Review | The Ma’lūf in Contemporary Libya: An Arab Andalusian Musical Tradition by Philip Ciantar

The Ma'lūf in Contemporary Libya: An Arab Andalusian Musical Tradition. By Philip Ciantar. Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. [xviii, 183 p. ISBN 9781409444725. £60/$98.49.] Music examples, photographs, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Leila Tayeb


With The Ma’luf in Contemporary Libya: An Arab Andalusian Musical Tradition, Maltese ethnomusicologist Philip Ciantar makes a significant contribution to the literature on Andalusian musical traditions in North Africa, which prior to Ciantar’s work has focused on Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, to the omission of Libya. Field research in Libya has been notoriously difficult in the past decades; as such Ciantar’s book provides valuable ethnography of music practice during the last decade of the Gaddafi era while broadening the scope of study of Andalusian music.

Working in an area and genre about which little has been published in English, Ciantar’s project is largely one of mapping. He locates the Libyan ma’luf relative to other North African Andalusian nawba repertoires; he situates this repertoire and changes within it in a regional history of musical modernization; and he positions his own scholarship in the broader vein of Arab music, drawing on and comparing his case to work on Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia (Racy 2003, Marcus 2007, Reynolds 2000, Guettat 1980, Shannon 2006, Davis 2004). In investigating the ma’luf, which literally translates to the “familiar,” Ciantar differentiates between what he terms ma’luf az-zawiya, the ma’luf performance that takes place in a Sufi lodge, and ma’luf al-idha‘a, the “broadcasting” or radio ma’luf. He uses this distinction to differentiate between performance contexts, as well as to mark a shift at 1964, which he calls “the year during which the ma’luf stepped into the domain of musical ‘professionalism’ and, therefore, significant change was generated and made plausible” (65). It was in November of that year that the ma’luf ensemble led by Hassan Araibi, who has since become “an icon of Libya’s musical heritage” (74), first performed in downtown Tripoli (76). Araibi led a government-subsidized ensemble until his death in 2009.

Ciantar notes that his interlocutors described the ma’luf as turath qadim, old heritage, making a direct link between the Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain during the Reconquista and the texts, melodies, and rhythms used in twentieth century Libyan practice. The study of Andalusian musical traditions is thus also the study of how repertoires change over time, how oral traditions are fixed through transcription and recording, and the contestation that takes place within and through these processes. Ciantar compellingly describes the ambivalent public reception that met the aesthetic and structural innovations taken by Araibi’s ensemble in 1964. This ambivalence wasn’t temporary; speaking of the period of his research some forty years later, Ciantar writes, “Some believe that ma’luf songs can still be composed nowadays, while others are of the opinion that the ma’luf repertory is now fixed and new songs are no longer composed and integrated” (108).

In the book’s epilogue Ciantar argues, “What the ma’luf means in contemporary Libyan society is very much determined by the way Libyans think and talk about it” (163). Indeed, the multivocal moments in the text, those in which Ciantar’s Libyan interlocutors come through most directly, are some of the most compelling. There is one in which he quotes Araibi describing his assessment of new ensemble recruits: “‘A voice can have a harsh timbre,’ he told me, ‘but it would still be considered special’” (91). In another, we meet a member of Araibi’s ensemble named Salah whose “main musical passion was rock music” (87). He tells the ethnographer, “We only play rock in the garage where we meet to rehearse. […] Playing rock music in public is not allowed here for both political and religious reasons” (87). In another, a group of interlocutors discusses the recent appearance of the Araibi ensemble on television for a state function for diplomats. One suggests that this appearance degrades the artists. Another asks rhetorically, “How could we refuse when the invitation came directly from the Leader?” (81). These are some of the more provocative instances in the text, and I would have liked them to be more numerous and more substantively explicated. A more reflective ethnographic method would also offer deeper insight into how and why Ciantar gains certain perspectives. He tells us, for example, at the beginning of Chapter 3, “The first time I visited Libya I was treated as if I were a diplomat, with a pre-planned programme of formal visits, and a driver and a mentor at my disposal” (66). This was in 2002, as Ciantar notes, a period in which the Gaddafi administration was attempting to alter its international image. Presumably some of Ciantar’s apparent hesitancy to delve deeply into politics, including the institutional structures he promises to analyze, stemmed from the research support he received from the Libyan government. But as a now historical document of precisely that era, these relationships are, for this reader, what would be most interesting to know more about.

The other moments where Ciantar missteps are where his assertions sound like a kind of throwback ethnomusicology that attempts to characterize “the Libyan nation” as a whole through one of its musical traditions. I would surmise that this comes about in part as an attempt to account for the 2011 revolution, an understandably arduous task considering that Ciantar’s research started in 2002 and by 2011 he would have already been working in manuscript form. Nonetheless, the result is troubling as it manifests for example at the end of Chapter 4. There, having rather hastily compared the structure of the ma’luf to “Libyan Muslim architecture,” Ciantar begins to muse about the relationship of these musical and architectural structures to the 2011 revolution. He writes, “At this stage, one wonders whether the uprising against Gaddafi’s rule […] was linked not only to the longing for democracy but also to a state of life compatible with the social and cultural identity of the Libyans – an identity that cherishes what is also valued in the musical structure of the turath qadim, that is, a cohesive structure, that whilst lacking emphasis on melodic lavishness, allows for the flourishing of novel musical ideas and stylistically appropriate ways of matching words to music” (136).

Musings about the 2011 revolution aside, Ciantar offers a compelling read of the Libyan ma’luf, useful for those seeking to broaden their knowledge of music in the Middle East and North Africa.



Davis, Ruth. 2004. Ma’luf: Reflections on the Arab Andalusian Music of Tunisia. Oxford: Scarecrow Press.

Guettat, Mahmoud. 1980. La Musique Classique du Maghreb. Paris: Sindbad.

Marcus, Scott L. 2007. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Experiencing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Racy, Ali Jihad. 2003. Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reynolds, Dwight. 2000. “Music,” in Maria Rosa Menocal, Raymond P. Scheindlin, and Michael Sells (eds), The Literature of Al-Andalus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 60-82.

Shannon, Jonathan H. 2006. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

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