The music of encounter. Andalusian interculturalism and its enemies
Daniele Conversi 28 February 2020

Andalusian culture derives from the encounters of several traditions, encompassing Arab, Berber, Latin/Spanish, Roma/Gypsy, Jewish and other influences. Since its origins in the 19th and early-20th centuries, Andalusian regionalism (Andalucismo) has celebrated this complex multi-faith and multicultural heritage, incorporating the memory of a Golden Age preceding the Spanish Reconquest in 1492. This mythical age of harmony and prosperity is largely identified with the Caliphate of Córdoba under the Umayyad dynasty (929-1031), otherwise known as al-Andalus, celebrated as an era of tolerance and interfaith encounters between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.


The birth of a myth

Andalusian regionalism was first conceived in the 19th century and then fully developed by the notary Blas Infante (1885-1936), whose research into Andalusian cultural history shaped the Andalucista project and still informs a variety of contemporary cultural and political conceptions. In opposition to the racial theories prevailing at that time in a war-torn, ultra-nationalist Europe, Infante proclaimed Andalusia’s African origins and its Arab influences. He also emphasised the central role of music, specifically flamenco, in the shaping of Andalusian-ness. For Infante, flamenco was a relic of Andalusia’s interreligious past – an express, unswerving result of the alleged cultural confluences between the different communities that cohabited pre- and post-Reconquest Andalusia (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Moriscos and Gitanos).

Infante and other Andalusian regionalists sustained that Andalusia experienced its age of splendour not under the Christian kings, but under its Muslim predecessors, concluding with the Kingdom of Granada, whose Nasrid emirs built the Alhambra palace (1250). The Emirate was the last remnant of Muslim Iberia and its annexation by Spain sealed the fate of convivencia, the centuries-long coexistence and exchange between Christians, Jews and Muslims, culminating with the mass expulsion of Jews in 1492. A similar pattern of coexistence was identified throughout the Mediterranean by Mark Mazower’s path-breaking work on the Balkan city of Salonica /Thessaloniki, where religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic pluralism remained a defining feature for over five centuries – until the advent of homogenising nationalism in the twentieth century. Intense pluralism also characterised specific periods of Islamic rule elsewhere, such as in Mughal India under Emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605).

The Republican historian and philologist Américo Castro (1885-1972) first used the term convivencia in 1948 to challenge the nationalist tropes prevailing about the primeval origins of Spanish identity, then endorsed by the Franco regime.


Building bridges through music

Nowhere is Andalusia’s intercultural narrative more keenly felt than in the context of music. Across the region, Moroccan and Spanish musicians actively promote the ideals of intercultural dialogue through the performance of repertoires such as flamenco and Arab-Andalusian music (música andalusí in Spanish). This intercultural modality gravitates around the heritage of flamenco and its combination with Arab-Andalusian classical music – which is in turn different from Andalusian folk music. Musicians work within a pre-existing narrative of common origins and musical encounters between Spanish and Moroccan traditions in pre- and post-Reconquest Andalusia.

Musical interculturalism can thus be identified as a strategy of using music to promote social integration, overcome Islamophobia and tackle radicalization. Music is a vigorous, vibrant channel for staging  a set of policies that can be conveyed by the notion of ‘intercultural regionalism’ – a local variety of ‘intercultural nationalism’. Intercultural nationalism is the doctrine through which sub-state nationalists relate to immigration as a resource, rather than as a threat. By extension, intercultural regionalism can be used where regionalism is more often invoked than nationalism. Both combine regional identity-building with intercultural interactions between communities that share a common cultural heritage. Intercultural dialogue and social integration are promoted through a regionalist reading of the past rooted in the perceived history of religious and cultural pluralism and exchange of al-Andalus. Dialogue promoted through musical interculturalism is thus deeply intertwined with the project of Andalusian regionalism.  In Andalusia, intercultural ‘regionalism’ is framed by an idealised reading of Andalusia’s past and its connections with the Maghreb. Music becomes a symbolic bridge between the two territories marking out a perceived historical continuity from the coexistence of the three religions in al-Andalus to contemporary intercultural exchanges between Andalusians and Moroccans.


