Recording of May 1995: Calamus: The Splendour of al-Andalus

CALAMUS: The Splendour of al-Andalus
Eduardo Paniagua, chabbada, flutes, salterio, târ, cymbals, voice; Luis Delgado, oud, citola, guimbri, doira, târ, handclaps, voice; Begoña Olavide, voice, quanun, salterio, caraqebs, târ, darûga; Rosa Olavide, voice, rabel, viola, portative organ, cymbals; Carlos Paniagua, darbûga, t'abila, pandero, campanillas, voice
M•A Recordings M026A (CD only). Todd Garfinkle, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 60:10

The emirate of al-Andalus (756-1031 AD), or Muslim Spain, was one of the world's great civilizations. Wealthy, stable, and tolerant (since taxes fell chiefly on non-believers, they welcomed diversity), it was a center of learning, a realm in which all of the arts flourished.

Sometime around 822 AD, Ziryab—a great court musician and poet from Baghdad—arrived in Cordoba. His impact on the culture of Moorish Spain cannot be overstated: he revolutionized Spanish-Arabian manners (down to the arrangement of courses in a meal); created new poetic forms; founded a music school; and brought with him the knowledge of how to build some 40 musical instruments—including his own creation, the instrument we now call the lute.

Over the next few centuries, al-Andalus developed a richly diverse musical tradition, one which was formally ejected from Spain during the reconquista (1031-1492 AD). By the 13th century, with the fall of Cordoba, Seville, and Valencia, the moriscos began their exodus toward Granada and Northern Africa. The great musical schools were re-established in Tunisia and Algeria, where the music remained reasonably true to its root-stock.

This is the tradition to which Calamus pays homage in this warm, vibrant, splendidly human CD, recorded in the Monasterio de la Santa Espina, Valladolid on a customized 96kHz Pioneer D-07 DAT recorder. The first thing you'll notice about the disc is the richly reverberant room acoustic. When the initial notes of the disc—vigorously strummed on citola, a proto-guitar—fill the space and then bloom as they find the room's boundaries and linger, it almost seems like too much of a good thing. But when the ensemble joins in, it's articulate and detailed—warmed, not overwhelmed, by that marvelous acoustic. To achieve this, engineer Garfinkle has obviously recorded the ensemble from an intimate perspective, but it never sounds too close. After all, this was music that was designed to be performed among its listeners, not at them.

Intimacy informs this disc with every phrase. The quintet plays well together—colloquially, not stiffly. The music never strays far from dance. Begoña Olavide possesses a warm, intense, expressive voice. The first time I heard it—in Stax's room at WCES—I nearly leaped out of my skin when she sang "Insad (God Watch Over the Singer)"; it was as warm and intimate and shocking as a tongue in the ear.

The disc is immensely moving, suffused with longing, pain, and a sense of resignation, and yet I can't get enough of it. There's such an exciting sense of shared humanity in this recording that I'm not conscious of the distance of centuries, continents, cultures—I am the singer, I have been the songwriter, I inhabit the notes.—Wes Phillips