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Canadian-Egyptian musician George Sawa reads the "Book of Songs" at his home in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian-Egyptian musician George Sawa reads the "Book of Songs" at his home in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

My Books, My Place

George Sawa's medieval times Add to ...

After having my two cups of strong coffee and reading The Globe and Mail in the morning, I go to my bedroom/music room/office and start reading The Book of Songs of al-Isbahani (d. 967 AD). The room overlooks my backyard and vegetable garden, and my neighbor's fruit trees. It is a very quiet and therapeutic place to delve back into the lives and works of medieval poets and musicians, which al-Isbahani painstakingly documented over a period of 50 years, thanks to the patronage of an enlightened court in Baghdad.

This monumental anthology, approximately 10,000 pages, is the highest achievement in Arabic music literature, a gold mine about music in its socio-cultural and economic contexts. We gain insights into the uses of songs to punctuate daily life, the musicians' own language and metaphors to evaluate their compositions and performances in terms originality and excellence, and the amazing fortunes musicians amassed. The editors of the anthology were not music scholars, therefore many technical terms remain unexplained. For this reason I have been working on a dictionary of musical and socio-cultural terms to fill this gap.

To prevent his readers from getting weary from too much seriousness, Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani alternated serious anecdotes with funny ones. Scenes of humour, eroticism and love abound, and many were used later in One Thousand and One Nights. Hence my next project will consist of translated anecdotes of humorous and erotic nature.

George Sawa is an Egyptian-born Toronto resident, an expert on modern and medieval Arabic music, and a performer on the zither-like instrument known as the qanun. He is performing a free concert at Pecaut Square in Torontoon Saturday night (June 18) for Luminato's celebration of contemporary Arabic music.

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