3. Twentieth century renaissances

(i) The legacy of the Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger


The ma'luf entered its first modern renaissance in the 1920s when the baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger, pioneering scholar and patron of traditional Arab music, turned his palace in Sidi Bou Said, on the outskirts of Tunis, into a centre of musical performance and scholarship. D'Erlanger believed that with the decline of traditional patronage and the increasing lure of Western influences, the very survival of the ma'luf depended on providing the fragile oral tradition with a foundation of music theory and notation.

The results of d'Erlanger's scholarly efforts were published posthumously in his monumental six-volume work, La Musique Arabe (1930-1959). Volumes 5 and 6, on the melodic modes, rhythms and forms of contemporary Arab music, were originally presented as reports to the 1932 Cairo congress, just a few months before d’Erlanger’s death that year.

The Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger. Self-portrait (detail)

In his attempt to reconstruct an authentic sound for the ma’luf, before the widespread adoption of foreign Arab and Western instruments (6), d’Erlanger created the ensemble which represented Tunisia at the Cairo congress; it comprised an 'ud 'arbi (Tunisian short-necked lute with four strings) rabab (two-stringed boat-shaped fiddle), naqqarat (pair of small kettle-drums), tar (tambourine) and sawt al-taws (falsetto voice).

D'Erlanger's ensemble at the 1932 Cairo Congress

Spurred by the momentum of d’Erlanger’s project and the Cairo Congress, the Rashidiyya Institute was founded in Tunis in November 1934. Named after the 18th century aristocratic patron and amateur, Muhammad al-Rashid Bey, the Rashidiyya aimed both to conserve and promote the ma’luf and to promote the highest musical and literary standards in new Tunisian song composition. In contrast to d’Erlanger, who regarded European influences as the main threat to the ma’luf, the Rashidiyya’s Tunisian founders were motivated rather by their concern to defend Tunisian music from the pervasive influence of Egyptian music in the capital. In pursuit of its goals, the Rashidiyya not only created a new type of ensemble with distinctive sonorities and performance conventions; it also provided for the ma'luf a new institutional framework, social environment, and academic status.

Ma'luf ensembles of the time typically comprised a variable number of solo instrumentalists doubling as chorus, and optionally, one or more singers. Each ensemble was led by a shaykh, normally the 'ud player, who promoted his own version of the melodies; the solo instrumentalists and vocalists embellished these in simple heterophony while the chorus sang in unison. The Rashidiyya, in contrast, was a showcase ensemble, modelled partly on the Western orchestra and partly on contemporary Egyptian ensembles. It comprised a nucleus of bowed violins, one or more cellos and double basses, an arbitrary combination of traditional Arab melody instruments, darbukka, tar and naqqarat and a separate chorus of male and female voices. The predominant sound was that of bowed strings and chorus, in unison and at the octave. In order to standardise the diverse versions of the various shaykhs, the instrumentalists performed from transcriptions in modified Western staff notation made by members of the Rashidiyya; the chorus, in contrast, learnt the melodies from a chorus master by repetition and memorisation. The Rashidiyya included a school which taught Arab music theory, sol-fege and Western staff notation.

The Rashidiyya also provided a platform for composers, poets and singers of new songs deemed to represent the highest artistic standards. Many of the new songs were taken up by the national radio, founded in 1938, and by the commercial record industry. Today, songs by composers and singers fostered by the Rashidiyya in the decades preceding independence have achieved the status of popular classics, and they are variously designated musiqa al-'atiqa or al-taqlidiyya (musique traditionelle) or even, loosely, ma'luf (7).
Salayha - the Rashidiyya's star singer of the 1930s and 1940s

(ii) The ma'luf, the state and the media after independence

After Tunisian Independence in 1956, the Ministry of Culture published the Rashidiyya's transcriptions in a series of nine volumes entitled Al-Turath Al-Musiqi Al-Tunisi (Patrimoine Musical Tunisien). The volumes were distributed to amateur ensembles, modelled on the Rashidiyya, in newly established music clubs and schools throughout the country. The ma'luf was thus introduced to areas where it was previously unknown, and the Rashidiyya's versions of the melodies and its novel performance style were introduced to areas with distinctive ma'luf traditions of their own. The government established an annual cycle of competitions culminating in the festival of the ma’luf in Testour, a small agricultural town, some 70 kilometres northeast of Tunis, renowned for its historic ma’luf tradition. The Testour festival served as the national competition between ensembles representing all the regions, and it was adjudicated by delegates of the Ministry of Culture.

The main street of Testour decorated for the annual ma'luf festival

The ma'luf became the core component of the curriculum leading to the examination for the National Diploma of Arab Music. The examination requirements were defined by Presidential decree in 1958 and they remain unchanged until today. Derived from the syllabus of the Rashidiyya school, the state curriculum includes theory and repertory of both Tunisian and Egyptian traditions based on sol-fege and Western notation. It is taught in full by the National Conservatory in Tunis (formerly the French music conservatory), by the various regional conservatories and up to varying levels by other state music educational centres.

The relationship between the Rashidiyya, popular song and the media changed definitively when, in 1958, the new government created a full-time professional radio ensemble. Incorporating the elite of the Rashidiyya’s past and present membership, the new ensemble was modelled after contemporary Egyptian radio and film ensembles and it included various electronic and other non-Arab instruments (El-Mahdi 1981: 57-58). Its primary function was to record for subsequent transmission the new Tunisian songs, typically in Egyptian styles, commissioned by the ERTT (8). The extent of the ERTT’s influence on Tunisian song composition can be gauged by the fact that, until the advent of private studios in the 1980s, it housed the only recording studio in Tunisia (9).

The ERTT made studio recordings of the ma'luf performed by a special reduced section of the radio ensemble led by Abdulhamid Belalgia with Khemais Tarnane (formerly the 'ud player in d'Erlanger's ensemble) directing the chorus.

Descended from a family of shaykhs of the ma'luf, Belalgia had passed through the Rashidiyya school and he played the nay in the Rashidiyya ensemble; he had also graduated from the French music conservatory in piano, flute and composition. In 1979, Belalgia was appointed Director of Music in the ERTT.

Equivalent recordings were made by the Rashidiyya, which had replenished its ranks from among professor and students of the newly created National Conservatory. When the television section was introduced in 1967, studio recordings were made of both ensembles in video format. Henceforth, the archival recordings of the Radio and Rashidiyya ensembles served as the standard sources for routine broadcasts of the ma'luf, providing models for students and amateur ensembles throughout Tunisia. Effectively, the ERTT created a sound canon complementing the notated canon of Al-Turath Al-Musiqi Al-Tunisi.

Abdulhamid Belalgia, director of the Radio ensemble, in his office at the ERTT

Divorced from popular commercial entertainment, the ma'luf consolidated its identity as an academic tradition, relegated to the Rashidiyya, the new state-sponsored cultural and educational institutions and the archive of the ERTT. By the early 1980s, when I began my fieldwork in Tunis, musicians, intellectuals and government officials alike were bemoaning the 'crisis' in Tunisian music: the ma'luf had become a 'museum piece' and Tunisian song, based almost entirely on Egyptian modes and rhythms, had lost its orientation and identity.

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