Musical Heritage in the Mediterranean: Continuity Challenges

Mª Elena Morató

Journalist and art critic

Musical tradition and art form part of the collective expression reflecting the values, attitudes and ways of life of a culture. Thus, through their transmission over generations, they contribute to enriching the cultural intangible heritage of a region which, in the case of the Mediterranean, is difficult to delimit due to the immediate and fleeting nature of music. However, it is necessary to establish some basic criteria defining the different forms of Mediterranean music as heritage elements to be protected. In this respect, the study of the instruments, rhythms and history of the Mediterranean cultures is essential to marking out influences and establishing links between musical traditions which share a great richness.


Nothing is as fascinating as trying to take hold of something which is escaping us, something which only exists in time and, therefore, emerges and vanishes in a fleeting moment. When we face one of the most elusive treasures of our intangible heritage, music, with the aim of analysing, dissecting or simply classifying it, it is the very time we start to lose our way. If we look back to the past, at each step multiple routes open which try to reach the starting point (a determined moment in history) allowing us to define those musical traits which can be considered an unequivocal reflection of the personality and idiosyncrasy of a community. And the same happens if we look at the future, given that music, as a living expression in constant transformation, is a reflection of the values and attitudes of a culture; it is linked to its language, its poetry, to chant, its instruments… in short, to the way it understands the world. Thus, in any corner of our large Mediterranean geography we can find treasures of this human multiplicity that enriches our awareness of the creative genius which has emerged from the societies living there, and whose sound and visual contemplation increases not only the joy of the spirit, but the understanding of thought and millenary traditions.

To preserve this heritage, since 2003 (the year of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which recognises its importance in cultural diversity and its contribution to sustainable development) UNESCO has produced a Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, inheritor of the List of Masterpieces started in 1997. This includes music, dance, theatre, oral traditions and rituals, among other elements, and it is compiled along with a List of Urgent Safeguarding which focuses on cases in which danger of disappearance is imminent. For this purpose, aid is provided for programmes and projects contributing to the promotion and development of endangered elements. This explains the importance of the participation of society and the communities concerned in the task of inventorying these cultural treasures to give them future support.

There are other bodies and organisations in different geographic fields which share this concern for ensuring the survival of cultural diversity, tradition and folklore. We could mention, for instance, the Conseil International des Organisations de Festivals de Folklore et d’Arts Traditionnels (www.cioff.org), created in 1970, the Atéliers d’Ethnomusicologie in Geneva (www.adem.ch),or the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris (www.mcm.asso.fr), which performs a very interesting task of compiling music through the record label Inédit. All of them are included in the category of associations which see music as an artistic good, an asset of the culture of a country without which it could not be understood.

Where and How do Heritages Emerge?

In the musical field, heritage is understood as all collective expressions transmitting, throughout generations, in a regional context and, therefore, is a reflection of the environment and its inhabitants, thus being considered as a specific sign of identity of a concrete community group. It can encompass both chants, with or without instrumental accompaniment, and musical expressions of rituals and festive events. However, it is not easy, as we stated at the beginning, to delimit the frontiers, as the porosity and osmosis are a constant, so that we could establish an endless list of “local micro-identities”, as Ignazio Macchiarella pointed out.

The existing heritages have been formed in different periods and some have survived for centuries. Their origins are diverse: they can emerge both from the religious field (celebrations, rituals and expressions linked to worship, moussems, processions, pilgrimages…) and the profane field (celebrations of the annual cycle and the agricultural cycle such as reaping and harvesting; rites of passage or trance; civic or family festivals, lyrical-amorous chants…). Some are the result of fusions which have taken place over years of peaceful interaction between peoples and communities (commercial relations, coexistence in a single geographic space) while others come from collective experiences linked to traumatic events of different intensity (invasions, conquests, exoduses). Thus, history helps us to a large extent to follow the paths taken by musical art and, therefore, to understand its roots and the characteristics of its style.

