Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chanting Kol Nidre in Tunis: The Sounds of Yom Kippur from a Half Century Ago

On the subject of the Yom Kippur chant “Kol Nidre,” a Tunisian record sleeve from the 1960s reads, “Every Jew must listen to it with feeling.” As Yom Kippur is upon us and now that I have digitized Nathan Cohen’s “Kol Nidre,” I invite all readers of this blog to do the same.

There seems to be something novel about a Tunisian record label – “En Nour” – remarking on “Kol Nidre” (meaning “All my vows), reminding Jews to listen to the solemn chant, and distributing such a record in the heart of Tunis and other cities. But let us recall that as late as the mid-late 1960s, this was, in many ways, par for the course. When this recording was made, for instance, Jewish musicians Acher Mizrahi, artist-composer-cantor, and Raoul Journo, among the pioneers of modern Tunisian song, were still living in Tunisia.

Nathan Cohen, credited on the record, has appeared before on this blog. Four years ago I posted his stunning Arabic rendition of Had Gadya. Cohen, we recall, was also a frequent collaborator of the Benghazi-born Tunisian artist Doukha, who passed away in December 2014 and who I wrote about in April 2015. Together the two formed part of the Tunis-based “cinq chanteurs” (the five singers), which included the musician Clement Hayoun. (On a quick side note, Doukha’s family is posting some incredible black and white and sepia-toned photos from his early career on his Facebook page. I strongly encourage you to check out.)

Nathan Cohen’s “Kol Nidre” intrigues for many reasons. First, it constitutes a rare glimpse into the sonic world of Tunisian Jewish religious life in the 1960s. Second, it seems that the main chanter on this recording is not Nathan Cohen but another artist – or  rabbi or cantor or combination of all three. Cohen, it should be noted, does respond throughout the recording and in doing so, adds a certain spirituality to an already intensely spiritual chant. Third, we are treated to instrumental accompaniment on music that normally would not receive such treatment. Fourth and finally, this version of “Kol Nidre” helps shine a light on the “En Nour” record label on which it was released and which seems to have specialized in Tunisian Jewish music throughout the early independence period.

There is more to say but for now I leave you with a taste of what Tunis sounded like more than half a century ago on the eve of Yom Kippur. Wishing everyone a good holiday, an easy fast, and a better year.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tickling the Ivory in Tunisia: Messaoud Habib and the 1928 Columbia Records Sessions

(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.
Messaoud Habib was nothing if not prolific. Pick up any Tunisian record with piano in the first half of the twentieth century and you’ll find the Jewish artist tickling the ivory. His dexterity served him well at a moment of expanding musical tastes across the Maghrib. Thus Habib was equally comfortable serving as head of the Beylical orchestra as he was accompanying the artist Babi Bismuth on a series of Jewish paraliturgical recordings made for Pathé in the 1920s. To give you but a sense of his scope: Messaoud Habib recorded nearly every musical genre of the era - from tango to ghaita - on nearly every label of the time – including Pathé, Columbia, Polyphon, Odeon, and the local Bembaron label – with every major Tunisian recording star of the day – from Habiba Messika to Khailou Esseghir to Bachir Fahmy.

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.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Album Artwork of North African Passover LPs

Pulled a few Maghribi Passover albums from my collection in advance of the Passover holiday. More music coming this spring. Chag Sameach!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Forget Your Worries: A 1930 Recording of El Moutribia, Algeria's premier Andalusian orchestra

(R) Kespi in Berlin. 1929.
Ok, friends. For the last night of Hanukkah, we’re going to listen to something truly special. This record, in fact, comes from the same catalogue as the Tunisian Hatikvah recording which kicked off this whole "eight North African Youtube rarities in eight nights" adventure.

Until 1930 or so, Algeria’s Andalusian orchestras were overwhelmingly Jewish and its most popular was El Moutribia. El Moutribia was founded by Algerian musical impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil in 1911, later conducted under the direction of Joseph Kespi, and presided over by the one and only Mahieddine Bachtarzi through the interwar period. El Moutribia set the bar for Algerian music for much of the first half of the twentieth century and brought those sounds to neighboring Morocco and Tunisia and to France and Italy via life performances which included dozens of vocalists and instrumentalists - and then to the entire world via disc. These recordings, until recently, have been all but impossible to find.


What better way to end this series, then, with El Moutribia’s performance of "Selli Houmoumek" (Forget your worries) recorded under the direction of "cheb" Joseph Kespi for the Gramophone label on December 19, 1930? As the chorus starts up, try imagining yourself in Algiers' famed National Theater. I think you'll be happy.

One final thought as we round out this series. Perhaps we can find small solace in the fact that this record and the others I’ve been posting have somehow survived for nearly a century despite the odds (time + war + dislocation + transport across continents…and the list goes on). These discs serve as reminders of what once was and what was once possible. If we can “forget our worries” or our fears for just a moment, maybe we can start making music again together.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Between Yesterday and Today: Petit Armand and the performance of North African music in Israel

When I first began to get drawn into the world of North African Jewish musicians, I often wondered (sometimes aloud) about the fate of Arabic-singing musicians in Israel. For the second to last night of Hanukkah, we listen to the sounds of one of those musicians: Petit Armand.