Traces of a common past

Arab-Andalusian classical music developed initially in Spain and Portugal during the Muslim occupation and is today performed throughout the Maghreb, where refugees expelled after the Reconquest introduced it in the 15th and 16th centuries. The generic label of Arab-Andalusian music refers to a range of discreet and unique genres and repertoires that stretch across the Maghreb and into the Middle East. What is a general constant, however, is a narrative of origins that positions Arab-Andalusian music as a symbol of interfaith dialogue. For Maghrebi practitioners and devotees of Arab-Andalusian music along the Southern Mediterranean coast, the memory of the diasporic origins in pre-1492 al-Andalus/Sefarad is essential to the practice.

In a similar vein, Spain’s most iconic music and dance tradition, flamenco, is often linked to Andalusia’s historical and cultural past.  While flamenco is traditionally associated with Andalusia’s deeply-rooted Gitano (Gypsy) community, in recent years Andalusian public institutions and the regional government itself have co-opted flamenco as the region’s ‘core value’ and premier identity symbol.

Flamenco musicians and scholars stress the influences taken from Muslim and Jewish repertoires. Infante developed the idea that flamenco was inherited from the intercultural exchanges between Morisco and Gitano communities following the Reconquest. The cultural pillar of flamenco fusion lies indeed in the musicality of the Gitanos/Gypsy/Roma communities, whose members include many of the best performers in the genre, representing reliable repositories of this intercultural tradition.

Flamenco as a recognizable genre only emerged in the 19th century, much after Arab-Andalusian music, but similarities between the two exist in terms of mode, rhythmic structure and vocal performance. Fusion initiatives date back at least to the theatrical production Macama Jonda (1983), written by the Gypsy poet, playwright, and academic José Heredia Maya (1947-2010), the first Gypsy professor in a Spanish University and a theorist of the alliance between literature, anthropology and theatre. But the fusion project reached new levels of popularity when the Gitano singer and musician Juan Peña ‘El Lebrijano’ (1941-2016) met the Andalusian Orchestra of Tangier to record the album Encuentros (Encounters, 1985). From its very title, the album stands as a celebration of cultural encounter and religious diversity, spawning a unique fusion between the two genres. For two decades, El Lebrijano continued to collaborate with Moroccan musicians producing more albums, such as Casablanca (1998), Puertas abiertas (2005) and Dos Orillas (2014).

As Andalusian identity is rooted in the legacy of a multicultural Golden Age preceding the Reconquest, cultural continuity with its Islamic heritage nurtures a unique cultural synthesis. But the unifying bridge-building ‘myth’ of al-Andalus has been tested by a rapidly increasing Moroccan immigration in Spain.


The challenge of contemporary immigration  

For over 40 years, from 1978 to 2019, the Spanish Socialists (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) uninterruptedly ruled Andalusia, where its largest regional branch is located. After gaining power in Madrid in 2004, the PSOE was defeated in 2011 by a neoconservative government led by the People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP).

In the December 2018 regional elections, the far-right Vox party emerged for the first time on the Spanish political scene and the tolerance narrative was challenged by its xenophobic, centralist tone. Vox gained 12 seats in the Andalusian Parliament and, as a result, won its first ever seat in the Spanish Senate. In the Andalusian capital, Seville, the PSOE was defeated and a coalition government was formed between the PP and the centre-right Citizens’ Party (Ciudadanos): both moved further to the right to capture Vox’s ultranationalist electorate, while the latter buoyed up the PP-Ciudadanos coalition. However, the 2007 Statute of Autonomy of Andalusia has remained firmly in place allowing for the continuation of previously established interculturalist policies.

