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Past and Present Musical Encounters across the Strait of Gibraltar (New ERC Project)

Published January 23, 2018 by Matthew Machin-Autenrieth

History, Music, Gibraltar

Learning, Coexistence, Ideas

What role does music play in debates about colonial history and immigration? How might music overcome or reinforce cultural difference at a time of rising nationalism across Europe? These questions underpin intercultural music-making across the Strait of Gibraltar – the sea that separates Spain and Morocco. In April 2018, I will lead a 5-year European Research Council project that examines the importance of music for the construction of a collective cultural memory between North Africa and Southern Europe, both in the colonial past and the postcolonial present. Combining archival research, oral history and ethnographic fieldwork, the project will bring together different geographical, linguistic and musical specialisms, leading towards an integrated understanding of musical exchange in the region. It also aims to shed light on how music is interwoven with topical debates regarding colonial history and the postcolonial realities of immigration in Europe.

For centuries musicians and their musics have travelled across Strait of Gibraltar, reflecting the close cultural and historical links between Southern Europe and North Africa. Performers, audiences and institutions today often promote musical exchange as both reflective and constructive of the notion of convivencia: the alleged peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain (al-Andalus, 711–1492). As an historical construct, convivencia is often criticised as a utopian myth that overplays the complex social relations that existed between different cultural groups in al-Andalus. Yet, I am fascinated how a historically-disputed idea such as convivencia, that formed under Spanish colonialism in Morocco, has led to an array of musical encounters for different social and political purposes. The notion of a shared musical and cultural history was used to promote a European-Arab heritage under French and Spanish colonial rule. And, it is still used today as a form of cultural diplomacy between North Africa and Southern Europe, as well as a model for the integration of North African immigrants. However, I am also fascinated by the points of tension that emerge from this story: how a perceived shared musical heritage was used to legitimise colonial authority. And how idealistic portrayals of a 'musical' convivencia obscure the realities of multiculturalism for North African communities in Europe today.


In Moroccan cities such as Fez and Tétouan, students of multiple generations study Arab-Andalusian classical music, which they are told is both a remnant of the 'golden age' of al-Andalus and a vital part of modern Moroccan identity. Yet, they study in conservatories that were founded or patronised by the French and Spanish colonial regimes. Moreover, the very music that these musicians are learning has been deeply impacted by colonial impulses to salvage, record, preserve and ultimately canonise 'medieval Andalusian music' into a single authoritative form, for purposes that had little to do with Moroccans' identity and culture, but rather served the goals of colonial powers. Across the Strait of Gibraltar, flamenco artists today (among other genres) fuse their art with the same musical traditions being studied in these Moroccan conservatoires. Here, music becomes a bridge between Morocco and Spain, North Africa and Europe, which is now embodied in the high levels of migrants travelling to Southern Europe, leading to vociferous debates about postcolonial multiculturalism. Against this background, the project seeks to understand the colonial and postcolonial echoes that reverberate in the musical encounters between Europe and North Africa.

I am excited to lead an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including the senior research associate Dr Samuel Llano (University of Manchester), and two postdoctoral researchers and a PhD student who will be appointed towards the end of 2018. The project will be structured around three key research strands that will tie together the work of different team members:  

1) A comparative study of music and colonialism in the Maghreb, focusing on the French-Spanish Protectorates in Morocco (1912–56) and another case study from Algeria or Tunisia. By examining colonial-era music scholarship, colonial policy and music education, and musical encounters between different cultural groups, the project will analyse the social dynamics of musical interaction at this time, framed by broader issues of race, imperialism and cultural memory.  

2) The project will also examine postcolonial musical encounters across the Strait of Gibraltar since the 1950s, when North African countries started gaining independence. Focusing on various genres (e.g., Arab-Andalusian music, flamenco, raï, classical), the project examines how the narrative of a collective cultural memory is invoked through musical collaboration today framed by the wider context of multiculturalism, immigration and cultural diplomacy that characterises postcolonial relations between Europe and North Africa.  

3) Finally, the project aims to shed light on the broader theoretical relationship between music, postcolonialism and multiculturalism. Drawing on approaches in other disciplines, the research aims to illustrate the relevance of music for debates about multiculturalism as an ideology, a policy and a social reality, and the legacies of colonialism that still influence relations between majority and minority communities.  

For the wider European context, I believe this research is more important today than ever before. At a time of increased anti-immigration rhetoric and Islamophobia, music cannot be divorced from debates about difference that dominate in society. With musical exchange at its centre, the project will bring about a greater understanding of how colonial legacies shape multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue at the frontier of Europe.  

Biography: Dr Matthew Machin-Autenrieth is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge and an affiliated researcher of the Woolf Institute. He was recently awarded a European Research Council Starting Grant, which will commence in April 2018.



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