Ronnie Malley - Ziryab: The Songbird of Andalusia

February 18, 2016


Meet the talented Ronnie Malley, our featured artist in the "What's Your Story?" series. He is a multi-instrumentalist, performer and teacher who wrote and performs in "ZIRYAB: THE SONGBIRD OF ANDALUSIA", running February 18-28 at Silk Road Rising. More info on the show:


I was born and raised in Chicago as a first generation Palestinian-American. I grew up in a Muslim household, but it was music and not religion that took the forefront in my life. My father and younger brother are both musicians. We had, and still have, a family band for about 20 years that played weddings, festivals, and other events. I started off playing drums in band (grammar school to junior high) and switched to guitar and keys when I was about 12 years old. When I was 16 I picked the oud, an instrument from my heritage. I was simultaneously learning a lot of rock n roll, classical and jazz, but also the music of my heritage, namely Middle Eastern and North African. Because I grew up in Chicago, I also learned Greek, Turkish, Indian. Persian, and other similar styles of music. After leaving the corporate world in my late twenties, I pursued a career in global music studies, which led to me doing a lot of theater work (i.e., Arabian Nights, Jungle Book, The White Snake, The Sultan's Dilemma) as well as music collaborations, productions, and teaching of different world music traditions. Today, I pretty much perform, produce, and teach (i.e., Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago Academy for the Arts, CPS, and university lectures) about different world music traditions. My goal in life is to help people learn about cultures through music and the arts to foster an understanding of global citizenship. Here's more info:


Ziryab was a 9th century musician and polymath born in Baghdad who became a trendsetter when he headed westward to the city of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain. Both Baghdad and Andalusia were diverse epicenters of art, philosophy and science under Muslim rule at the time. Ziryab's rise to fame was him bringing the oud, the instrument I play, to Europe, which eventually became the lute, and then the guitar. He also established the first music conservatory in Europe bringing knowledge, culture, and fashion from the East (e.g., Baghdad and Asia) to the West, essentially planting the seeds for the European renaissance.


In his time, Ziryab was a freed slave most likely of African descent who was born in Baghdad, Iraq. He was exiled from Baghdad by an envious rival and had to traverse many regions before he landed in Spain, which was a new Islamic frontier. The difficulty in telling his story, and the story of Andalusia, is that it is seldom recalled in Western history, especially since it was under Muslim rule, yet had a pluralist society (i.e., Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) that led the way to the European enlightenment. After 1492, there were many remnants of the 700 years of cultural contributions (e.g., architecture, food, science, philosophy), just not the credit for those who helped bring and develop it in Europe.


Ziryab etched his name in history by being a polymath and arbiter of culture. He is not only remembered in books written by Arab, Persian, and Spanish scholars, but also by the musical styles, pedagogy,  and theories he helped create, which are still in practice in Europe and the Middle East to this day. Street names, culinary dishes, and musical suites are named in his honor.


The purpose of writing this play was to bring to light a seldom taught history in the West, as well as to address issues that we see in our current society. There has always existed, and continues to exist, a confluence of knowledge and culture that flows from East to West, and vice versa. I grew up with a very Western Euro-centric education that glossed over the contributions not only of Muslims and Middle Easterners in Europe and the West, but also the intertwined history of Africans and East Asians in American society. At one point or another, almost all of these peoples WERE the American labor force. Africans were the enslaved peoples, the Chinese were not treated very differently in building the railroad systems, the Japanese were interred for their heritage during WWII, and today, Muslims are the target of the vitriol found in political rhetoric and media. The other main purpose of writing this piece was to offer a counter narrative; how it takes a pluralist society of people from different backgrounds sharing in one culture to make the new world we live in, just as it did in the 9th - 15th centuries in Andalusia.

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Mia Park
Mia Park shares her passion of discovery through teaching yoga and acting. Currently studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine, Mia is also a producer, writer, motivator, and celebrator of life. Mia has lived in Chicago for over twenty years and calls this city that works her home.

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I didn’t feel the need to blend in with the other kids, but I also desired to connect better with others. An opportunity came up in kindergarten when the entire grade put on a show for the whole school. This was the first time that I felt like I was part of a team, part of a larger group effort to create something fun and beautiful. I remember that year, our production was called ‘To the Future and Beyond,’ and I sang the final solo of the show. In middle school and high school, I continued to take drama classes whenever possible. I loved learning about the lives of people so different from me, memorizing my lines, and sharing those stories with audiences. In college at Duke University, I decided to major in Psychology and Theater Studies, and also performed in three of the Theater Department’s Mainstage shows. Currently, I’m in my second year of my MFA in Acting program at The Theatre School at DePaul University. What's your character's story in "The House of Bernarda Alba”? 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Mia Park