Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When La Mamma Became Ya Yemma: Lili Boniche, Charles Aznavour, and Algerian Cover Songs

A young Mahieddine Bachetarzi. 1920s?
Somewhere in an attic or an archive exists a recording of Mahieddine Bachetarzi singing Josephine Baker’s iconic J’ai deux amours. Why he chose to cover this particular song and what meaning one can discern from a national figure like Bachetarzi singing about his love for two nations during the turbulent 1930s will have to remain but speculation for now. What this does suggest, however, is the existence of “the cover” as a genre during the middle third of the twentieth century in Algeria. In fact, if it was one thing that Algerian Muslim and Jewish musicians shared, it was a passion for covering the hits. Covers took a variety of forms during this period but the most intriguing, as already eluded to, was the phenomenon of translating mostly French language chansons into Arabic and in that process, giving them entirely new meanings.

Perhaps the best known of these cover artists was one Mahieddine Bentir, of whom Ted Swedenburg has written about recently. Bentir, born in 1934 in Algiers, hit on something big in the 1950s when he began transforming American rock ‘n’ roll into “rock oriental” and set French genres to Algerian rhythms. He brought tremendous energy to his position at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in Algeria and as an independent artist, one who was fond of doing summersaults on stage at a particularly rockin’ moment. He has cited Robert Castel, Lili Labassi’s son, as one of his inspirations. Bentir’s Ana Bouhali, his appropriation of the classic Je Suis Le Vagabond, captures a certain slice of music hall Algeria in the 1950s perfectly. Here’s a short version of the French and then Bentir’s exhilarating Arabic rendition:

Lili Boniche performs at the Salle Pierre Bordes - Algiers, 1959
Lili Boniche, also known as “the Crooner of the Casbah,” was another cover cheikh. Born in 1921 to a Jewish Algerois family, le jeune Boniche was already making a splash in the Algerian papers by the mid-1930s, an especially impressive feat given his age at the time. Boniche became a staple of Algerian radio during the period and then began recording 78 rpm records for the Pacific label in the 1940s. He is most famous for his hit songs (all of which were later covered by others) Elle Est Partie (Mchate aliya), Eili Mektoub, Carmelita, and Bambino, the last an Arabic cover of the Neapolitan song, Guaglione, which was then all the rage in Europe and soon North Africa. Throughout his Algerian career, Boniche attracted tremendously large, mixed audiences.

Luc Cherki in all his disco glory. 1979.
Many have argued, in what appears to be a historiographic misstep, that Boniche, for a number of personal reasons, all but stopped performing in France upon his arrival there. This position helps to bolster the claim that he was “rediscovered” in the early 1990s by Bill Laswell, among others. In fact, a review of his releases reveals the opposite - Boniche recorded constantly and consistently through the 1960s and 1970s, both for his own LB label and for El Kahlaoui Tounsi’s Dounia. Shockingly, he even cut a disco EP, much like Luc Cherki, in the late 1970s.

Lili Boniche. Ya Yemma (La Mamma). LB Disques. 1963.
If Boniche took a break from music, it was possibly during that traumatic and confusing year of Algerian independence, although there is only scant evidence to support this. Whatever the case, he was certainly “back” on the scene as of 1963. It was that year that Charles Aznavour’s La Mamma had reached the number one spot on charts across the continent and unsurprisingly, Boniche chose to cover it for the A side of his first release on his new label. In my opinion, Boniche’s Arabic version – Ya Yemma – is even more powerful than the original. Clearly not just a lament for a mother, Ya Yemma can easily be “read” or heard as a longing for Algeria itself. Below you will find both the Aznavour original and the Boniche cover with the Lucien Attard Orchestre playing back up. Take a listen:

Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning Salim Halali, the subject of my last post, and his Arabic take on another song about mothers, the Yiddish classic My Yiddishe Mama. Below is a classic Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt version and the later Halali adaptation. I dare say this is the only Yiddish song ever translated into Arabic but I would be happy to be proven wrong.


