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Arabic Contributions To Spanish Music, Song And Dance

posted on: Nov 18, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

To know how and when the Arabs influenced Spanish and through Spanish other western music, we must begin in the cities and towns of Arabia before the advent of Islam. Contrary to stereotypical western belief, Arabia was not simply a land of barren deserts, but rather a region where towns and cities flourished. During this period the poems of many famous poets were set to music and sung by both the Bedouins of the desert and the well trained dancing girls in the homes of the wealthy.

The music of the Arabian Peninsula had a rich background. Sumer, Babylon, Ugarit, Ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and even far away India all had contributed some element to this pre-Islamic music.

Islam inherited this rich poetic-music legacy and when their armies conquered much of the then known world, they took this music with them. Poetry, the intrinsic element of Arab culture, accompanied Arab music, some poetry music in itself. Pre-Islamic poems were sung by their creators such as the elegies of al-Khansa’, a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad, mourning the loss of her brother Sakhr, were composed as songs.

Yet, the development of music was at the beginning difficult in Islam’s first years of religious zeal. Music, and to a lesser degree, poetry, were considered immoral and abandoned to some extent, due to the association of both with pagan religious rites. However, as time wore on and the Islamic world was established on a permanent basis, the love and appreciation of poetry and music surged forward, incorporating the old and formulating the new. It was in the Hijaz that rhythm and melody of song were developed into artistic and elegant singing.

The early Muslims, especially under the Umayyads and later, in the early period of the Abbasid dynasty, spread the love for Arabic music throughout their vast empire. They then refined and based this music on notes and scales and, at the same time, developed dancing and singing schools across their lands – the most famous being in Medina and Baghdad. In these schools, musicians and dancing girls, coming from all parts the Muslim world were taught the art of entertainment.

The Umayyad Dynasty, which had been overthrown in Damascus, was re-established in the Iberian Peninsula by ‘Abd al-Rahman I. Under this culture-oriented dynasty, poetry, music and singing reached dazzling heights.   ‘Abd al-Rahman I brought from the Arab east ‘Afza, an accomplished instrumentalist and singer, to set the vogue for his court.

Under the enlightened Umayyad rulers of al-Andalus, the court musicians al-‘Abbas ibn al-Nasa’i, ‘Alun and Zarqun; Qalam, a Biscayan songstress who was a scholar, an excellent scribe, a historian of poetry and versed in literature; Fadl, an excellent poetess; and the two singing girls Musabi and Mut’a, set the trend for music and song in Arab Spain. They established music schools that could be compared to the best in the cities of the Arab East. These musicians, poets and singers were the pathfinders of their era. However, the best was yet to come.

Ziryab, one of the greatest teachers of musicians and singers of all times, arrived in Andalusia in 82l A.D. from the court of Baghdad. He was a marvellous entertainer and enchanted the court of Cordova for years with his wit, music and song. He was steeped in the knowledge of refined music and established a conservatory of music in Cordova – the first in Europe.

To him is credited the addition of the fifth string to the ‘ud (lute) and the invention of plectrums made from eagles’ talons which replaced the wooden ones in use until his time. Under his influence, the traditions of Medina and the classical music school of al-Mawsili in Baghdad whose pupil he had been took root in Spain and flourished. Encouraging experimentation and innovations in musical styles and instruments he came to establish the unique Arab musical tradition of Andalusia.

The Arab music brought to Spain by Ziryab had borrowed much from the music and song of the neighbouring countries and then developed into the distinctive melodies of the Arab East. In Moorish Spain it was later modified by Greek music and song giving birth to the Arab-Andalusian type melodies. In the later centuries, the Arabs of the east held on to their own traditional music and song while in North Africa and Spain the Arab/Andalusian melodies took root.

In Cordova’s golden years, from the ninth to the twelfth centuries when this capital of Arab Spain rivalled Baghdad as the richest and most powerful city in the world, all the sciences, including music, were pursued. Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn al-‘Arabi and Ibn Sab’in, in their writings and teachings, had a part in the development of Andalusian music and song, hence, aiding in the formation of the golden years.

