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Ziryab: The World's First Guitarist

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Ziryab, inventor of the guitar.

Perhaps the most influential musician whom few people have heard of is Abu al-Hasan, better known as Ziryab.  Ziryab was a black slave born in Baghdad in the late 8th century.  He was a gifted musician, and by all accounts, a sweet and charming man.  This is how he earned his nickname, which means “blackbird”.  In the Arab world of the early 9th century, it was possible to advance out of slavery, unlike in the later slave economies of North America.  (Not that this justifies slavery; it’s just important to establish Ziryab’s roots and just how high he rose.) 

It didn’t take Ziryab long to earn the attention of the caliph’s court musician, who took him under his wing and helped him develop his talents.  Soon, Ziryab surpassed even the court musician, and stunned the caliph himself.  Ziryab gave the maiden performance of a song he’d written for the caliph right there in his court, and immediately the caliph was enchanted.  The problem for Ziryab was that the performance was too good.  The court musician wrote him a letter afterward, warning him that he’d denounce and ruin Ziryab because he couldn’t stand to have such talented competition in the same city, and strongly suggested that he get out of town.  So that’s just what Ziryab did.

I should note that the performance he gave was on his own oud (which is much like the lute that was commonly played in Europe).  The oud and the lute have been around since ancient Greece, dating back to about 1500 BCE.  The idea behind the oud is that it’s got four strings, each one representative of the body’s four humors.  Music, it was said, could help someone get their humors in balance, and fight illness; the four strings were designed to do that.  Ziryab, a very religious man, designed his own lute, adding a fifth string, which he said represented the heart, or the soul.  This five-stringed lute he developed, which was shaped a little differently and about one-third as heavy, later came to be known by a different name: the guitar.

When Ziryab got out of town, he headed west, to Cordoba, in Spain.  There he found work in the court of the local emir, where he became one of the most celebrated musicians in the world.  Musicians from all over Europe and north Africa traveled to Cordoba to meet with Ziryab, and were still coming there to study his compositions over a century after his death.  Besides inventing the guitar, he invented other instruments, like the oboe, the trombone, the harp and a precursor to the zither, as well as different kinds of flutes.  Music as we know it would certainly have evolved if it weren’t for Ziryab, but it likely wouldn’t resemble what it is today at all.

One thing about Ziryab is that music is just the tip of the iceberg with him.  He also influenced European and Arab manners, fashion, food, hygiene and customs in ways that are still reflected in modern cultures.  I would go on about this man’s broad, enduring influence, but this has gone on plenty long enough!


Unknown said…
Yeah, why has no one (except you) heard of him?
Kurt Kaletka said…
Because I'm hip. I'm into guitar music from before it was cool.

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