Here, al-Andalus’s history still provides a framework for most intercultural activities. The signs of growing identity troubles had been visible for years, however. The first violent revolt against immigration in Spain occurred In February 2000 in the town of El Ejido (Almería), where the local agribusiness employed immigrant labourers to pick vegetables and fruit. In February 2000, three murders at the hands of Moroccan immigrants unleashed protests with barricades, culminating with street riots, injuries, casualties and material damages specifically directed against Moroccan immigrants. As local authorities and the regional government sought to calm tensions and reintroduce a degree of tolerance, the integration of Moroccan communities became a priority. The rediscovery of al-Andalus and its interfaith past moved up the political agenda turning into a model for the values of tolerance, diversity and intercultural dialogue at the base of the Andalusian regionalist project. Interculturalism has been increasingly invoked as a policy agenda to ‘integrate’ immigrants into a more respectful and dignified environment. Concurrently, it encourages the local populations to accept cultural diversity as a resource, rather than as a threat. Interculturalism revolves around the management of cultural diversity by seeking to combine the recognition of difference with shared cultural values. Its intellectual blueprint originated in Quebec, where Charles Taylor, Gerard Bouchard and others first advocated it, later enjoying a substantial influence in European policy-making. But the narrative of a tolerant Andalusia now needs to be rescued from attacks by the right, who employ ‘scepticism’ to dismiss the entire notion of pre-Reconquest tolerance as a mere ‘myth’.


Can the myth hold?

Myths play a key function in building cohesive societies based on trust and mutual understanding, so that the organization of vital matters that shape the day-to-day life can proceed smoothly. Ideals of tolerance and cultural exchange associated with the historical myth of al-Andalus have become a symbolic anchor for Andalusian identity. This historical setting has been re-imagined through musical performance in the context of new challenges derived from recent migration trends into Andalusia, particularly from Morocco.

How far can the al-Andalus myth provide an ideal framework for integration? According to the regionalist narrative, fusions between flamenco and Arab Andalusian music work as a conduit between cultures and geopolitical spaces, by providing continuity with a mythical Golden Age.  However, the musical expression of tolerance does not reach throughout Andalusia, and so cannot ward off the opposing homogenizing mono-cultural Christian-only narrative expressed by the rise of far-right populism.

We also need to pose new questions: Can the al-Andalus myth endure the new challenges looming on the horizon? What if migration trends change radically? So far, resettlement patterns in Morocco have been mostly dictated by the distribution of wealth in the places of origin, so that migratory movements have been traditionally connected to power relations and capital accumulation. However, things are rapidly changing – and for the worse: recent research on global migration has revealed how asylum applications respond to temperature fluctuations. In Morocco, recent climate trends have begun forcing people to abandon rural areas due to sharp increases in the absolute warmest and coldest temperatures. Moreover, the vertiginous pace of the climate crisis, largely due to the developed and developing worlds trends towards mass consumption and deforestation, could alter the demographic balance leading to a shift from relatively free-to-move economic migrants to displaced climate refugees who have nowhere to go – a phenomenon already identified with a separate term, climigration. If the climate crisis becomes unmanageable with the much-anticipated desertification of large portions of Andalusia, it might be easy for parties like Vox to transform the already perceived threat of demographic invasion into a mobilizing tool for a profoundly alarmed population. Could a multicultural myth like al-Andalus hold on in such a context?

There is space for hope: Ultimately, bridge-building initiatives facilitating mutual understanding and inter-cultural interaction may remain in high demand in uncertain times. Cross-Mediterranean musical encounters are not simply about displaying otherness, but about crafting a space in which Andalusian and Moroccan cultures might interact and converge. Music provides such a space for coming together and a unique point of contact between communities.

As vast areas of knowledge need to be brought together to address the existential problems of the new millennium, disciplinary bridges also need to be crossed to confront the vital challenges lying ahead.



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Photo: Jorgue Guerrero / AFP

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