace to entertain his guests. Ishaq was the caliph’s chief musician and trained a variety of students including Ziryab.

As well as being highly intelligent, Ziryab had an extraordinary ‘ear’ for music and dutifully learned the music of his teacher outside of his lessons. Ishaq’s music was supposedly so complex that even experts found it extremely difficult to master yet Ziryab reportedly learned it relatively easily. In fact, Ishaq himself was unaware of just how good a musician Ziryab was until the caliph asked to hear the young maestro. There is a suggestion that the performance in front of the caliph was so good that his jealous teacher told him to leave the city. In reality, Ziryab probably left the city of his own accord in around 813.

In 822, Ziryab moved to Cordoba, Spain at the court of Caliph Abd-Al-Rahman II. He opened a music school and gained fame for his innovative teaching methods. For example, he introduced a number of tests for students. One involved placing pieces of wood in a student’s jaw to keep their mouth open; the goal was to improve his/her vocal capacity.

Ziryab is credited with bringing the lute to Europe, and he improved the instrument by adding a fifth bass string, and he used a quill or an eagle’s beak rather than a wooden pick. According to one historian, Ziryab made the music seem like magic as he enchanted the court of the caliph at Cordoba. An atmosphere of delight and poetry surrounded him as he created his compositions during the night with the help of two assistants who played the lute. According to Ziryab, the strings of the lute had symbolic meaning. He said the first four strings represented the bitterness of temper, the dark moods, blood, and coolness while the fifth string symbolized the soul.

Depiction of Ziryab entertaining the Royal Court at Cordoba. Muslim Heritage

Another innovation was to substitute the singing system of Medina with that of Iraq. Overall, he helped teach harmony and composition, and his music school developed even further over the next few centuries. As well as revolutionizing music in Andalusia, Ziryab knew approximately 1,000 songs by heart due to his incredible memory. While in Cordoba, Ziryab introduced new standards of excellence in a variety of other fields.