Arabic Poetry Rediscovered
The Berlin-based Italian singer Etta Scollo has embraced the medieval Arabic poetry of Sicily and transformed it into songs. Her new album Il Fiore Splendente has just been released. Rasha Khayat met the singer
The Arab rule of early medieval southern Europe left behind significant traces; Spain and Portugal in particular show Arabic and Moorish influences on language, art and architecture. Yet the effects of Arab rule on the art and culture of the Mediterranean island of Sicily have been little explored.
Around 829, however, when a fleet from Kairouan in North Africa, led by the commander Asad ibn al-Furat, landed on the island and captured it from the Byzantines, Sicily entered a golden age. Irrigation systems and land reforms as well as the rise of the cities Palermo, Syracuse and Marsala to the most important in the Mediterranean realm are among the achievements of almost 300 years of Arab rule in Sicily. Alongside architecture and agriculture, the occupying forces also spawned new literature.
Etta Scollo says she stumbled upon the book Anthologia die poeti arabi di Sicilia, edited by Francesca M. Corrao, quite by accident in a Bologna library a number of years ago. The anthology is a collection of poetry and divans written between the 9th and 12th centuries in Sicily, translated into Italian by contemporary poets.
Moorish elements still visible today
The works of Ibn Hamdis, Ibn At-Tubi and other poets touched Etta Scollo because of their imaginative images and their lightness, she explains. "The first poem I found was Corro con te [I run with you, ed.], written in 1056 by the poet Ibn Hamdis, who was born in Syracuse. It's about the love of an older man to a woman 30 years his junior ? a woman he was so enamoured with that he would even run to her backwards on the tip of his nose. This image enchanted me and I wanted to read more."
It was with her brother, the lutist Sebastiano Scollo, and the poly-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist Fabio Tricomi, both of whom have years of experience with Arab-influenced music through the intercultural music project Al Qantarah, that Etta Scollo finally came up with the concept for Il Fiore Splendente, "the luminescent flower".
"It was important for us to use traditional instruments, but not to try and imitate a particular sound," Scollo says. "Moorish elements have always been very typical for Sicilian music; it wasn't hard to find a cross-over between medieval Arabic, Italian and modern sounds."
The album as a long-term project
As well as her brother and Tricomi, the Lebanese singer Nabil Salameh also supports Etta Scollo on her new album. Salameh, who became internationally known mainly through his Arabic-Italian music project Radiodervish, not only sings but also recites the Arabic poems on Il Fiore Splendente.
With Salameh's involvement, accompanying Scollo at several concerts in Germany, Il Fiore Splendente will be more than an album. "We're going to perform at international Islamic centres in New York and Italy," says Scollo. "And of course it would be wonderful to take the programme to Lebanon or Palestine. It's meant to be a long-term project."
At a time when Arab Islam is often associated with terror, it is more important than ever to make such an album, Scollo maintains. "We have to remember that we all have a great deal to give each other. And that even with our differences, we have a lot in common."
The new album is also a small gift to her homeland of Sicily, Scollo concludes. "The social and economic reality in Sicily forces people to reinvent themselves every day. Poverty and the struggle to survive don't allow for people to think about history. I'd like to give them back a bit of hope and a bit of identity through my music."
© Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Mý Huê McGowran