Nostalgia, History and Sheikhs in the Libyan ma'luf: Contemporary Meanings in the Shadows of the Past


by Philip Ciantar, Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta


SUMMARY: A particular musical tradition's meaning in society is not only related to contemporary thinking, contexts, events and practices but also to past memories of events, individuals, places and the echoes of past performances. Sometimes, such memories are even transfused by such a strong sense of nostalgia that they stand in as history itself rather than as a snapshot of it. This is particularly the case with musical traditions, such as the Libyan ma'luf, that are necessarily newly "made" in each performance event, and which rely on oral history rather than on written sources. In Libya, contemporary meanings attributed to this tradition are strongly embedded in accounts of renowned and dedicated sheikhs composing and editing text, performing in zawya (Sufi lodges), teaching the tradition, evaluating innovations (and sometimes even opposing them), giving a helping hand in state-subsidized projects of preservation, reciting ma'luf in the middle of a market and even asking for particular texts on their death-bed. These nostalgic accounts are understood by many as being the authentic history of the Libyan ma'luf. The present paper will examine the various processes by which today's performances of the Libyan ma'luf are perceived and experienced in the nostalgic shadows of the past.