Miriskawi

The news platform Huna Libya recently tweeted about the Libyan musical genre known as miriskawi (مرسكاوي), describing it as a combination of Amazigh heritage with Arabic bedouin poetry originating in Murzuq:

There is a debate about the origins and meaning of the term miriskāwī itself, with various theories in circulation. Each of these has problems, but so little seems to be actually known about miriskawi‘s origins that to some extent it is all speculation. Before we proceed, here is an example of one of the most famous singers of miriskawi, Ibrahim al-Safi:

 

1. The “traditional theory” holds that that music comes from the southern Libyan city of Murzug (مرزق) and that the adjective mirizgāwī (مرزقاوي) meaning “of Murzug, Murzug-ian” eventually changed into miriskāwī (مرسكاوي). It’s been pointed out, though, that this style of music doesn’t actually exist in Murzug. Apparently the Libyan composer Muhammad Murshan even went to Murzug to see if he could find out more, but wasn’t able to. If the music does come from the south, or has southern influences, perhaps Murzug is just a stand-in for the south as a whole? Or, that Murzug/southern Libya was used as a way of referring to the origins of black musicians who performed miriskawi? Additionally, the change of mirzgāwī to miriskāwī in pronunciation is also unexpected, as has also been pointed out by many.

2. The next theory holds that miriskawi actually derives from the term “morisco”, referring to Muslims of Andalusian origin who fled to northern African cities in the 15th-16th centuries and brought with them their music, which was then called miriskawi, that is, “moriscan”. I’m not actually sure that the term was widely used in Arabic, though (and at least in standard Arabic it is موريسكي). But even if so, the music itself would then be Andalusian—why wouldn’t it have been called mālūf (مألوف) or nōba (نوبة) like everywhere else in Libya and northern Africa? Moreover, is miriskawi music similar to those genres or Andalusi musical heritage more generally? I don’t know enough about this to judge well, but their sound, and the contexts in which they are performed, are so different that I doubt they are equivalent. But, miriskawi is primarily associated with eastern Libya, especially Benghazi and al-Bayda. Benghazi barely even existed when the Moriscos were expelled from Spain, so Andalusian refugees and their music couldn’t have landed there. Instead, as is well known, they went to established cities like Tripoli and Derna (which, not unrelatedly, are known for Andalusian music and not for miriskawi), the latter of which is widely known to be the most ‘Andalusian’ city in eastern Libya.

3. Other explanations hold that it is a Jewish music form, or an Amazigh music form, though these don’t explain the origin of the word. One other theory I’ve heard attempts to combine everything, claiming that Andalusian refugees went to Tripoli, then Murzug mixing their music with local influences, then back up to Benghazi. At the very least, it is true that Jewish Libyans also sang miriskawi (the well-known Vito Gerbi is the one in red in the below):

 

That’s about it. An actual study has yet to be carried out, as far as I know. Does anyone have other ideas, or more information, or wilder theories? Perhaps, as Ibrahim al-Safi sings, we’ll have to have صبر للنهاية to find out the true roots of miriskawi

 

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