Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’, later nicknamed Ziryab (meaning blackbird for his dark skin & fine singing voice) was born in 789 AD, in Iraq. At that time it was under the auspices of the Persian empire. Many historians argue that he was of Kurdish or African descent, but agree that he was a freed slave. He was the student of Ishaq al-Mawsili, court musician to Harun Al-Rashid, caliph of Baghdad. His learning and talent outstripped his teacher and he was exiled. He traveled through Syria, Ifriqiya, the Maghreb and the over the straits to Al-Andalus. He was invited to the court of Abd ar-Rahman II who was eager to set up an outpost of Middle Eastern civilization in the land of the Visigoths and Vandals. He was paid a large stipend, which he used to set up a music school which lasted centuries.

The above picture is a 16th century miniature from Iran.

Before Ziryab, the lute was four stringed. He designed a lighter body with an extra double string, using an eagle talon to pluck. He had a great memory for songs, thought to be around 10,000. His wit and wisdom became well-known and much sought after. He set out how food was to be served- soup, then meat/fish, then sweets. This had not been done in Baghdad, but he brought over many recipes and introduced asparagus to the Andalus. He also introduced the use of crystal instead of trenchers and silver goblets. He brought in astronomers from over the world and encouraged the study of the stars.

More interesting of his talents was he inspired fashionable haircuts for women, as well as setting up a “day spa” where eyebrow shaping, hair depilatory and haircuts were done. Seasonal fashions were also inspired by Ziryab, who taught that dark colours should be worn in winter and light colours with flowing fabric should be worn in summer.

He died in 857, leaving his eight sons and two daughters his school. However, his legacy can still be seen today.

Zaryâb: A genius Iranian musician by G. TALEBZADEH.
Saudi Aramco: Flight of the Blackbird by Robert W. Lebling Jnr.
MuslimHeritage.com: Ziryab, the Musician, Astronomer, Fashion Designer and Gastronome.
Music in Ancient Arabia and Spain by Eleanor Hague. Google Books preview.
Golden age of the Moor, Volume 11 by Ivan Van Sertima. Google Books preview.
Jstor article: Performing al-Andalus, Remembering al-Andalus: Mediterranean Soundings from Mashriq to Maghrib by Jonathan H. Shannon. You must have access to Jstor to download these articles. Please check your local University or State Library.
Jstor article: The Performance of Music in Spain by J. B. Trend.
Jstor aticle: The Structure of the Arabian and Persian Lute in the Middle Ages by Henry George Farmer.

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