By Greg Moomjy
Nowadays, if you mention the Christian Reconquest of Spain in casual conversation, people probably think of The Bubble Boy episode of Seinfeld. In the episode, George plays Trivial Pursuit with someone with an autoimmune disease who lives in a bubble. This being Seinfeld, a typo on one of the cards leads to an argument. For the record, The Bubble Boy is right.
It was indeed the Moors and not the Moops who conquered southern Spain from 711 to 1492. During those seven centuries, the Moors left their mark not just on Spain but on the world. They built The Great Mosque in Córdoba as well as the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The Islamic name for the Iberian Peninsula became Andalusia. Musically, the oud, a popular string instrument in Islamic culture became the guitar, the staple of Spanish music. Lastly, Mozarab Arabic chant was one of the many styles of liturgical vocal music that became standardized as Gregorian chant. Most important, however, politically Islamic Spain was one of the few, if not the only time in history, where all three of the Abrahamic faiths actually got along. Since then, a lot has happened. Ferdinand and Isabella retook the country and began the Inquisition, which lasted for four centuries, and musically Spain fell from prominence until about the turn of the 20th century.
This is why Fatma Said’s recent recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall is so noteworthy. Along with her accompanist guitarist Rafael Aguirre, she performed a program covering the full gauntlet of Spain’s musical history. Naturally, the concert featured standard works such as Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1945) Siete cansiones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs) and Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) Selections from Old Spanish Songs, but it also featured contemporary music by Egyptian and Lebanese composers. The goal of the concert was to explore the shared musical heritage of Spain and the Arab World.
Fatma Said is a captivating recitalist. Her transfixing voice is translucent, yet it also has depth. She also possesses a solid vocal technique capable of producing a caliber of Mezzo di Voce which usually one only hears from the likes of Joyce DiDonato. Her vocal prowess came in handy, particularly in the Lebanese piece where she had to imitate a flute in “Give Me a Flute and Sing” a piece by Lebanese composer Najib Hankash to text by Khalil Gibran. She ended the evening with an encore of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, finishing it off with a frilly ornament, just for the fun of it, like she was tying a ribbon around a present.
Her accompanist Rafael Aguirre deserves much credit for giving a truly adept performance. This being a Spanish program, naturally there were a lot of guitar flourishes. But there were also many moments of more intricate counterpoint, which he deftly navigated. Such was the case in the Jota, which is basically a Spanish folk dance similar to the Waltz. Still, his moment to shine came at the top of the second half when he performed, a piece for solo guitar, written by Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) who is most well-known for his Concierto de Aranjuez. It was fascinating to hear all the different sounds and textures the guitar is called upon to perform this piece. At one point Aguirre made his instrument sound like a snare drum. In short, it was a great evening of music making. Not only was it a great evening at the concert hall but their performances demonstrated that its time for the music of Spain and the Arab World to claim their rightful place in the canon.