These musical heritages can be divided in two ways: the cultivated and the popular. All the events which, with time, have come to form part of the repertoire known as classical (that is, cultivated, which is but a stylisation of previous events of a popular nature, most of which were established under the protection of the courts in periods of great splendour) have their own dynamic, different from that of the popular repertoire. Their rules, transmitted in academic environments, have been set out and standardised and there are public performances in the form of concerts. The case of the popular repertoire, which is present throughout the daily life of the people, is very different; for this same reason, it is so sensitive to social changes, as its evolution and survival depend on them.  

A Return Trip 

One of the main factors we must take into account, in fact the most important, is that the musical styles studied continue to be rooted in social life, as otherwise they would be considered as merely folkloric expressions, understood as popular expressions decontextualised from their original environment. This is the very danger to which many of the sound heritages are bound: folklorisation. The lack of interest of youths in certain events linked to tradition, changing social habits (communication, personal relations and leisure), rural exodus and emigration, with the consequent gradual abandonment of festivities, make an efficient transmission of repertoires and techniques very difficult. If in the past this took place through the family structure or the guild environment, now it tends to develop in academic environments due to the professionalisation of the artists and the participation, in many cases, of official bodies interested in protecting popular culture. Recently, to this recovery in extremis(thanks to programmes and external aid, when they exist) is added a factor which plays a dual role: cultural tourism. On the one hand, the interest of travellers in local cultures can reinvigorate the activity of artists and open new ways for the professionalisation of youths (having a positive effect on the commitment to a sustainable development of the regions involved). On the other hand, to satisfy this culture consumer tourism, artists lower the level and limit the repertoires to a non-connoisseur audience, adapting them to foreign tastes à la carte and therefore impoverishing (even altering on occasions) the original richness. For this reason, we must try to avoid this comfortable trend towards decreasing quality.

The foregoing suggests that the preservation of heritage obligatorily involves the preservation of social and environmental conditions on which a determined culture develops. A preservation which, undoubtedly, will not be compulsory but will be limited to ensuring the feasibility of the social and economic structures from which heritage expressions emerge. This explains the importance of cultural associations, mainly local, as well as folkloric groups and artists, because all of them work at ground level, taking the daily pulse of the state of things.

Musical Treasures in the Mediterranean

To approach the broad territory that hosts these treasures of culture, whether (still) linked or not to the UNESCO lists, the alphabetical order is not valid, as we would lose the perspective which makes them understandable. We must instead limit the ethno-musicological areas, grouping common styles and histories, outlining routes of influence or mapping similar instruments and their derivations, for instance. The reason is simple: each musical culture has some rhythmic patterns in keeping with the characteristics of oral expression of the language and even, frequently, its emblematic instruments make sounds emerge which are similar to those of chant.

Moreover, we must not forget the necessary distinction between holy music and profane music. Although they inspire each other, it is worth recalling that religion has eased the survival of many past musical styles thanks to their link with worship, as this is much slower to introduce changes. Profane music, in its turn, is related both to civilian and popular events and to lyrical repertoires of a more intimate nature, perpetuated by troubadours, minstrels and jongleurs, which in a more recent time would be related to the phenomenon of singer-songwriters as a counterpoint to mass culture. We find the figure of the troubadour, of varying kinds, in all major cultures, fulfilling a social function of transmission of ideas and knowledge.

