Deodorants and the origins of flamenco

Abu I-Hasan, 789-857, nicknamed “Ziryab” from the Arabic for “black bird,” was a musician, singer, composer, poet and teacher, who lived and worked in Baghdad, in Northern Africa, and during some thirty years also in al-Andalus in Spain. More than anything he was a master of the oud, the Arabic lute, to which he added a fifth pair of strings and began playing with a pick rather than with the fingers. Many good musicians assembled at the court in Córdoba, but Ziryab was the best. He established a school where the Arabic style of music was taught for successive generations, creating a tradition which was to have a profound influence on all subsequent Spanish music, not least on the flamenco.

The first references to flamenco can be found only in the latter part of the eighteenth century and then it was associated with the Romani people. Yet it is obvious that the flamenco is a product of the uniquely Andalusian mixture of cultures. The music does indeed sound Romani but at the same time also Arabic, Jewish and Spanish. According to one theory, the word “flamenco” comes from the Arabic fellah menghu, meaning “expelled peasant.” The fellah menghu were Arabs who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 and some of them joined Romani communities in order to escape persecution. The Arabs and the Roma must have enjoyed themselves playing guitar and dancing together.

As for Ziryab, he was also ninth century Córdoba’s leading authority on questions of food and fashion. He was said to have changed his clothes according to the weather and the season, and he had the idea of wearing different dress for mornings, afternoons and evenings. He invented a new type of deodorant and a toothpaste, and promoted the idea of taking daily baths. He also made it fashionable for men to shave their beards. In addition, Ziryab popularized the concept of three-course meals, consisting of soup, main course and dessert, and he was the person who introduced the asparagus into Europe. If a society’s level of civilization can be determined by its standard of hygiene, Ziryab had a profoundly civilizing impact on southern Spain.

External links:

In Our Time, “Muslim Spain”