Henri Regnault, Hassan et Namouna. Selected for the female ‘oud player and the passive male object of desire.
Lamma Bada is without a doubt the most popular muwashah of Al-Andalus in our day and age, with countless recordings and reimaginations of the song. By analyzing the song as a poem in its literary context, I argue two points:
-it is metapoetic, and by collapsing boundaries between reality and poetry it is a declaration of love by the muwashah poet to the dancing boy.
Song lyrics are usually not studied together with ‘true poetry’ (whatever that means) because of their different strophic and rhythmic components (though that should logically make them more poetic). The modern western academy may disagree with me in seeing it all as the same thing, but thankfully I’ve got medieval poets and scholars on my side: using the argument of authority, 13th century Ibn Dihya called the muwashah the ‘cream of poetry and its choiciest pearl’. An excellent introduction to the sociocultural history of the muwashah is provided by Tova Rosen in The Literature of Al-Andalus.
There is no ‘true version’ of Lamma Bada: each artist manipulates the lyrics according to their own sensibility, and the element of improvisation is always there. The common constant to all the songs, is the simple repetitive melody, which entrances the listener just as the dancer in the lyrics. The version sung by Lena Shamamiyan has become quasi-canonical for 21st century urbanites, and it is the one I selected for translation:
It is no coincidence that the muwashah’s most famous contemporary interpreter hails from Syria (specifically Aleppo). Omar al-Batch was an Aleppan mid-century musician who reinterpreted and gave the modern form to the muwashah; Shamamiyan was most likely influenced by him (here’s a great video on muwashah culture in Aleppo).
Though it is commonly interpreted that when a man is singing, he is describing a dancing woman (even if the verbs are all in masculine form), I argue that this ignores the obvious homoeroticism of the lyrics. In the popular medieval Cairene play المتيم و ضايع اليتيم (al-mutayyam wa dayi al-yutayyim – The love-inspired one and the love-inspiring orphan), the elder admirer sings a muwashah in order to seduce a young boy. The combination of elegant romantic muwashah constructions (in the same vein of Lamma Bada) with gaudy pornographic elements shows just was the actual subtext of these lovesick songs.
Now to the lyrics (intentionally immediately after obviously homoerotic text ):
*This linguistic observation unveils the poet’s true self, and the harmony between the realms of song and reality. This is no fiction. The rhyme is turning, the boy is bending, the song is swaying: the poet behind Lamma Bada is the love-stricken one by the king of beauty.
The question remains; is this a declaration of love for a dancing boy in the flesh, or in fact for the muwashah itself? The unnamed object of desire bends, the branch bends: is it the girdle-song and its rhyme bending (and thus captivating the listener as a carmen, the song that charms and entices), or simply the boy and his girdle (thus a sexual allusion)? Not believing in the difference between platonic and carnal love, for me Lamma Bada expresses simultaneous attraction by both the beauty of the song, the work of art, the poetics of rhyme, and for the visceral dancing of a young boy. It is senseless to separate either; it is through the confusion of all the senses through overwhelming beauty, within an instant in which lies the suffering of the poet. And the captivation of the listener.
Pila de la Játiva, depicting an orgy, I mean banquet scene, with ‘oud