Until next time…Happy New Year to all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jewish Morocco Turns 5! Salim Halali, Taali, & Change

Salim Halali in pose. 1970s?
In his memoirs, Mahieddine Bachetarzi, the “Caruso of the Desert” and founding father of Algerian theater, describes Salim Halali as having “the greatest Arab male voice” of the post-War period. Halali’s music, blending Latin styles like flamenco and paso doble with popular Arabic pieces written by the likes of Gaston Bsiri and Mohamed El Kamel, was at once distinctly modern and traditional. It was also everywhere. By 1946, you could catch Halali multiple times a week on Algerian radio. His records, made exclusively for Pathé in the 78 rpm era, were sold in Algeria’s major cities, across the Maghreb, and in Paris and Marseilles. Some have gone as far as to call him North Africa’s first pop superstar and when considering his dashing good looks, his swoon-inducing voice (among women and men), and international appeal – sought out by Um Kulthum and others, it’s not difficult to see and hear why.
A very young Halali in Algeria

Halali is deserving of a full-length biography but I won’t get into all of the details here. In broad strokes, Halali remained in Paris during the War years (apparently hidden from Vichy with the help of the Grand Mosque), established the “oriental” music venue Ismaïlia Folies in 1947 before moving to Casablanca to open a similar cabaret in the form of Coq D’Or. He eventually returned to France, release dozens of songs, and toured the world along the way. For many, he retired too early. He lived out his last days in the solitude of a retirement home on France’s southeastern coast. He died at the age of 85 in 2005.

Halali represents a sort of musical continuum between Arab and Jewish at a moment when the two were being torn apart in Algeria. Born in Annaba in 1920, Simon, as he was then known, lived a fully Algerian Jewish life complete with a passion for music. His gift of voice was noticed early and by his teens he had, like many other North African musicians of his generation, relocated to Paris to try his luck in the cabaret scene there. He soon met the already mentioned Mohamed El Kamel and the duo produced a truly remarkable number of hits. One of them, Taali, is among the more moving and evocative love songs I have ever laid ears upon. I have reproduced it below. My suggestion, before listening, is to pour yourself a glass of wine or non-alcoholic beverage (North African, preferably) and cuddle up with someone special. Then hit play. Open a window because it might get hot.

I have seen copies of this record turn up in various forms in places as diverse as Tunis and Jaffa. It is little surprise then that it has recently found a new, younger audience eager to pay homage to the original. The unbelievably talented team of Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen, Israeli artists of Moroccan origin, have created this mind blowing version below. One can only imagine Halali approving and then joining in.

This sultry jazz version by Georgian-French singer THékO also deserves a listen. It seems like nearly eighty years after its original release, Taali and Salim Halali are enjoying a comeback.

Halali on oud
Five years ago, when this blog launched, I could have never predicted any of this. In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about Salim Halali or anyone else making up this constellation of Maghrebi Jewish stars. I was living in Washington, DC at the time and daydreaming of Morocco constantly. In my previous Moroccan travels, I felt like I had just scratched the surface of the Maghreb and I had grown desperate to find the most remote traces of Jewish life from the Sous to the Sahara and everywhere in between. I quit my job, headed to Morocco, recorded what I found, and for a long time that was what this blog was. On a return visit I happened on that now iconic record store in Casablanca and “discovered” Haim Botbol in cassette form. I digitized the tape, uploaded it, and the internet (you) encouraged me to keep going. I started collecting and listening and then really connecting. As I assembled this history record by record, I made sure to keep putting pieces online and writing about these complicated and talented larger than life figures. Soon relatives contacted me. Fans of the original musicians sent me emails and letters (and the occasional record). I met this cohort wherever they were to be found: in Tangier and Tel Aviv and Marrakesh and Marseilles. When I was lucky, I even had the opportunity to sit with the musicians themselves. I also have gotten to know others on this journey, who, like me, are trying to bring this music out of the storage room and back onto the turntable. Through it all, I have faithfully inhaled my share of dust, climbed dangerously rickety ladders in order to peek into an attic, and spent countless hours walking the medina in rising temperatures, all in search of these elusive, fragile, and yet resilient records.

