February 24, 2016
By Jacob Davis
Recently Silk Road Rising, a theatre company devoted to telling the stories of people of Asian and Middle Eastern heritage, has focused on short runs of one-person shows which directly allow people to challenge narratives about themselves. Their latest, Ziryab, the Songbird of Andalusia, is a combination of dramatic lecture and musical presentation, performed by local musician Ronnie Malley, on the subject of an eighth-century polymath whose life proves that many of today’s “ancient” conflicts are not really eternal. Malley’s musicianship is superb, and his interweaving of his own life with the story of Ziryab’s, as well as his highly-informative discourse on the medieval master’s legacy, make an enlightening performance.
Malley starts off the show as himself, and switches between his and his subject’s stories throughout the show. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, Malley experienced his Palestinian heritage as mainly one of music. His family had their own band, which director Anna C. Bahow and set/projections designer Yeaji Kim beautifully illustrate with carpets typical of the family’s performance spaces. Malley himself is proficient on the oud, which produces a lovely sound that is both Spanish and Arab, as well as related instruments. But in Chicago’s highly diverse music scene, he was exposed to styles and instruments from all over the world, and developed a wide range of tastes. It was disappointing, then, that his merely being of Palestinian descent would be so divisive. He describes how he felt constant pressure to make political statements, and encountered not only bigotry against himself, but also people who presumed he shared their anti-Semitism. That is why Malley wanted to bring us the story of Abu’l Hesen ‘Elî ibn Nafî, better known as Ziryab, who lived in a time and place of peaceful multicultural blending.
Ziryab was a black man whose career began in Baghdad, where he studied music at the court of Harun al-Rashid, the most famed of the Abbasid caliphs. His modification of the oud brought him the ruler’s praise, but also the murderous jealousy of his teacher, and he fled to the North African city of Kairouan. After writing a song calling the emir there a racist and a war-monger, he was obliged to flee again, and wound up in Cordoba, which was then experiencing what has been remembered as an age of enlightenment, as well as cultural and scientific progress. Malley connects this story with the large number of middle-eastern refugees today, as well as his own family’s expulsion from Israel. But he also demonstrates music’s power to bridge differences between people, while allowing them to express their own circumstances. We also get a basic run-down of Ziryab’s musical theory, with remains influential.
Malley’s performances on the oud and its descendants, the lute and the guitar, certainly drive home his point about music’s universal reach. His singing and playing alone are sufficient reason to see the show, and his tribute to Ziryab, with help from sound director Eric Backus, makes the past come alive. Malley’s description of medieval Baghdad and Cordoba’s has a rosy tint, and by repeatedly citing Maimonides as an example of a Jew who benefited from the same cultural climate as Ziryab, he implies that the Golden Age lasted in Andalusia for much longer than it did. But he does counter the common, simplistic narrative that Iberia was perfect until it was destroyed by the Catholic Church in one fell swoop. As he points out, tolerance actually crumbled due in large part to intra-Muslim and intra-Christian political fighting. But really, that’s a whole different lecture that doesn’t provide as many opportunities to showcase the artistic exchange that was and is very much real. There’s plenty of focus on strife out there, but Silk Road Rising provides an opportunity to see a better side of history, along with it.