|(L-R, Messaoud Habib, Dalila Taliyana, Acher Mizrahi, Paris c. 1930)|
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the name Messaoud Habib was synonymous with Tunisian music. Indeed, Messaoud Habib, described in his day as “the greatest North African pianist,” maps fascinatingly onto the history of Tunisian music from his debut in the 1920s through the end of his career in the 1950s. Proficient in piano, organ, and harmonium, Habib’s career would begin at a moment when that brand of Western instrument was on the ascendant and end with the re-entry of the qanun into Tunisian music.
|Messaoud Habib on player piano scroll. Released by the Bembaron firm.|
Habib, in fact, was not just an instrumentalist, but so too an impresario. During the interwar period, the pianist served as artistic director for Pathé in Tunisia along with his coreligionist and orchestral leader Kiki Attal. Being the visionary that he was, Habib was also responsible for discovering a young Raoul Journo – before rushing him into Bembaron to record his first sides – recordings long lost to time.
That it is difficult to find Messaoud Habib records is a given. This, of course, often means that he’s forgotten or overlooked. But as you’ll hear on this Columbia side, an unmetered improvisation, a taqsim recorded 88 years ago this month in a rather cavernous space in Tunis, Messaoud Habib deserves our attention. Messaoud Habib should be written back into the music history of the region and remembered as he was nearly a century ago: as (one of) the greatest of North African pianists.