Five years later I can proclaim loudly that Zohra El Fassia, Marie Soussan, and Habiba Messika have left an indelible mark on my life. I have dedicated myself full time (graduate school) to the endeavor of telling their story and the stories of the whole enterprise and I couldn’t be happier. Each one of these personalities complicates something we know, fragments binaries, and further enriches that thing we call History. It is nothing less than a soundtrack of this era and has been missing for too long.

Things have certainly changed since 2008. Elkayam and Cohen, in the clip above, recently performed the works of Zohra El Fassia, Jacob Abitbol, and Albert Suissa in Essaouira at the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques, and in many ways have brought all of this full circle. The audience welcomed them with open arms, greeting the two with a certain contagious enthusiasm before joining in themselves.

This blog, I hope, will also change. I aim to retitle it, redesign it, make it more truly pan-Maghrebi, and come to focus more and more on those rarest of rare 78 rpm records. To do that requires time and an investment in the right technology and I will be calling on you to help with both. In the meantime, if you have suggestions, requests, leads, and so on, please do send my way.

Finally, thank you, choukrane, todah, and merci for all of your love and support over the years. It is appreciated more than you will ever know.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tunisia's 78 rpm Era: Reflections on Habiba Messika, Cheikh El Afrite & My Recent Travel to Tunis

The Jewish cemetery at Bourgel in Tunis
Cheikh El Afrite's grave at Bourgel
On my final day in post-revolutionary Tunisia, I headed to the vast Jewish cemetery at Bourgel aiming to find and pay tribute to the final resting places of Tunis’ musical superstars of years past. While the cemetery itself is in a discouraging state of disrepair, the tombs of Habiba Messika and Cheikh El Afrite, two of said vedettes, are readily identifiable, if not difficult to reach. There is a feeling one gets when visiting a mostly abandoned Jewish cemetery in North Africa. In seeking a particular grave, you often have to wade through trash, sidestep discarded beer bottles, whack away overgrowth, and climb over other broken graves with names no longer legible. When you reach your destination, it is both unsettling and uplifting and most certainly a religious experience.

Cassette digging for Habiba Messika
Tunisians’ memory of Habiba Messika, the young Jewish singer, actress, and diva, who took Tunis by storm in the 1920s, is at once fierce and fading. Her cassettes, made from copies of copies of her scare 78 rpm recordings, are easily available in the myriad CD and tape shops around the city. Ask just about anyone – young or old – and they “remember” her. This, of course, is despite the fact that most do not actually remember. While Messika’s brutal murder by a jealous suitor was front-page news across the Maghreb and in Paris at the time, it also occurred over eighty years ago, in 1930, and most were not around to ever see her or hear her live at the Municipal Theatre, at the Casino in La Goulette, or anywhere else. Much like her music now, the memories of Messika are copies of copies. Of course, this makes them no less real but as a result certain details have fallen to the wayside. Thus her Jewishness, very real at the time, comes as shock to quite a few when revealed. Messika, like so many other things in Tunis, has been nationalized.

Stack of broken 78s with Narraci sleeve peeking out
Between meetings and visits to the archives, I went in search of records. On one of my first days in the country, I was encouraged by a find in the medina: a stack of shellac, all with purple sleeves of Joseph Narraci, one of the earliest indigenous (and Jewish) record companies in North Africa. Unfortunately, not a one contained a Narraci-produced record. In fact, most Tunisian records, especially 78s, have disappeared, many thrown out in the transition to vinyl, others captive in storage spaces around Tunisia and in attics in Paris. What stock does exist – in the medina, brocantes, and the occasional used bookstore - is either Western rock or Egyptian. If you’re looking for Um Kulthum on Odeon, you’re in luck, if you’re searching for Gaston Bsiri, bonne chance. While this was personally disappointing, it also served in a way as a testament to a phenomenon reported on by Tunisian observers of the 78-era – Egyptian discs were flooding the market. Only by supporting local artists, critics claimed, could this deluge be averted.