Al-Farabi defined rhythms, Ibn Rushd wrote Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir, which was one of the greatest books on music ever published and Ibn Bajjah wrote a book which is lost but is said to have rivalled Ibn Rushd’s. Ibn al-‘Arabi wrote about and taught aspects of music which dealt with mysticism and Ibn Sab’in wrote Kitab al-Adwar al-Mansub (Book of Related Musical Modes). In those centuries music was developed into a fine art. It is said that when al-Mahdi, one of the last caliphs in Cordova, entertained, the sound of a hundred lutes and a hundred flutes would fill the air.

To the music schools of Arab Andalusia in these golden years, students came from other European countries to study, then returned influenced by the music of the Arabs – the finest in the world of that time. Throughout this period and long thereafter, Arab-Andalusian music and poetry belonged not only to the wealthy but also to the workers and peasants. A 13th century Arab author, Zakariya al-Qazwini, describing a village he visited in Muslim Spain, wrote that almost every inhabitant was interested in literature and music and many peasants were capable of improvising poetry and song.

Even though music flourished under the Andalusian Umayyads and most of that dynasty’s rulers were patrons of the arts, many religious leaders and governing officials were against this genre of entertainment and tried to enact laws against music and singing, usually unsuccessfully. Despite the collapse of the Andalusian Umayyad Dynasty, music and song flour­ished reaching their pinnacle under the tawa’if or petty kings, once nobles and generals under the Umayyads.

The kings of Granada, Valencia, Saragossa, Toledo, Malaga, Seville and others vied with each other as patrons of learning. Toledo boasted of its famous musicians. Malaga overflowed in its love of music. In The Heritage of Spain, Nicholson B. Adams writes about this music-­loving city.

“In the 11th century, when visiting Malaga, Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Yamani became sick. Two of his friends took good care of him but at night when he tried to rest the loud noises of musical instruments and vulgar singing, from the neighbouring homes, kept him awake and increased his misery. This enraged him but one night his feeling for the music and singing, coming from the surrounding buildings, changed. Describing this experience, he wrote:

‘The people are absolutely dominated by their passion for music. One night I awoke after dozing a little, and noticed that the tumult of odious voices and turbulent tunes had calmed down, leaving only a breath of sound, tranquil and lovely. I felt that my soul understood this music and would find repose in it, with none of the repugnance I had felt for the other. It was purely instrumental, without the human voice. Then it began increasing slowly in volume. I was drawn to it and disposed to listen, even when it reached the fullest possible strength. I found myself forgetting my misery in the emotional enjoyment, which almost caused me to imagine that the walls and floor were floating around me. And all this time there had been no sound of a human voice. I said to myself: `For instrumental music, nothing could be more perfect. What kind of a voice will the musician have? How will it end?’ Scarcely was the question asked before there came the sound of a woman’s voice, clear and beautiful. I could not contain myself and got up, leaving my two companions sleeping. I opened the door of my room and followed the sound until I reached the part of the house whence I could overlook the neighbours. I saw a large garden with about twenty people in the centre, seated in a row, with sweets, fruits and drinks before them. The girl who was singing sat apart from the others, and held her listeners spellbound. She sang and sang, and I, hidden above, could watch without being seen. As she sang a verse, I learned it, until I knew quite a number. Finally I withdrew to my room, thanking God, as though I had come out of a great trouble and were no longer ill or suffering’.”

Al-Yamani’s description of this music and song was not unique to Malaga. In that age of tawa’if kings, musicians and singers were honoured in every city state as never before in history. According to travellers from other Arab lands, Muslim Spain, in that enlightened era, was a land filled with poets and musicians. Music, dance and song were not only encouraged in the homes but also on the streets. The parades and street celebrations in the cities of modern Andalusia are only a continuation of the traditions set by the Moors many centuries ago.

