Ziryab’s real name was Abul-Hasan Ali ibn Nafi, and he was born in Mesopotamia in the year 789; the name Ziryab (blackbird) came from his dark complexion and his melodious voice which people said resembled that black-feathered songbird.
He was a disciple of Ishaq al-Mawsuli, the favourite musician of the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid. The Caliph loved music, and soon bade the maestro to bring his star pupil to sing for him. Ziryab’s performance was such a success that his tutor, in a desperate fit of jealousy, presented him with an ultimatum: either leave Baghdad and never return, or stay and face the consequences. Ziryab chose to move away, and travelled through the cities of Syria to North Africa, past Cairo and across the deserts of Egypt, his growing fame as a singer preceding him wherever he went. He wrote to the Emir of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II, to offer him his services and the Emir accepted him with open arms. When he arrived in Cordoba, the Emir had in fact died, but his successor, Abd al-Rahman IV, renewed the invitation to stay in the court.
The new Emir offered him a palace and a monthly salary of two hundred gold coins plus extras (without having heard him sing yet) and now he knew his life as an outcast and a wanderer was over. In Cordoba, Ziryab found prosperity, artistic recognition and unrivalled fame. He was a forceful character and a major influence on people’s lifestyles in Cordoba – he set the fashion for clothes, cookery and household furniture. His musical influence was huge – he set up the first music school in the Islamic world, made technical innovations and created a genre of Arabic song known as the nuba, which is still used by Moroccan singers to this day and can even be heard in some phrases of Spanish Flamenco.
He died in Cordoba in the year 857.