After a little less than two weeks in Tunis (not nearly enough time), I left feeling nostalgic for a place I never really knew. Strolling down Rue Al-Djazair, adjacent to the medina, brings one face-to-face with the once flagship record store of Joseph Narraci, as well as one of the former cinema districts of the silent and then talkie era. Cutting over to Rue Charles De Gaulle, transports you to the small empire of Bembaron, Jewish brothers and impresarios, who began their work by importing harmoniums and ended by creating a powerhouse label which captured the some of the city’s most impressive voices. The TGM (Tunis-La Goulette-Marsa) train is a journey back in time. As it traces the edge of the lake, children pry open the doors to get that fresh, salted wind in their face, only to be pulled back by the scruff of their necks by a responsible adult – much the same, I imagine, as it was sixty years ago. Descending at the La Goulette – Casino stop hurls you straight into Tunis’ music-hall capital, where Jews, Sicilians, Maltese, Greeks, and Muslims jostled for a seat at one of the various music venues around town. At the Casino, one might have caught a show by Messika and Hassan Banane, Cheikh El Afrite or Dalila Taliana. As I dined at one of the seaside restaurants - with some of the freshest fish I have ever tasted - I daydreamed of Raoul Journo, perhaps with Kakino De Paz, crooning about exil in El Ouach ouel Ghorba.

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword though, as it requires absence to make it its most powerful. During my first day in the archives, a young graduate student took an interest in me and we began a conversation. She asked me what I worked on and I told her I was studying the early years of the North African recording industry. She said I must study the Jewish musicians then if I was really serious about the topic. Encouraged, I told her that that was indeed my focus and in fact, I was Jewish. She went blank. You can’t say that here, she said. Not everyone was as open as she was, she claimed. Similarly, while Bachir Rsaissi’s Rsaissi label draws instant recognition among those in the know, the uttering of his Jewish counterparts – Narraci and Bembaron - is met with confusion and the polite protest that those names, in fact, are not Tunisian. Acher Mizrahi, a favorite of Habib Bourghiba long after independence, also sounds impossibly foreign to some.

El Kahlaoui Tounsi 45 in a dust-filled brocante
Despite all this (or perhaps because of it), Tunisia has grabbed my attention in a way I never thought it would. The Tunisians I spent time with were all supportive of my work, even if it was not their area of expertise. Many went completely out of their way to help me and I hope by giving a little more volume to the critically important history of the music industry in North Africa, I can someday soon return the favor.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Marhaba Tunis: New Music Mix, Tunisia’s Jewish Musicians, and Summer Travel

“Summer is here my friends: Turn on the fan, pour yourself a refreshing drink, close the shutters a bit, relax and refresh yourself in this paradise-inducing musical oasis,” writes Guillaume le Roux for 716 Music on my recent music mix. You can read his full write-up on my efforts, here. In honor of my August and September travel to Tunis and Paris (which will include research and record digging – any tips more than welcome!), I have put together the above-described mix of some of Tunisia’s finest male Jewish musicians. The mix, which I have dubbed Marhaba Tunis, can be downloaded below. In a recent tweet, Afropop Worldwide described it in the following terms, “We cannot say enough about how dope this mix of Tunisian music from @JewishMorocco is. (hint- VERY) LISTEN!!”

Two final notes before we get to the music and the rest of the post:

1. You can find more details on Tunisia’s music scene and background on the artists featured on this mix after the jump.

2. I will be blogging from the Maghreb and France for the rest of the summer so be sure to visit the site often. There will be additional updates on my Facebook and Twitter.

Kakino de Paz – Taksim Rasd
El Kahlaoui Tounsi – Men jarr aalaya
Maurice Meimoun – Khalli rabbi yetfakkarni
Cheikh El Afrit – Gued ma amelt maak
Jose de Suza - Consolacion
A. Perez – Ya Beladi
Raoul Journo – Sellemt fik ya biladi
Raoul Journo – Ahla Ouassahla
Kakino de Paz – Teksim Naïm
Brief Historical Note on Tunisia’s Jewish Stars 
Youcef Hedjaj aka Jose de Suza
Naturally, I have spoken most often on this blog about the world of Moroccan Jewish music-makers. Over the last couple years, I have delved into Algeria’s robust Jewish soundscape as well. I have given the least attention to Tunisia up until this point, although Algeria’s eastern neighbor deserves our attention since the country is as much a part of the story as the rest of the Maghreb. I won’t go into all of the details of the Tunisian music scene at this point but suffice it to say that Jewish participation mirrors, if not exceeds, that of their Maghrebi Jewish counterparts to the west.

