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  • Veronica Doubleday

The tradition of women making music for entertainment at royal courts has been notable in many cultures. Within this tradition the courtesan musician has a long history. Courtesan musicians and/or dancers were virtually institutionalized in many sophisticated art traditions of Asia and North Africa. Musical courtesans also flourished at certain times in Europe, e.g. Moorish Spain and 15th-century Venice, where they were renowned for their exquisite singing. Courtesans tended to arise in opulent conditions where powerful men restricted their own wives and daughters, exploiting the talents of lower-born women (often slaves) for entertainment.

1. The problem of definition.

The English term ‘courtesan’ is imprecise. It originally denoted a woman attached to the court, but later acquired negative connotations of sexual immodesty.

Whatever the shades of difference between societies, the courtesan displayed certain features. Good looks and sexual availability were prerequisites of her artistic life. She offered erotic entertainment, but was distinct from a common prostitute. She was unmarried, often a household dependant or slave, and never a social equal with her client. Her particular status was recognized and sometimes highlighted by a distinctive appearance (e.g. the Japanese geisha's make-up, wig and kimono). Within the public domain, she relied on regular payment and gifts: Japanese geishas and Indian tavāifs were usually contracted by a male protector to give exclusive sexual favours. Courtesans were usually well educated, refined and adept in etiquette; the arts of conversation and music were often necessary accomplishments.

Loss of patronage caused the demise of most courtesan traditions, and some shaded into prostitution. With historical change, terminology for courtesans often changed in meaning. Korean kisaeng entertainers occupied the professional end of the folk tradition, and are considered to have been poets and musicians in the 16th century, but ‘kisaeng’ is now applied to bar-hostesses and prostitutes. Transitions were often quite subtle: while aristocratic marriageable women played chamber music in the original concerti di donne at Ferrara in the 1580s, lower-born women recruited into Italian courts for their musical skills had a more ambiguous status.

2. Women musicians within palaces and private households.

Documentation of this phenomenon in various parts of the world is inadequate. The following are some examples.

Throughout Chinese imperial history the courts, civil and military officials and wealthy households employed attractive women to sing, dance and play instruments. Many poets in the Tang dynasty (618–906) immortalized the gifts of their favourite musical courtesans, who were important as an interface between élite and popular culture.

In pre-Islamic and Islamic Arab culture (until at least the 10th century) beautiful slave-girls were trained as singers and instrumentalists known as Qayna (see Arab music). Highly appreciated for their artistry, some were kept in palaces and wealthy households, treated as extremely expensive saleable commodities; others worked in taverns. In North Africa such women were called jāriya. In Ottoman culture this term (cariye) was applied to female slave entertainers specialized in music (see Ottoman music, §6). In Persian society female musicians portrayed in court scenes probably had a comparable low status.

In North India in the late sultanate and early Mughal period women provided aristocratic house-music (akhāra). The instruments were played by the women of the house, or slaves trained by dancing-masters (naṭva). North India has an important tradition of tavāif courtesans. Matrilineal tavāif families were attached to courts, mainly as vocalists and dancers, performing in ‘light classical’ styles such as ṭhumrī; noted performers included Kesarbai Kerkar, Malika Pukhraj and Noorjahan. The honorific title of Ustād and prestigious genres were reserved for men.

3. Public courtesans.

Some courtesans operated on a more casual basis. In classical Greece hetaira courtesans presided over symposia (see Symposium) where men enjoyed witty debate, wine and uninhibited female company; aulos reed-pipe music was played by low-status female auletrides (see Aulos, §II, 4).

In some Indian cities (e.g. Delhi and Lucknow) tavāifs kept open house to the élite. In their salons (koṭhā) they offered refined singing, dancing and conversation in an atmosphere of intense aesthetic appreciation and gift-display. In Indonesia singing-dancing girls travelled as entertainers, performing before wealthy notables and receiving lavish gifts. Professional female erotic dancing remains a widespread form of entertainment today (see Indonesia, §I, 1, (iii), (b)).

Japanese geishas evolved as specialized entertainers catering to a sophisticated clientele in the tea-houses of special licensed quarters of cities. They used to live in all-female geisha households and cultivated the arts of dancing and singing to the shamisen lute. Today geishas cater mainly to businessmen, serving drinks, dancing and singing (usually kouta songs or, occasionally, the nagauta ‘long song’ genre). In China prostitutes working in the brothel quarters were often accomplished musicians, accompanying their singing on the plucked lutes sanxian or pipa.

4. Artistic contribution.

It appears that in most courtesan traditions girls were trained from an early age (about five onwards). Transmission was sometimes from mother to daughter; male expertise was often brought in at a more advanced stage. In some societies courtesans played a variety of musical instruments, especially those suitable for accompanying singing, e.g. the Korean kayagŭm (long zither), for the kayagŭm p'yongch'ang genre.

The conditions in which courtesans operated encouraged virtuoso performance. At court, feats of musicianship were designed to impress the company and enhance the prestige of the king or master. Where courtesans competed for male favours and appreciation with showers of money, solo performance was the most effective way of displaying individual talent. Courtesans have been important as performers, connoisseurs, transmitters and innovators of music, yet were frequently dismissed or even deliberately erased from memory. As unmarried but sexually active women they had an ambivalent status, and subsequent generations often viewed them with disdain.

See also Women in music.


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  • Byong Won Lee: ‘Evolution of the Role and Status of Korean Professional Female Entertainers (Kisaeng)’, World of Music, 21/2 (1979), 75–83
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