Each of Arab Spain’s city states became noted for excelling in one or the other of the arts, but Seville outshone them all. Under the ‘Abbadids it became the resort of poets and musicians. Al-Mu’tamid, the greatest of the ‘Abbadids, made his court hospitable to poets and literary men and women. He was also an accomplished singer who accompanied himself on the ‘ud and composed poetry, especially to his queen, I’timad, with whom he was infatuated all of his life.

Like the king so his subjects. Seville rang with song and music. The city became the centre for manufacturing musical instruments. From this city many Arab musical instruments were introduced to the remainder of Western Europe. Arab merchants from Seville were found in that part of continent, selling their well-made instruments, many of which can still be seen in historic Spanish paintings. In the medieval period, and even today, names of many of these musical instruments are derived from Arabic:

Spanish Name            Arabic Origin              English Meaning

albogón                      al-buq                         brass flute resembling

a bagpipe

albogue                      al-buq                         pastoral recorder

adufe                          al-duff                         Moorish type tambourine

ajabeba or axabeba  al-shabbabah             transverse flute

añafil                           al-nafir                        Moorish trumpet

atabal                          al-tabal                       kettledrum

atambor or atamor   al-tunbur                    drum

canón                          qanun                         an obsolete stringed


carrizo                         karrij                           an antiquated music


itara                            qitarah                        zither

gaita                            ghayta                        Spanish bagpipe

guzla                           ghazal                         one string rebec

nácara                         naqqarah                    cavalry drum

laúd                             al-‘ud                          lute

nakib                           naqb                                    flute

panderete                  bandayr                      small tambourine

quitarra                      qitarah                        guitar

rabel                   rabab                          rebec

rota                             rutah                          rote – a medieval violin

sonajas de azófar      sunuj al-sufr             metal clappers

tambor                       tanbur                       drum

tamborete                  tanbur                        small drum

With this rich background of music in Arab Spain, it is not strange that innumerable types of music, song and dance developed. The zajal and muwashshahat type of verse and song were the most famous, the creation of the muwashshah attributed to Muqaddam ibn Mu’afa al-Qabri (born in Cabra near Cordova – d.circa 900). These two types of song and music were widely sung and appreciated by both the Muslims and Christians in all parts of the Iberian Peninsula and spread throughout the Arabic-speaking world of his time. And, until now, this type of song and music continues to be sung by famous singers across the whole of the modern Arab world.

The muwashshahat were written and sung in classical Arabic but the last verse always ended with two or four lines written in the Romance or the aljamiado language of the Christians and summarised the entire meaning of the poem. This last verse was known as a kharja and from it was derived the whole inspiration of the poem.

The zajal was the colloquial form of the muwashshahat, written and sung in vulgar Arabic. It was popular among the masses in both Muslim and Christian Spain and later spread throughout the Muslim world with remarkable rapidity. The well-known 12th century poet from Cordova, Ibn Quzman, used to boast that his zajal was sung as far away as the eastern Arab world. This type of verse did not disappear for today in Egypt and Lebanon, zajal continues to be a popular folk art.

It is believed that the zajal gave rise to the villancico, a type of Spanish Christmas carol and from the zajal and muwashshahat the Spanish cantigas developed. In the cantigas de Santa María compiled by Alfonso the Wise, the musical form of the zajal is clearly evident. It is said that the majority of Alfonso’s cantigas were direct translations of Arab zajal verses. In later centuries these cantigas were to have a great impact on all European music.

After the Muslim defeat in Spain, their music was not lost. Játiva, a city in eastern Spain, even after the Christian occupation in the 13th and 14th centuries continued to be famous for its musicians and singers. From this city, the kings of Castile and Aragon would engage Arab musicians and singers to entertain their courts with the songs of muwashshahat and zajal, accompanied by musicians playing the ajabeba, canón, rabel and añafil.