Louisa Tounsia née Saadoun
Fritna Darmon, Maurice Attoun, Messaoud Habib, Abramino Berda, Bichi Slama, Chaloum Saada, Leila Sfez, Gaston Bsiri, Mademoiselle Dalila, Cheikh El Afrite, Doukha, Louisa Tounsia, Raoul Journo, Habiba Messika, Youcef Hedjaj, and Acher Mizrahi are but a small sampling of the Tunisian Jewish performers who defined and shaped their industry throughout the course of the first sixty-plus years of the twentieth century. A few details on Habiba Messika and Acher Mizrahi demonstrate the diversity of these performers and their impact, both of which are recalled fondly to this day. Habiba Messika, described as the Tunisian Sarah Bernhardt by observers in the 1920s, recorded extensively until her shocking death by arson at the hands of a jealous (Jewish) lover at the too-young age of twenty-seven. Throngs of Jews and Muslims came out for her funeral and both Jewish and Muslim popular artists (like Mademoiselle Flifla and Bachir Fahmy) penned songs in her honor. Some of those 78 rpm records were even sold to the American market on the Victor label. Acher Mizrahi was born outside of Jerusalem at the end of the nineteenth century. A hazzan by trade, he eventually settled in Tunis where he became not only the city’s most famous cantor but a major popular music figure as well (something which seems unimaginable today). He wrote lyrics for Cheikh El Afrite, recorded on his own, and collaborated with the likes of Mademoiselle Dalila and Messaoud Habib. Remarkably, he remained in Tunisia until shortly before his death in 1967.

There is infinitely more to write but this will have to serve our purposes for now. Think of it as whetting of the appetite. In return, I promise to blog on the topic later in the summer.

Short Biographical Sketches on the Musicians featured on the Marhaba Tunis Mix
Isaac “Kakino” De Paz (b. 1919, d. 1983): Blinded at a young age, Kakino de Paz was a multi-talented musician, a true virtuouso. De Paz was a master of the qanun, the violin, the oud, the piano, the accordion, and oh yes, the electric organ. He performed with La Rachidia, Tunisia’s premier Andalusian ensemble, and served for a time as head of the Radio Tunis orchestra.

El Kahlaoui Tounsi (b. 1932, d. 2000): Born Elie Touitou, El Kahlaoui was a stunning showman. There is a quality to his voice, which can only be described as mesmerizing and his darbouka work is without parallel. In addition to his staggering personal output and work with myriad North African greats, El Kahlaoui took over the Paris-based record label Dounia (the name repeated a number of times at the beginning of the mix) in the 1960s and turned it into one of the premier Maghrebi outfits. It is thanks to him and his efforts that much of North African music of the 1960s and 1970s is preserved.

Maurice Meimoun (b. 1929, d. 1993): Son of famous Jewish musician Mouni Jebali (who also happened to be Hédi Jouini's master teacher), Meimoun was an accomplished violinist and composer – writing for many of Tunisia’s biggest and brightest. The Tunisian Ministry of Culture honored him for his work shortly before his death.

Cheikh El Afrite (b. 1897, d. 1939): Born Israël Rosio Issirene, his adoption of the name Cheikh El Afrite (roughly translating as Master of the Devil) paid homage to his wit and was perhaps also a play on the word ‘ivrit, which happens to mean Hebrew in Hebrew. He was nothing if not prolific and there was little he didn’t sing about including a lament about a husband, who was sick and tired…of his wife.

Youcef Hedjaj (b. 1919): The sometimes Jose de Suza has written over 600 songs in a mélange of languages. He helped to pioneer the francarabe genre and held court at the famed El Djazaïr cabaret in Paris. He wrote the lyrics to some of the true classics including Line Monty’s Ya Oumi and L’Oriental.