Petit Armand, sometimes referred to as Ptti Armo, Ptti Armon, or even Patti Armo, was born Armand (Amram) Peretz in Casablanca (?), Morocco in 1936. He began singing seriously at the age of 18, joining up with famed Jewish qanunist Salim Azra and performing at the still stately movie theaters of Casablanca at mid-century. Although it's unclear if he recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he certainly made a name for himself both in the Maghrib and in France as he toured some of the larger venues at home and abroad. In 1967, Petit Armand, like many Moroccan Jews, made the move to Israel.

Petit Armand was a specialist of Salim Halali’s repertoire. This was not uncommon for his generation of vocalist. Not only did Petit Armand give close study to Halali but so too to Samy Elmaghribi, and other greats of the Maghrib. The result was often a Maghribi musical intertextuality that leaves the listener grinning from ear to ear. Take a listen to Petit Armand’s “l’Oriental,” recorded for the Azoulay brothers in 1970. Here Petit Armand gives us a beautiful take on the song originally written by Youcef Hedjaj, recorded famously by Line Monty and later by almost everyone - from Lili Labassi to Enrico Macias. And then, at the eight-minute mark, Petit Armand launches into Spanish and a Spanish-inflected mawwal, dips into Salim Halali’s "Sevillana" and "Rit ezzine" before dazzling us with one more pass at l’Oriental.

I want to also include a live performance of Petit Armand so that you can see the man in action. Here he is in Israel doing a killer cover of another Salim Halali hit: “Bin el barah ouel youm.”

Finally, for those who weren’t aware, Petit Armand also happens to be the father of Kobi Peretz, mainstay of the Mizrahi scene. Last year, the two did a very musika mizrahit take on Samy Elmaghribi’s “Omri ma nensak.”

Friday, December 11, 2015

From Secular to Sacred: Rabbi David Buzaglo, Samy Elmaghribi, & Paul Bowles' 1959 Field Recordings

The blurring of secular and sacred lines that was North African music in the twentieth century is an absolute delight. Melodies intended for coffee shops and cabarets soon made their way into religious spaces. For the sixth night of Hannukah, we’ll dig into that phenomenon in the form of a wonderfully scandalous song that was soon adopted for synagogue use.

In 1959, American author and composer Paul Bowles made a series of field recordings in Morocco for the Library of Congress. Below, you’ll find a recording he made in the Benamara synagogue in Meknes in December of that year. Bowles set out to capture what he called “the musical antique shop” of Jewish liturgical music - in theory, a timeless, ancient tradition. What he found (unbeknownst to him) was the early twentieth century liturgical poetry of Rabbi David Buzaglo, in this case, "El hay ram gadol," set to the early 1950s tune of Samy Elmaghribi’s “Qaftanec mahloul” (Your robe is open, my lady). Again, unwillingly, Bowles managed to capture on disc the swiftness that Moroccan secular music was adapted for synagogue use.

First, take a listen to Bowles’ 1959 recording of El Hay Ram Gadol in Meknes:

Next, listen to Algerian artist Blond Blond’s cover of Samy Elmaghribi's "Qaftanec mahloul." As you’ll note, the two pieces employ the same melody - with Blond Blond speeding things up just a tad. Toggle back and forth and you’ll be quite happy.

You can hear more of this blurring on the excellent “Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews” (edited by Edwin Seroussi, with the assistance of Rabbi Meir Atiya - the men who first brought all of this to our attention) put out by Rounder records in 2000. Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Who was Smarda el Olgia? A microhistorical account of Rachel Hayat and her 1935 recordings

A year and half ago, our friend Thomas at the Ceints de bakélite blog put up an exquisite piece of malouf music by a seemingly unknown Tunisian artist by the name of Smarda el Olgia. After a bit of digging around my own collection, some sorting through archives, and a turn to some published sources, we can begin to piece together a few biographical details for Smarda el Olgia - as well as the circumstances that led to this recording.

Rachel Hayat (Sitbon)
Smarda el Olgia was born Rachel Sitbon in Tunis in 1892. She married Israel-Eugene Hayat and thus became known as Mrs. Rachel Hayat (Sitbon). In addition to being a fixture of Tunisian Jewish high society, presiding over a number of charitable organizations, she was also very well regarded among practitioners of the eastern Algerian and Tunisian classical Andalusian tradition known as malouf.

Throughout the end of the 1920s and the 1930s, patrimony became the watchword across the Maghrib. In large part it was fear of Egyptian music’s popularity that caused French colonial figures and indigenous musical impresarios to leap into action. Thus, institutions dedicated to safeguarding Andalusian music in all of its local forms, as well as committed to protecting Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian musical traditions more broadly constructed, were established. One thinks of the erection of the conservatory in Rabat, the formation of orchestras like El Djazairia in Algeria, and of course, the emergence of La Rachidia in Tunis in 1934. As part of this effort, Emile Gau, Director General of Public Instruction and Beaux-Arts in Tunisia, concerned that the suites associated with malouf were in danger of being lost (a common trope and no doubt influenced by the work of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger and La Rachidia), commissioned Rachel Hayat to make a series of malouf recordings in Paris in order to preserve Tunisian heritage in perpetuity (take a close look at the label and you’ll see much of this background come alive). And in September 1935, Rachel Hayat (Sitbon), under the name Smarda el Olgia (Smarda or Zmarda was a common Tunisian Jewish name), performed that task beautifully - recording this and dozen or so other records.

P.S. There is always a bit of serendipity in writing these posts. In the course of putting this one together, I discovered that Rachel Hayat’s daughter may have lived in Los Angeles for much of her life - and even been involved in a bit of a Hollywood-esque scandal. I’m still gathering details but will keep everyone posted. Hag Sameah!