2. The ma’luf of Tunisia

The ma'luf (literally, "familiar", or "that which is customary") is the Tunisian version of the so-called Andalusian musical tradition believed to have originated in the Arabic speaking communities of medieval Spain (3). With the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews from Spain in the wake of the Christian reconquest, their music was transplanted into towns across North Africa where it acquired distinctive local traits.
When Tunisia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, the ma'luf was adopted by the new Turkish rulers, or beys; in the 18th century, Muhammad al-Rashid Bey was allegedly responsible for arranging the main body of the repertory into thirteen vocal cycles, or nubat, and introducing instrumental pieces into the canon. But the ma'luf was not confined to the aristocracy; in Tunis and other towns, Sufi musicians sang the traditional songs both for recreation and as a deliberate act of preservation in their meeting places, or zwaya (s. zawiya), in cafes and in communal festivities, where they were enjoyed by all social classes (4).

In the same communities, Jewish musicians adapted the melodies to Hebrew texts, both traditional and new; the Hebrew songs, called piyyutim, were sung in the synagogue and at home, in worship and in family celebrations (5).

Sufi musicians of Testour singing the ma'luf in a street procession in a traditional wedding ritual

The ma'luf is an oral tradition, but the song texts, in the literary Arabic genres of muwashshah and zajal, were recorded in special collections called safa’in (literally, vessels). With their archaic mix of literary Arabic and dialect, their focus, resonant of Sufi mystic poetry, on love unfulfilled or otherwise unattainable, and their rarefied imagery depicting human beauty, cultivated nature, precious jewels and the intoxicating effects of wine, the song texts reinforce the historic associations of the ma'luf with an idealised and irretrievable past. For Tunisians today, the ma'luf is symbolic of 'old Tunisia,' and of social groups, customs and venues that are now obsolete or otherwise transformed: the culture of the palaces, the Sufi brotherhoods with their marabouts and pilgrimages, the cafes with their hashish smokers, and the Jews, artisans and barbers who were once its principal professional exponents.
Jacob Bsiri, Jewish musician of Hara Kebira, Djerba,
singing piyyutim at the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue

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