In that age even the churchmen were delighted with Moorish song and dance. In Valladolid, a city carrying an Arab name, balad al-Walid, the council of the city, fearing their church leaders had become enamoured with Arabic entertainment, forbade any further hiring of Moorish musicians to enliven Christian vigils or to entertain at Christian feasts. Well might the church leaders have feared Arab music and song for even in the Christian religion the Arab influence was to leave its mark.

The romerias, celebrations held near Christian shrines and still seen in modern Spain, were originally visits to the shrines of Muslim holy men that were passed from the Moorish to the Christian communities. In the spring months, when the cities of Andalusia are filled with colourful religious parades, the sad and wavering laments of the saeta punctuates these processions. Although now sung in Spanish, there is no doubt that its origins go back to the Arabic songs of the Moors.

One could argue that these influences are only on the periphery of Christian worship, but there are other influences that are felt in the church itself. Emil Naumann in his History of Music notes “…we cannot fail….to be struck with the remarkable similarity which the melodies of the Koran bear to the responses and chants of the Catholic liturgy.”

The poetry and music of the zajal and muwashshahat also gave rise to the troubadours, from the Arabic tariba – to sing. From the very beginning, these entertainers, not only sung Arabic poetry in its authentic and sentimental state but also, in its method and construction. Later Arabic was abandoned for the languages of southern Europe but the Arabic format remained.

From the troubadours and their Arabic songs, the serenading of Spanish lovers was born. In Moorish Spain lovers would serenade with their ‘ud the objects of their love. Through the years, only the language and instrument have changed. Today, in all Spanish-speaking countries, a lover with his guitar can be heard in every city trying to woo the one he desires in the same fashion as the Moorish lover of old.

Closely associated with the haunting music of the Arabs are the fiery, dances of Spain the most well-known being the flamenco. Although not supported by etymologies in most dictionaries, D.E. Pohren in The Art of Flamenco, indicates that perhaps, flamenco is a mispronunciation of the Arabic, felag and mengu (fugitive peasant) and that likely this Arabic term was applied to the persecuted people who fled to the mountains. Through usage in Spanish, felagmengu was transformed into flamenco. Nina Epton in her book, Andalusia, relates that flamenco comes from Arabic felleh mengu, a peasant song sung by the Moors of Andalusia. Besides its name, the flamenco dance itself, accompanied by the penetrating Moorish tunes of the cante jondo and with its rhythms separated by slight pauses, is of Arab origin. One can easily hear and see the similarities if one listens to the mawwals of the Arab East, or as some scholars have indicated, to the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and if one observes the Berber dances of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

The canas, jaleo, polos, and tiranas of the flamenco; the zarabanda danced in Spain during the 16th century; the zorongo dance with its Andalusian music; the jota from the Arabic khata (to step); the sequidillas; the fandango; the folias; the sevillanas; and the bulerias, all have been influenced to some extent by the music, song and dance of the Moors. Anyone who attends a wedding or spends an evening in any village of modern Andalusia will clearly recognize dances that owe much to the Arab ancestors of these village people.

In all the centuries the Arabs were in Spain they were noted for their joyful evening festivities that resounded with music, song and dance. From these noise-filled evenings of merriment, the Spanish language was enriched by many words. The peasants of Andalusia cheering the dancers of the flamenco or crying out in joy often use words from their Arab past.     The following few examples will give an idea of some of these words:


albórbola                    al-walwalah                joyful shouts

alboroto                     al-buruz                      tumult or uproar

algarabía                     al- ‘arabiyah              clamour or jabbering

algazara                      al-ghazarah                din or clamour

alarido                         al-gharid                     howl or shout

aborozar, aborozo    al-buruz                      joy or gaiety

jaleo                            hallala                          cheering or noisy time

leila                              lailah                   party or fiesta

olé                               wa-Allah                    bravo (Oh God!)

rifirrafe                        rafrafah                      squabble or fight

zalagarda                    zaghradah                  racket or noisy

zambra                       samar                          din or uproar

zaragata                     zaghradah                 brawl or quarrel

The 900 years the Arabs spent in Spain, first as conquerors then as the conquered have left their mark. When the Spaniards occupied Granada, the last city held by the Moors, Arab music and singing did not die but actually flourished. The conquered Muslims, until the first part of the 16th century, were allowed to have their music-filled evenings while their entertainers were in demand in the courts of the king and nobles of the land. The talents of the well-trained Moorish musicians and singers were known throughout all of southern Europe. However, when the Spanish Inquisition banned everything Muslim, including music and song, Moorish entertainment faded from the land. But the haunting melodies of Arab music were not lost. They evolved into the modern Spanish folk music of our day.

