Jordi Savall returns to make old tunes sound new

Jordi Savall, who is credited with creating forgotten ancient musical traditions, returns to Abu Dhabi this week for four performances across the emirate.

Jordi Savall prepares and composes programmes based on scholarly research. Photo by David Ignaszewski
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The most talked-about moment at last year’s landmark Abu Dhabi Classics came courtesy of Jordi Savall.

The Catalonian composer presented the world premiere of Ibn Battuta: The Voyager of Islam, an ambitious globe-trotting programme imagining the traditional music the Arab explorer might have heard during his 14th Century travels. Simultaneously broadcast around the globe via radio, the concert marked a major coup for the emirate.

After taking that celebrated show on travels of its own, Savall is back at the Classics for an extended four-night run.

Returning by popular demand, he arrives to perform a new programme, Orient-Occident, and to take the Ibn Battuta concert on the road across the emirate, performing under the stars in the Liwa Desert and at Al Ain's Bin Hamoodah Fort. "It's nice to bring this programme back," says Savall, "and it will be special to perform it in these new places".

A scholar of music

He is a man who defies the conventional categorisation used in classical music and simultaneously fulfils the roles of composer, conductor and performer. The 74-year-old Saval has dedicated his four-decade career to reviving ancient musical traditions – a life’s calling that required this breakdown of the conventional division of labour.

Reaching back through Baroque and Renaissance music all the way to medieval times, the Spaniard prepares and composes programmes based on scholarly research, and leads and participates in bringing them to life. He performs primarily on the viol, a largely forgotten 15th-Century Spanish instrument.

This conceptual juxtaposition of old and new – of composing and curating new productions designed to best recall and recreate music dating as far back as can be remembered – is at the heart of Savall’s work.

“It’s a paradox in a certain way, if you think in terms of classical music, where you have everything written,” says Savall. “We have the same mentality as oriental musicians. In medieval times we had melodies, more or less concrete, and then nothing more. From there, we have to improvise. This makes this paradox – this is old and sometimes modern.”

To bring his vision to life, in 1974 Savall formed the early music ensemble Hespèrion XX (known since 2000 as Hespèrion XXI), renowned for offering improvised interpretations of the music of 16th and 17th-century Spain.

But in recent years, he has become increasingly preoccupied with musical traditions from around the world, and the shared language these approaches can use to bridge different cultures.

Ancient links and modern inspiration

For his first performance at Abu Dhabi Theatre, on Sunday, Savall will present Orient-Occident: Dialogue of Souls, a barrier-busting programme which pits European and Arabic musical traditions in consort. Expect to hear Berber songs merge with Spanish dances, and Turkish rhythms with ritual music from the French Royal court.

The composer conceived the piece nearly 15 years ago, as a response to the US invasion of Afghanistan.

“I invited American and Afghani musicians to come and play together and create a dialogue, just to say, ‘We have beautiful things together, we don’t need to fight like this’,” says Savall. “It is a very beautiful power because you can see how united all these different styles are, but also how diverse – it’s a real dialogue between the souls. This music brings all these souls together.”

Returning to Ibn Battuta

Starting on Monday, Savall and Hespèrion XXI will revisit Ibn Battuta: Voyager of Islam with three open-air concerts, the first hosted in Mushrif Central Park.

Born in 1304, the Moroccan writer and explorer documented about 120,000km of travel over three decades. Savall’s performance will trace Battuta’s steps across the Islamic world, from North Africa and Egypt to Arabia, passing through Yemen and Sudan, sailing the Arabian Gulf, visiting Anatolia and reaching as far as Afghanistan.

The inspiration came when Savall first encountered Battuta’s distinctive prose in a fresh Catalan translation published 10 years ago.

“I discovered this incredible person and his incredible descriptions of the cultures, the cities, the life,” he says. “I think Ibn Battuta is one of the most exceptional travellers of this time.”

Next year, Savall plans to begin work on a sequel, tracing Battuta’s adventures further through India, China and beyond.

“His journey continues. It would be impossible to put all his travels in one concert,” he says with a laugh. “It would have to be four hours long.”

•Jordi Savall performs Orient-Occident at Abu Dhabi Theatre on Sunday, and Ibn Battuta: Voyager of Islam at Mushrif Central Park on Monday, Qasr Al Sarab on Tuesday and Bin Hamoodah Fort, Al Ain, on Wednesday. All shows start at 8pm, and ticket prices start at Dh80 (students Dh30). For more details, visit