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Traditio vel Aemulatio? The Singing Contest of Samarra, Expression of a Medieval Culture of Competition

Traditio vel Aemulatio? The Singing Contest of Samarra, Expression of a Medieval Culture of Competition

Traditio vel Aemulatio? The Singing Contest of Samarra, Expression of a Medieval Culture of Competition

By Agnes Imhof

Der Islam, Vol.90:1 (2013)

Abstract: There is hardly any evidence suggesting that the singing contest of Samarra deals with traditio. Music is mainly performance, and the significance of improvisation allows the singer, male or female, to assume a key position. Regardless of the school, Arab Music of the 9th century is characterized by the aemulative event, especially in the form of competition and contest.

The rivalry between two famous female singers was the topic of the day in al-Mutawakkil’s (r. 847–61) Samarra, according to the Kitab al-aghani. We are told that “the refined and well-bred people at this time were divided into two communities, one of them supporting ‘Arib (‘Aribiyya), the other one backing Shariya (Sharawiyya) …” Further, in the same context: “(…) The supporters of one party did not use to visit those of the other one, nor were they friends with each other.”

The texts are concerned with the most famous female singers of their time. Their rivalry was interpreted by J.E. Bencheikh as a mere continuation of a querelle des anciens et des modernes between two musical “schools,” whose actual exponents had been the singers Ishaq al-Mawsili (d. ca. 850) and Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (d. 839). In fact, Ishaq al-Mawsili is usually regarded as an exponent of the classical Arabic musical tradition from the Hijaz, to which ‘Arib may have also been inclined.


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