1.03.17: Exploring Cahokia & Layla and Majnun

Jan 3, 2017

Asked to imagine a "medieval city", you probably think of Europe or the Middle East - walled fiefdoms, bustling market stalls, maybe a castle, cathedral or dome of a mosque - not the American plains. Today, we'll learn about the Native American mega city that was bigger than contemporary London and Paris.

Plus: a boy. A girl. A forbidden love. The tragic storyline transcends time and place. The folktale of "Layla and Majnun" inspired the first Middle Eastern opera, the classic rock song "Layla", and now, a multi-media collaboration between the Silk Road Ensemble and choreographer Mark Morris - and now you can see it close to home. 

Listen to the full show. 

Exploring Cahokia

If asked to imagine a medieval city, you probably think of Europe or the Middle East - walled fiefdoms, bustling market stalls, maybe a castle, cathedral or dome of a mosque.  You won't likely conjure up pyramids on the flood plains of the Mississippi River, though that’s the site of a complex metropolis that was home to as many as 30,000 people in the year 1050 - bigger than contemporary Paris or London.  By 1400 the population disappeared. Today, archaeologists don't even know what it was called, but use the name Cahokia after the tribe that occupied the city in the 17th when European explorers rolled through town. So what happened? 

Annalee Newitz is founder of io9, former editor-in-chief of Gizmodo and tech culture editor for Ars Technica. She joined a team of archaeologists digging to find answers about the lost city. 

Related: Finding North America's Lost Medieval City

Layla and Majnun

"Layla and Majun" is a love story that's been told and re-told in thousands of variations by poets, minstrels, dancers and musicians throughout the Middle East and Central Asia for centuries. The tragedy of obsessive, forbidden love was turned into the first Middle Eastern opera in 1908, later inspired the classic rock song "Layla." Now, the Silk Road Ensemble has adapted the epic into a one-hour version. The ensemble worked with renowned choreographer Mark Morris to create a multi-media production on its way to the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth, being performed this Friday (1/6) and Saturday (1/7).

Colin Jacobsen is a violinist, composer, and touring member of the Silk Road Ensemble. He arranged the music for "Layla and Majnun" with Alim Qasimov and Johnny Gandelsman. Gandelsman and Jacobsen are also members of the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet.

Opera in the Coalfields

Aaron Copeland's opera The Tender Land was first performed in New York City in 1954, but he found his inspiration for the work in the depression-era coal fields of Appalachia. Producer Kelley Libby returned to southwest Virginia in 2013 to see Copeland's musical performed in a place it can call home.   

You can listen to this story again at PRX.org