William and Mary was recently the fortunate host of two outstanding musicians, Nasreddine Chaabane and Amina Bensaad. Mr. Chaabane, who plays the mandole, and Ms Bensaad, who plays the mandolin, informed, inspired and made music with students from Jonathan Glasser's senior Anthropology seminar 'North African Music', culminating in a concert uniting the two visitors, the class, and William and Mary's Middle Eastern Music Ensemble. The performance at the Williamsburg library was given to a packed and very enthusiastic audience.
Mr. Chaabane and Ms. Bensaad, who visited from Oujda, Morocco, are practitioners of a North African musical tradition with its roots in Al- Andalus, whose medieval culture uniting Muslim, Jewish and Christian elements gave rise to one of the most spectacular traditions of poetry and music of the Mediterranean world. That tradition was diverted from its homeland following the Reconquest of Andalusia and Granada at the end of the 15th century. Today this music is echoed in the better known flamenco, but it also lives on among the descendants of those who fled -- or who were expelled -- from the new kingdom of Spain following the fall of Granada. This 'exile' tradition has long been associated with the cities of Oujda and Tlemcen.
Mr. Chaabane and Ms. Bensaad were invited to William and Mary by Jonathan Glasser, the most recent new professor in the Anthropology Department. Glasser studied with a musical association, (L'Association Ahbab Cheikh Salah) founded in honor of Mr. Chaabane's father, and his senior seminar looks at the complex musical heritage of the region. The effect of the visitors was quite evident during a visit to one of the classes they mentored -- grinning students, beaming professor and voices uplifted in song. Although musicianship is not a requirement of the course, Professor Glasser wanted all of the students to participate in and feel a connection to the visitors and their expertise, so he hit upon the idea of having all of the students in the class form a chorus together. The class learned several Andalusian songs and received two weeks worth of tutelage from Chaabane and Bensaad, culminating in their role as the opening 'act' of the concert.
Mr. Chaabane, affable and low key, nevertheless proved a skilled and attentive leader in both class and concert. Despite his relative lack of English, it was evident from the way that all eyes were upon him that he had both the respect and the full confidence of the concert ensemble as he led them through a 'nuba', a complex form of music played in a suite of contrasting moods, tempos and voices which brought the audience to its feet. Ms. Bensaad, a formidable mandolin player, captured everyone with her constant smile and dazzling viruosity. The Middle Eastern Ensemble was up to their usual standard of exciting and solid musicianship, with the nuba joining a long list of other muscial traditions from around the Middle East with which they have regaled William and Mary and local audiences for more than 15 years.