North African nawba

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NOTE: for musical examples on this page please see here

Music of al-Andalus

Building on the Abbasid tradition of Baghdad (his master was Ishaq al-Mawsili, the great lutenist of the Abbasid court under Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and Ma'mun), Ziryab (789–857) -- who had to flee to the Umayyad court of Cordoba (arriving around 822), due to conflict at the Baghdad court - subsequently developed the 24 nawba ("turn"), each based in a tab` (mode, plural tubu`, similar to maqamat). The tubu` corresponded to the hours of the day, and were also associated with colors, moods, and elements. The tradition spread widely and diversified across Andalusian cities.

(In Abbasid times, nawba ("turn") referred to one’s “turn” to perform for the patron).

As non-Christians and former Muslims ("moriscos") were ejected from al-Andalus into North Africa (a process continuing over several centuries, starting from the 10th, and into the 17th), these musical traditions spread through North Africa, supposedly as follows:

Grenada and Valencia -> Fez, Morocco (ala or gharnati)
Cordoba -> Algeria (gharnati in Tlemcen; san`a in Algiers)
Seville -> Tunis (ma’luf)

See map highlighting these movements, according to Ruth Davis.

See also this map showing linguistic changes in Andalusia corresponding to movements of peoples. Mozarabic refers to romance languages spoken by those who were also fluent in Arabic, living under Muslim rule.

Turath of North Africa

The Andalusian turath is an art music tradition, variously called Musiqa Andalusiyya or:

Ala ("instrument") (in Morocco, esp. Fez)
Gharnati ("Granadan") (in NW Algeria, esp. Tlemcen)
San`a ("song", literally "work") (in Algiers and further east)
Ma’luf ("familiar") (Tunisia, as well as Constantine in NE Algeria)

These traditions are rooted in al-Andalus, but developed differently, as the music entered over a long period of time, merging with local traditions (for instance Ottoman influence through Algeria but not in Morocco; Berber music; other Arab traditions that developed there earlier), and taking different trajectories due to myriad local factors, up through colonialism (e.g. French in Morocco celebrated this music, whereas in Algeria they repressed it). Later nationalism played a role also, as each new nation tried to conserve and celebrate its own tradition, in its own way. However there are elements shared even today.

Each nawba is named after its primary melodic mode, or tab` (impression or mood; a concept genetically related to maqam). But the nawba ("turn") is more than a mode - it's a suite - a cycle of compositions, generally progressing from "heavier" (slower longer rhythms) to "lighter" (faster shorter rhythms), balancing instrumental/vocal, solo/group, improvised/precomposed. The poetry draws primarily on the muwashshah and zajal traditions developed in Andalusia; both feature strophes with variable rhymes, but the former is classical Arabic, while the latter is colloquial. The full matrix is thus: multiple tubu`, multiplying through multiple genres of the cycles (nawbat).

The tradition developed and was maintained at courts, as well as in the context of Sufi orders, with new lyrics or love lyrics assuming spiritual meanings.

General form: instrumental prelude, followed by a series of precomposed vocal pieces, each with characteristic melody and rhythm. Poems tend to be strophic muwashshahat. Solo singer (munshid) leads chorus. These are interspersed with ametric vocal solos.

The separation of musical traditions across North Africa has been shaped by migration patterns, and patterns of interaction.

More recently concepts of these multiple traditions have also been influenced (and realized, in practice) via nationalisms. Each country (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) boasts its unique "art music" and new fracture have evolved as a result of this ideological influence, coupled with institutional (e.g. conservatory) and media power.

Moroccan nuba: ala

1. Mishalia or bughya – non-metric, semi-improvisd vocal
2. toushiya – metric instrumental
3. Nuba proper in five parts/rhythms (mayazin), gradually accelerating:

a. bsit 6/4
b. qa’im wa nuss 8/4
c. btaihi ¾ + 6/8 + 2/4
d. draj (insiraf?) 8/4
e. quddam ¾ or 6/8
end with qufl

Each of the 5 sections contains various numbers of san`a – muwashshahat songs, including nonsense syllables. Each is preceded by an instrumental solo, and interspersed munshid solos with oud and kamanja accompanying bitain (2 lines) or mawwal improv.