To begin the aforementioned delimitation of ethnomusicological areas, we should point out the first major difference: in the European area of the Mediterranean the music of oral tradition is mainly diatonic, in comparison with the pentatonic system characteristic of the South. With time, however, diatonism has been chromatised due to successive eastern influences (Byzantine, Arab and Turkish) and from North Africa. Moreover, if we had to set out on a chronological journey, we would find the nomadic chants as survivors of one of the most ancient musical expressions, usually without instrumental accompaniment, which was later incorporated only on determined occasions. During medieval times, nomadic chants achieved a greater presence, mainly in the rural environment, but gave way to different types of polyphony which also emerged in urban environments and which survive more prominently today. The simplest examples of monody would be the lullabies and some children’s songs. We should also point out the Cretan rizitiko male chant or the Sicilian melismatic chants. Moreover, we should mention the a batoccu chant, of medieval origin, for two voices (chant and counter chant) characteristic of the Italian regions of Umbria and the Marche. In terms of polyphony, there are multiple examples: Albanese popular polyphony (inheritor of Byzantine liturgical music), the Tuscan bei-bei chant (of Tirolese influence) or the Sardinian a tenore male chant (poetic declamation with a vocal accompaniment with improvised instrumental imitation). A separate genre could be considered the tavern or hostel chants, which reflect both yearning (Portuguese fado, with rhythms and melodies from different continents which make reference to the long absence provoked by overseas journeys) and the heroic national affirmation (klephti chants, born during the Turkish occupation of Greece) or social revelry (Greek rebetiko, originating in the late 19th century in marginal and rebel environments; Genovese trallallero, urban polyphonic with conflictive issues which, despite being banned by the authorities in the 16th century, continued to be developed; and a fronne chants, the reflection of Neapolitan marginal life).

Musical Axes and Interconnections  

From a diachronic perspective, some influences have crossed the Mediterranean from North to South, from East to West and vice versa, mainly depending on the relations of power and submission of the states over the centuries. These influences are not limited to styles but are accompanied by an expansion of the instruments linked to them. Religion as a structuring and transmitting axis of culture, moreover, has had crucial importance in the stylistic movements of the Mediterranean area, and music has occupied a key place thanks to devout traditions which expanded as the territorial extension of religions advanced. The first great expansion was led by Byzantine Orthodox music in the early years of Christianity, which left its mark both in the East and the West, and whose connections have survived into the present. 

In later centuries, the expansion of Islam would bring with it the expansion of Arab music, mainly throughout the southern Mediterranean. In Spain, Christian and Islamic traditions would meet, giving rise to exceptional expressions in both religious and profane music (of which we can point out the Mozarabic rites or the nubas, among others). One of its peaks is Arab-Andalusian music, still alive today in the different Maghrebian schools, which follow the al-Andalusi repertoire, located in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, in the towns where waves of those expelled from the Iberian Peninsula arrived. Arab music brought with it the lute, an instrument whose presence has continued to grow, finally overcoming other older instruments in several points of the Mediterranean geography. In North Africa, it gave birth to traditions linked to Sufi brotherhood rites, such as the Egyptian tanura spinning(similar to the samaa of the Turkish dervishes), the synchretic rituals of the tsar ceremony in Egypt or the lila of the Gnawa brotherhoods in the Maghreb, which incorporates elements of African animism. 

Thus, religion is in many places the final stronghold for some musical expressions in danger of disappearance. And the diverse paraliturgical rites of the Christian Holy Week (processional music, percussive repertoire, and chants of praise), with a wide variation according to the regions, are some of these manifestations. Another of the major musical influences in the Mediterranean, and perhaps the most spectacular, are the gypsy people on a long journey (from 9th to 14th centuries) which would take them from India to the Iberian Peninsula, from the North and the South. Their nomadism would transform them into ambassadors of cultures, making them integrate and expand the style they would encounter at each stage. Some of the current heritages are their direct inheritors: all the variants of flamenco and cante jondo (which emerged in Andalusia), the music of the Nile gypsies (located in Upper Egypt), the lautareasca music of the Rumanian gypsies, as well as all the variants in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

The following notable chronological milestone is that of Ottoman music (influenced in its turn by Persian and Byzantine music) due to the expansion of the Turkish Empire from 13th to 19th centuries. This music was heard throughout southern Europe and the Arab world, with great repercussions on the change of musical styles in the modern era.

Broadly speaking, these are the axes to be taken into account when approaching the Mediterranean musical heritage, without forgetting the structuring role of instruments (shawns and dulzainas, lyres, lutes, guitars…) whose presence in the regions reveals the movements and influences of the different cultures. Certainly, the study of the musical heritage, as fascinating as it is complex, can help us contribute more efficiently to the preservation of its manifestations, as each of them will require determined specific and distinct actions according to their localisation and environment. Let us hope, therefore, that the growing interest in these cultural treasures can contribute to their preservation.