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The Iranian roots of the guitar

By Nima Kasraie
November 6, 2002
The Iranian

The Spaniard Paco De Lucia, one of the world's greatest guitar legends, has an album titled "Zyryab" ("Zar Yab" in Persian) dedicated to an Iranian musician also known as Abul-Hassan Ali ibn e Nafi who lived during the Abbasid era. A contemporary of Ebrahim e Mowseli and his son Isaac, both royal musicians, they were all among the greatest masters of music in the Abbasid court.

Ebrahim e Mowseli (125-188 After Hijra), son of Mahan, son of Bahman, son of Pashang, all were farmers from an area called Arjan, near Shiraz, Iran. Ebrahim was born in Kufeh, close to the Abbasid capital. Ebrahim learned music from a Zoroastrian named Javanooyeh who lived in Rey (present day Tehran). There, he also married a girl named Shahak Razi, giving them their son, Isaac (150-235 After Hijra).

It is said Ebrahim had such a keen sense of hearing that he could recognize the sound of one instrument among 30 others playing. The author Abol Faraj e Isfahani has, in his book Aghani, described Isaac as "an ocean" compared to all other musicians of the royal court which he called "streams of water".

Like his father Ebrahim, Isaac was very admired at the royal Abbasid Court of Harun Al-Rashid and his successor Ma'mun. The Caliph Mu'tasem said of Isaac: "Whenever Isaac sings, it is as if my empire has expanded." One of the great accomplishments of Isaac was the training of a student known as Zyryab.

In the late 8th century, Zyryab took his knowledge and mastery of music to newly conquered Spain. There he became very famous, and opened a school of music. So famous in fact, that the Spanish today consider him the creator of the Guitar. It is said that he knew 10,000 songs by heart. He lived in Cordoba up to the end of his days, changing the history of music in Andalusia and Europe forever.

Ebne Khladun, the mideival historian and philosopher (732-808 After Hijra) says this about him:

The Mowselians had a servant named Zyryab who had learned music from his masters [Ebrahim and Isaac] very well. Many musicians of the royal court gradually grew to envy him, and so the Abbasid authorities eventually sent him to exile in Andalusia.

Zyryab was received at the Moorish court of Hakam ibn e Hisham ibn e Abdol-Rahman e Dakhel, ruler of Andalusia. Zyryab soon became well admired and respected. So much so that he was given numerous gifts and awards from the Emir, and even appointed in his royal court alongside his most trusted and learned men.

Thus music in Andalusia progresssed greatly due to Zyryab. And long after his death, his music continued to be played and recited and taught to students. His art [students] were like a vast ocean that spread to north Africa after the fall of Cordoba, and even today traces of his music can be found everywhere in that region.

Music in Iran however has a tradition that goes well before the Abbasid period, in fact reaching a remarkable stage of development during the Sasanid period as it had historical and in-essence connections to poetry.

Great musicians and composers, most notably Barbad, were reported to have been present at the courts of Sasanian emperors, notably that of Khosrow Parviz. It was in fact this same musical tradition that enlivened the mentioned Abbasid court and nourished the courts of many rulers, eventually laying the foundations of middle eastern music.

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