Stanwood Cobb in his Islamic Contributions to Civilization, discusses the effect of Arab cultural influences on Spanish music:

“The feeling, tempo and the lilt of Spanish music is more akin to Arabic than to European music, and the guitar, the most ‘Spanish’ of all instruments, was an Arab invention. As the Christian population accepted the lyric models of the Muslims, Arab songs grew more popular throughout the peninsula. Muslim musicians flourished at the courts of the kings of Castile and Aragon. Long after the fall of Granada, Moorish dancers and singers continued to entertain the natives of Spain and Portugal. The recent researches of Ribera tend to show that the popular music of Spain, in fact, of all Southwestern Europe, in and after the 13th century, like the lyric and historical romance of that region, is to be traced to Andalusian and thence through Arabic, to Persian, Byzantine and Greek sources.”

Before and after the Reconquest, Arab musicians, singers and dancers were in demand to perform concerts and other forms of entertainment in the palaces of the wealthy.

Also supporting the impressive contribution of measured music made by the Arabs, we find in the Legacy of Islam that in mensural notation, particular kinds of notes bearing such names as elmuarifa and elmuahym are of Arabic origin. Rodney Gallops further maintains in his A Book of the Basques:

“The most important legacy in the field of music left to Europe by the Arabs is mensural music. Before the close of the 12th century measured song was unknown to the Europeans; but under the name iqa’at or rhythm it had been known to the Arabs even in the 7th century. The medieval ‘hocket’ is a combination of notes and pauses and is derived from the Arabic iqa’at.”

Besides the extremely important Arab contribution to Europe of measured music there were other contributions in related fields. In their last years in Granada, the Moors were the first people in Europe to use the letters of the alphabet to denote finger position on the guitar. This method was taken over by the conquering Spaniards then passed on to the remainder of Europe. Further, the Arabs introduced into Europe frets, from the Arabic fard (notch), bars on the fingerboards of stringed instruments to regulate the fingering. According to Professor H.G. Farmer in the Legacy of Islam:

“The Arabs brought to Europe their lutes, pandores, and guitars, with the place of the     notes fixed on the finger-board by means of frets.”

The lutes, pandores and guitars with their accompanying songs were in a few centuries considered to be as Spanish as the soil of Spain itself. According to Ann Livermore in A Short History of Spanish Music, the peasants as they gather the olives for which Spain is renowned, sing songs which still carry Arab rhythms and the esquileos, shearing songs, are even today sung in the Arabic scale. Further, it is believed that the classical nauba, a musical performance with many instruments, which was common in Arab Spain, is the forerunner of the European military bands and symphonies. Indeed, the Arab influence in the field of classical music has been barely researched.

There is no doubt that the music of the West is saturated with the rhythms of Arab melodies and the future will reveal much of that which is now hidden.

This is quite evident in the field of music. Western scholars have for many centuries refused to admit that the Arabs contributed greatly to the melodies and dances of Europe. But research by honest scholars, in the last century, has established that not only measured music but the popular Spanish music and, in fact, the folk music of all South­west Europe, was taken from Arab-Andalusian sources.

The contributions made by the Arabs to Spanish music, song and dance permeate the life of modern Spain. To cite Enrique Sordo in his Moorish Spain:

“….an inner room in an Andalusian tavern; glasses of golden wine, a guitar; a voice…. The ole of the cante hondo is still the wa-Allah ‘oh God’ with which the Arabs cheered every poetic recitation.”



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