If you have not heard of Ziryab, you have not lived.
Ziryab, also known as Blackbird, was probably one of the most exiting figures in Andalus but he seems to have dropped from public memory over the many years of history that tried to diminish what Andalus really offered to the world. Historians differ over whether Ziryab was African, Persian or Kurdish. According to Ibn Hayyan, ‘Ali Ibn Nafi’ was called Blackbird because of his extremely dark complexion, the clarity of his voice and “the sweetness of his character.”
As the 17th-century Arab historian al-Maqqari says in his Nafb al-Tib (Fragrant Breeze), “There never was, either before or after him, a man of his profession who was more generally beloved and admired.”
He became a beloved figure after a rather charming incident with Caliph Harun Al Rashid who was a lover of music and had many talents in his court. Amongst them was Ishaq, who was Ziryab’s teacher . When Harun Al Rashid summoned Ziryab, he was a charmer. He was asked about his skills to which he replied: “I can sing what the other singers know, but most of my repertory is made up of songs suitable only to be performed before a caliph like Your Majesty. The other singers don’t know those numbers. If Your Majesty permits, I’ll sing for you what human ears have never heard before.” With his quiet confidence he won the heart of the caliph and he was offered a flute, he said: “I’ve brought my own lute, which I made myself—stripping the wood and working it—and no other instrument satisfies me. I left it at the palace gate and, with your permission, I’ll send for it.”
He charmed the ruler and his own teacher, Ishaq became jealous of him. He offered him money to leave Baghdad and never to spite Ishaq’a fame. Ziryab did not despair, he wrote to al- Hakam, the ruler of Cordoba who invited him to his court but when Ziryab arrived, he heard the devastating news that al- Hakam was dead. he wanted to return to Baghdad but luckily, Abu al-Nasr Mansur, a Jewish musician of the Córdoban royal court, al-Hakam’s son and successor ‘Abd al-Rahman II renewed the invitation to Ziryab.
Very soon he became an influential member of upper class establishing his own music school in Cordoba and inventing a new form of music , the nubas. The nubas or naubas were an important Andalusian Arab music form that lives still today in the classical music of North Africa, known as maluf in Libya, Tunisia and eastern Algeria, and simply as andalusi music farther west. Ziryab created 24 nubas, one for each hour of the day, like the classical ragas of India. The nuba form became very popular in the Spanish Christian community and had a pronounced influence on the development of medieval European music.
But he was not just a musician, he was a style icon. For women, Blackbird opened a “beauty parlor/cosmetology school” not far from the Alcazar, the emir’s palace. He created new, daring hairstyles, by shortening and a shaped cut, with bangs on the forehead and the ears uncovered for women. He taught the shaping of eyebrows and the use of depilatories for removing body hair. He showed new perfumes and cosmetics which idea he brought from the elite social circles of Baghdad. He really was a celebrity and people followed him.
He made changes around the kitchen and dining, too. He introduced table cloth by teaching local craftsmen how to make fitting leather covers for tables. He brought glassware and cutlery at the royal court . He elevated the humble asparagus to the table as well as the idea of three-course meals unknown to the locals before. One of hte dishes of Andalus came to be known as taqliyat Ziryab, or Ziryab’s fried dish consisting of meatballs and small triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil. In Cordoba the musician-gourmet is remembered today in an old dish of roasted and salted broad beans called ziriabí. Some even claim that the Indian version of zalabia, the jalebi, can be traced back to the 15th century within India but no earlier, and could be a borrowing from the Arabs and ultimately from Ziryab.
Ziryab was an influential and close friend of Abd Al Rahman II who consulted him on many matters of the state. Their friendship was strong, although poets of the time such as Ghazzal and Ibn Habib tried to ridicule him, he kept loyal. When the emir died, Ziryab followed him five years later.
HIs influence is widespread and captures the true spirit of learning and growing in Andalus. So next time you brush your teeth, use your underarm roll on or start your meal with soup, think of Blackbird.