February 21, 2016
By Lawrence Bommer
In the basement of the Chicago Temple, playwright/actor/musician Ronnie Malley displays his electric affinity for and considerable fluency in a dozen musical tongues. In 75 minutes this Chicago performer takes us back to the ninth century and deep into our own. On Yeaji Kim’s magic-carpet set, strewn with exotic musical instruments and illustrated by evocative projections and video, Ziryab: The Songbird of Andalusia is a welcome, multi-cultural world premiere from Silk Road Rising. Malley’s labor of love testifies to the power of art to make us at home wherever.
Malley, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side in a Palestinian-American family who refused to feel like exiles, is steeped in global music. Pursuing its sources from Morocco to Iraq, this splendid singer melds regional styles in a stunning showcase where harmony is literal. Along the way he regales us with Arabic poetry, legends and songs that reprise the golden age of Islamic Iberia.
Malley centers this contagious nostalgia among the wonders of Al-Andalus. Southern Spain, of course, is where the mosque of Córdoba, Seville’s magnificent Christian/Islamic Giralda tower, and the palace and gardens of the Alhambra in Granada still proclaim a glorious culture lost in 1491 to Ferdinand and Isabella (Aragon and Castile). For seven centuries Andalusia wasn’t just an architectural wonderland of arabesque filigree and tiled shrines. It saw a diverse Semitic realm of mutual admiration. Here Jewish, Islamic and Christian scholars and artists could learn and create together, a comingling of cultures that has seldom happened since. As Malley says, it’s more important to be good neighbors than good Jews, Arabs or Christians.
Malley fixes his musical evolution to the memory of the great Abu I-Hasan, known as Ziryab (“Nightingale” or “Blackbird” to his Spanish devotes). He was a former slave who lived and worked in Iraq, northern Africa and finally medieval Spain. Ziryab (789-857) was an omni-talented avatar, composing, playing the oud, writing poetry, teaching, and inspiring to today. He proved invaluable to every court where he was preferred–the Abbasids in Baghdad and the castle of Abd ar-Rahman II of the Umayyads in Córdoba. This maker of an astounding 10,000 songs was a master of many trades, gifted in cooking, fashion, weather prediction, botany, geography and astronomy.
But mostly music, as Malley traces his influence through the instruments he plays — dulcimer, lute, even electric guitar, and the moods he conjures with engaging virtuosity. Malley richly regales us with songs that are both time trips and travelogues. His avocation is as religious as artistic. It links him in tolerance to the Abrahamic god of three religions and countless cultures. Malley connects us too. The result is wonderful.