Seeking Convivencia: The Andalusian Revels

California Revels 2018 - Chorus on Set

We sit in the darkening theater as the house lights go down. We have applauded the opening remarks of the artistic director and sit expectantly before the shadowy, exquisite stage, awaiting this year’s magic. As the audience quiets down, the clapping continues, and it is with a little thrill we realize the chorus is assembling on the stage, silhouetted in the half-light, clapping out the beautiful and strange rhythms of the time and place we are about to enter.

We have been transported to medieval Andalusia on the southern Iberian Peninsula, to a mythical time with roots in recorded history, a time called Convivencia, which means co-existence. For a few hundred years, the governance of Andalusia by the Moorish caliphates was characterized by a notable tolerance. The population, made up of Muslims, Jews and Christians, along with Phoenicians, Greeks and many others, created a flowering of poetry, music, architecture, art, dance, mathematics and astronomy. The Muslim rulers called the Christians and Jews the “People of the Book,” who like themselves traced their religion back to the Biblical Abraham. For many centuries, until 1492, when the ascendant Christians expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, these three cultures lived harmoniously together. What might be thought of as a golden age was not immune to conflict, but overall everyone lived together in a kind of harmony and  religious liberty.

Was it a myth? Was it real? We can’t completely know, but the music, dance and other cultural artifacts that have come down to us from that time are extraordinarily rich and diverse. At this Andalusian Christmas Revels, we are awash in a sea of beautiful poetry, a dramatic performance that is music rich and dance dense. The story surfaces just often enough to remind us of its relevance to our modern times.

California Revels 2018 - Three Seekers

The three principal characters are Constanza (Rebecca Pingree), a scrappy Castilian scullery maid who dreams of faraway places and sets out on a journey, where she meets Najma (Milan Whitfield), a graceful Moorish woman who has inherited knowledge of  the natural world’s patterns and the movements of the stars. They are joined by Zevulun (Robert Sicular), a wandering Sephardic Jew, who carries with him a book full of poetry and philosophy, and who believes “language is a window, not a wall.”

California Revels 2018 - Constanza and Zevelun

They are seeking a long ago place where they may all live in peace together. Constanza says, “Convivencia! I love the word very much! To live together; to share the woods and fields, the islands and the oceans. Why can we not do this? After all, the land does not care who turns the soil. The river does not care who rows the boat. It is people who make the borders and it is people who decide who is worthy and who is not.  And in what place is this different? Where is the land of celebration where all are seen as equal? How do we find it?”

They seek for it among the people of all three cultures whose ways are shared by all peoples everywhere, the warp and weft of daily life expressed in song, food, games, mystery and ritual. The music is a sensual delight of unusual and alluring rhythms, and although mostly not in English, it doesn’t matter. The texture of the songs is complex and delicious, some in a different modality from what we are used to, some using different scales. There are Arabic love songs, Hebrew Chanukah songs, songs of eggplant and hymns to livestock.

The chorus presents all of these varied songs with confidence and flair, moving easily between sacred and secular music of the time, singing in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, English and Ladino, a hybrid Judeo-Spanish tongue of the time. They are accompanied by the stellar musicians who create wonderful sound with fiddle, recorder, brass, percussion, mandolin, oud and darbuka, viola de gamba and vielle.

California Revels 2018 - Young Singer

The beautiful sword dance is called al-Sa’id, and is a fierce, sinuous spectacle, mock martial cries punctuating the intricate movements of the young dancers.

California Revels 2018 - Sword Dance

The sumptuous set design evokes the intricate line and pattern of Islamic palaces, and the lighting of the set produces a mystical feeling of a faraway land.

California Revels 2018 - Listeners on Set

The costumes are a mix of styles borrowed and melded into an exotic blend of drape and veil. The chorus and dancers do not differentiate by cultural costume, which emphasizes the fertile sharing between peoples.

California Revels 2018 - Andalusian Children Circle Dance

At the end of the first act, the mood of the story turns dark with the arrival of the Danza de la Muerte. Ten twitching, reaching, threatening Esqueletos (skeletons), carrying halberds, spears, swords, and hatchets commandeer the stage, then advance on the assembly, until they have divided them from one another. It is an old winter solstice theme that the sun is stolen from the sky, an echo of what our long-ago ancestors perhaps wondered when the nights became so long and cold. Sure enough, these terrifying figures steal the celestial orbs from the heavens, all the while singing a kind of dirge full of gloom and doom and foreboding.