Algerian nuba of Algiers: san`a


  • Tushiyya or tshanbar (metered, instrumental, composed)
  • Mshalya (metered, instrumental, composed)
  • Istikhbar (instrumental or vocal improvisation

Inqilab: separate genre, but may serve as prelude in place of tushiya

Core movements of Algerian nuba:

  1. mṣaddar (in 4)
  2. bṭayḥī (in 4)
  3. darj (in 4 or 6)
  4. inṣirāf (6/4)
  5. khlāṣ (6/8)

Instrumental Interlude: Kursi
Postlude: Tushiyat al-kamaal

Each region has its own style. Example mixing styles: Tlemcen (western Algeria) gharnati and Constantine (eastern Algeria) ma’luf styles.


1. da’ira – short vocal prelude, stock text formulae
2. toushiya – metric instrumental 2/4
3. Nuba proper in five parts/rhythms (mayazin), gradually accelerating:

a. msaddar 4/4
b. btaihi 4/4
c. draj 4/4
d. insiraf 5/8
e. khlas 6/8

An instrumental intro (“kursi”, chair) may precede each section. Free rhythm vocal and instrumental pieces called istikhbar may also be interspersed.

The nawba ensemble of Algiers:

s’nitar (similar to mandolin)
kwitra (8 string lute)
qanun (plucked zither)
ud (fretless lute)
nay (reed flute)
rebab (spike fiddle)
kamanja (similar to violin, played on knee)
tar (frame drum)
darbouka (hour-glass drum)

Listen to a performance of a Nuba in tab` (mode) Ghrib, sung by Mohamed Khaznadji (b. 1929, Algiers), with accompaniment on kwitra (local oud, also called s'nitar), ud, qanun, darbouka, ney, tar

Ghrib mode: similar to Bayati (D – Ed – F$ - G – A - Bd – C)


1. Istikhbar, kwitra (instrumental)
2. toushiya (instrumental)
3. Mode Ghrib intro: istikhbar - qanun/ud/nay (instrumental)
4. Kursi (instr)
5. Msaddar (first movement), "Slave to Pleasure"
6. istikhbar - solo kwitra and voice
7. kursi introduction (instr)
8. B'tayhi (2nd movement), "Promises" (muwashshah)
9. kursi introduction (instr)
10. Darj (3rd movement), "My tears are a message" (muwashshah)
11. kursi introduction (instr)
12. Insraf (4th movement), "Her charming visit" (muwashshah)
13. Insraf (4th movement, cont.), "O sweet moments!" (muwashshah)
14. Khlas (5th movement), "I fall for a beautiful woman" (muwashshah)

Tunisian ma'luf

Preserved via Rashidiyya Institute (founded 1934).

13 nawbat today

Sequence of movements (after the first, named for rhythmic cycles); five main vocal sections in bold:

  1. Istiftah ("opening") - instrumental introduction, ametric but roughly duple meter
  2. Msaddar , triple meter - instrumental
  3. Abyat (vocal)
  4. Btayhi
  5. Tuwshiyya (instrumental)
  6. Barwal
  7. Draj
  8. Khafif
  9. Khitm

Shorter instrumental preludes (adkhal or farighat) may precede the vocal pieces as well.

Listen to Nawbat Isbahan (and follow along on notations if you wish) (audio also available on YouTube; this performance is by the Music and Choral Group of Tunisian Radio, in collaboration with Shaykh Khamis al-Turnan on oud, recorded in 1962 and published in 1993.)

Lutfi Bushnaq is an outstanding exponent of contemporary Tunisian tarab music, including ma'luf - such as this contemporary version, as well as the more traditional form.