Folk, Jazz etc: Celebrating a fertile history of tolerance and multicultural exchange

SYNCHRONICITY is in the air, it seems. I return home from a few days in Seville, where Moorish and Christian architecture rub shoulders, to find that the band Al Andaluz, named after the old Moorish kingdom that became known as Andalucia, is making its UK live debut on BBC Radio Scotland next Tuesday.

Performing on Mary Ann Kennedy's Global Gathering, Al Andaluz can be regarded as a musical analogue of the intriguing collision and intermingling of Moorish Islamic and Spanish Christian architectural styles which you find, for instance, in Seville's Real Alczar, the magnificent complex of palaces and gardens which sports the intricately arched and fretted plaster and tile work of 12th-century Moorish rulers and the later gothic edifices of Christian monarchs, as well as hybrid Mudjar craftsmanship.

Al Andaluz - the band, that is, rather than the Spanish province - looks beyond the conflicts and expulsions of the 15th-century reconquista to an earlier time of cultural and scholarly cross-fertilisation and relative tolerance shown by the Moorish rulers to Spain's Christian and Jewish cultures. Thus its music delves into a rich musical heritage of Christian, Sephardic Jewish and Arabic cultures, to produce a rhythmically compelling and richly textured swirl of flutes, hurdy-gurdies, zithers and percussion behind three superb female singers, Mara Aranda, Imam Al Kandoussi and Sigi Hausen.

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Al Andaluz aren't the first musicians to investigate the Moorish links with Spanish music - there's the more robustly contemporary approach of Radio Tarifa, for instance, or guitarist Juan Martin's explorations of Arabic input into the guitar and melismatic vocal styles of flamenco. "A lot of artists have trodden that path in different ways, looking at both sides of the Mediterranean, as it were," agrees Mary Ann Kennedy, Gaelic singer, harpist and presenter of both Global Gathering and Radio 3's World On 3, for which Al Andaluz is also recording a session. "Al Andaluz's music is really uplifting, and every bit as vibrant as the likes of Radio Tarifa, but they go further back, coming closer to the DNA of the thing."

As a Gael, Kennedy sees this musical migration between Spain and North Africa as not unlike the historic seagoing links between the Gaeldoms of Scotland and Ireland, "at least in terms of trying to understand the movement of people and of cultures. People tend to think of the Mediterranean as the break between one continent and another, but in reality water, and any kind of seaway, was historically a highway."

The band is something of a cross-cultural collaboration in itself, comprising members of two already established European early music ensembles, the Valencia-based Sephardic specialists L'Ham de Foc and Michael Popp's Estampie from Munich.Throw in an Indian tabla player and Russian percussionist for good measure.

For Kennedy, however, it is the group's front-line voices that do the trick: "Always, for me, the short-cut to my heart is hearing amazing voices, and they have three absolutely beautiful singers. I also like the way that, on the face of it, they are two disparate groups of folk who have come together for this project.

"You can take their music at so many different levels - either just enjoying it as vibrant, Mediterranean music that… well, makes you think about other things than snow," she laughs. "Or you can explore a little further and take off into this intriguing period in the Middle Ages when three major faiths seem to have not only coexisted but enjoyed cultural cross-fertilisation during a relatively stable time."

At a time of polarising and mutually suspicious western and eastern worlds, the flamboyant sound of Al Andaluz might be seen as a timely and optimistic fanfare for the coming year.

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• Mary Ann Kennedy's Global Gathering is on Radio Scotland on 21 December at 8:05pm