California Revels 2018 - Chorus with Menorah

But hope returns, as it so often does, in the darkest night and on the wings of beauty. Zevulun recites a poignant poem by Yehudah Halevi, an Andalusian Jewish poet of the 12th century: “‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” Further enchantment arrives with Sufi dancers, as four young performers enact the mystical meditation, whirling the “music of the spheres” in their white gowns and tall hats. The poem that is sung while the dervishes dance their magic is by Ibn Arabi, 13th century Sufi poet and mystic of Andalusia:

O Marvel! A garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles and
a convent for Christian monks, and
a temple for idols and
the pilgrim’s Kaa’ba, and
the tables of the Torah and
the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love:
Whatever way Love’s camels take,
That is my religion and my faith.

The three seekers dream and wake and wander, and soon conclude, “Convivencia is not to be found. It is to be made. Let us now weave on the loom of our voices, braiding together in three parts, the song of Convivencia.” The heavens ring again with music and  harmony, and eventually the company has a confrontation with the articulated, if not articulate, Dragon of Discord, in a twist on the traditional mummer’s play.

California Revels - Dragon and Moon on Set

Many among us feel that we live in dark and troubled times, when events seem beyond our control or even our understanding. Everyone feels the same anguish when the figures of Death break into the merriment and wreak division among us. As Constanza says during their wandering in the dark, “How greatly I feel my fear.”

It would seem that the best medicine for fear is love. To see and hear the music and celebrations that cross the boundaries between cultures is the unique gift of Revels, and to share that experience in a great hall with hundreds of people is to experience that much-needed understanding and connection. If we lead with love, we will bring back the light.

Thanks to all the marvelous directors,designers, artists, and writers who make Revels such an extraordinary treat!

There are five more performances of “Ancient Mysteries of Andalusian Spain,” this coming weekend, December 14, 15 and 16, at the Scottish Rite Center on Lake Merritt in Oakland. Tickets and more information are at this link.

All photos by Teresa A. Klein and Peter Crompton, used with permission.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Jane Brenner 12/12/2018, 8:20 am

    Thanks, Cari, for this substantial feast ….I’ll return again to digest both images and text!

  • Bee Smith 12/14/2018, 1:22 am

    They need to take this show on tour! It is an antidote for these troubling times.

  • John Cutrone 01/09/2019, 10:18 pm

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading this chapter. The Revels have meant so much to me since the first CD collection of theirs I bought, out of the blue, back in the 1980s. I’d not heard of the Revels nor heard any of their music but that 4-disc box set looked like a good fit, and I was right. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. I’ve loved the Revels since then. And the many outlying Revels groups… I’m jealous that there is one so near you! Alas, there is no Florida Revels, although this house in Florida is indeed a Revels House. Even this late late night, three nights past Epiphany, the tree is still providing the light by which I am reading and writing, and the music that’s playing is a Revels recording, this one “Valse de Nöel,” the French Canadian program from a few years back. They are all wonderful. The one you attended this year sounds perfectly timed.

    Seth and I got to one Revels, once. It was the year we spent Christmas at his family home in Maine, and we drove down to Boston for the Revels performance the year they did a Scottish Christmas. It was, by chance, the night of the solstice. I was feverish with a cold and still it was the most amazing thing and everyone there––like my neighbor who got me up and said, “Come, it’s the horn dance in the lobby!”––was so welcoming. I hope to see it all again some day, in good health next time, lucid, no fever. Until then, we hear it all here, through their records. Thank you for helping all of your readers experience this Convivencia! ~ Convivio John

    • Cari 01/11/2019, 6:21 pm

      Ah, Convivio John, I love that you called this a chapter, making this blog a long, rambling, only partly-organized book . . . Of course you love the Revels! I too discovered Revels through the music, an actual audiocassette in the late 80s; I was flabbergasted to find there was an actual company nearby me, and we’ve never missed for 26 years. My kids have grown up with it, which pleases me no end. I do hope you get to experience it again. I’ve always wanted to see the Cambridge show; maybe someday. They are smart to extend the show to the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for it is a wonderful experience for families entertaining out-of-town kin. Enjoy your Christmas until Candlemas – we too are Christmas malingerers and still have our tree and some greens. It’s still so *dark* I just can’t give them up yet. I hope we meet someday, you just never know . . .

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