Early medieval Arabic sources indicate that people who were enslaved or lived within other degrees of unfreedom were assessed according to their skin color, culture, and geographic region, yet how much these factors played into their status in the early Islamicate states is not fully understood. Descriptions of musicians, particularly singing slave women, musical concubines, (qiyān and jawārī) and freed people/clients (mawālī) often contain detailed descriptions of physical traits and origin, providing hints as to how musicians were perceived within the broader culture. During the 9th and 10th centuries, scholars became increasingly concerned with listening to music, or samāᶜ, due, in part, to the popularity of music and singing slave women at court. Of primary concern was how music affected the hearer, but gender, sexuality, specific instruments, and origin were intrinsic to the discussion, regardless of standpoint. These factors could – and were – extrapolated further to speculate on the morality of music, musicians, and their patrons.
In this talk, Dr. Lisa Nielson will compare descriptions of women musicians to contemporaneous theories of human geography to consider what impact intersections of race and foreignness/geographic region had on the perception of women slave musicians, and how those perceptions were used in medieval treatises concerned with samāᶜ.
Lisa Nielson is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow and appointed as a Lecturer in Music at Case Western Reserve University. She served as the Director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women from 2017-2019, and is currently the Associate Director for the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. Her awards include the Richard A. Bloom, M.D. Award for Distinguished Teaching in the SAGES Program (2012 and 2021), the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2014), the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring (2016), the Faculty Prism Award (2017), and she was a 2016-2017 recipient of a Balzan International Musicology Visitorship. She has published in Early Music History, Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History edited by Matthew Gordon and Katherine Hain, The Music Road: Coherence and Diversity in Music from the Mediterranean to India, edited by Reinhard Strohm, and contributed reviews and opinion pieces to the Anisfield-Wolf Book awards blog. Her book Music and Musicians in the Medieval Islamic World: A Social History was published in 2021 with Bloomsbury Press.