Albert Perez (unknown): I admit I know little of Perez other than that he cut a number of 45s with El Kahlaoui on Dounia. Ya beladi is an emotional ode to his Tunisia. If anyone has more information, please do send my way.

Raoul Journo (b. 1911, d. 2001): Simply put, Raoul Journo was among the greatest, if not the greatest, in Tunisian recording history. His repertoire remains an integral part of the his country’s musical fabric to this day. Sellemt fik ya biladi is an incredible homage to Tunisia.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Music and Memory: The Life and Death of Cheikh Raymond

Orchestre Raymond on Hes el Moknine. Mid-1950s.
Nearly fifty-two years to the day, Raymond Leyris, known as Cheikh Raymond on account of his mastery of the eastern Algerian Andalusian musical tradition of malouf, closed his record store at 3 Rue Zévaco for the final time. Within a year, Algeria would gain its freedom from France but at that moment it was deep in the throes of a bloody civil war. With tensions having already boiled over and almost a month after failed talks between the French government and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Cheikh Raymond was trying to do the unthinkable as one of Constantine’s leading professional musicians and a Jewish one to boot: He was attempting to lead a normal life.  After locking up at Disques Raymond, he grabbed his daughter Viviane’s hand and headed toward Place Négrier, home to the bustling Souq el-Assar and adjacent to the city’s Jewish quarter, the Chara. Accompanied by his brother-in-law, the three casually crossed the market place intending to lunch with Raymond’s uncle.  Passing midway between the Sidi el-Kettani Mosque on one side and the Jewish tribunal on the other, Viviane noticed a man approaching.  She felt her father’s grip tighten. Within a moment he had collapsed. He had suffered two gunshots to the neck at close range. The assailant escaped. Cheikh Raymond was rushed to the hospital but it was too late. On June 22, 1961, at the age of forty-eight, he was dead.

Cheikh Raymond has long intrigued me. His story, little known outside the Maghreb and segments of France, is riveting. Here are just some of the details. Raoul Raymond Leyris was born in 1912 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, a rarity in colonial Algeria. He was given up for adoption at the age of two and raised by the Jewish Halimi family, who saw to his conversion. Raymond, as he came to be called, gravitated ever closer to music in his teenage years. He sought out authenticity, spending time in Constantine’s medieval foundouks, where he apprenticed himself to the master musicians Omar Chaqleb and Abdelkrim Bestandji. By 1928, Raymond had begun singing and playing oud with the celebrated percussionist Mohammed L’arbi Benlamri, who would later join his orchestra, and in 1930, he made his debut with Si Tahar Benkartoussa. By the age of eighteen, the musical powers that be had bequeathed him the title of Cheikh.
Sylvain Ghrenassia on violin and Cheikh Raymond on oud.

While paying allegiance to the traditional, Cheikh Raymond managed to do things his own way. Interestingly, he seemed to have never recorded for the larger international record labels. His first recordings were made in 1937 for the Diamophone label, based out of Constantine, but World War II would soon put his recording output on hold. In 1945, Cheikh Raymond formed Orchestre Raymond with the Jewish violinist Sylvain Ghrenassia at his side. By the early 1950s, Cheikh Raymond and Orchestre Raymond represented Constantine’s most sought after Andalusian sound. It was also a fully integrated Jewish-Muslim ensemble. In 1954, at the start of the Algerian War, Cheikh Raymond and Sylvain Ghrenassia expanded their business, founding their own record label, Hes el Moknine, and opening a record store on Rue Zévaco.

In the meantime, Gaston Ghrenassia, Sylvain’s son and the figure who would later come to be known as Enrico Macias, had taken to seeing Cheikh Raymond as an uncle figure, lovingly referring to him as “Tonton Raymond.” The younger Ghrenassia’s musical talent impressed Cheikh Raymond and he invited Gaston to join his orchestra as a guitarist – bucking malouf norms at the time. Gaston made his debut with Orchestre Raymond that same year.

Cheikh Raymond at 78 rpm for Hes el Moknine.
Cheikh Raymond released dozens of 78s for his Hes el Moknine label in the 1950s, although given the length of a typical Andalusian movement, the format was far from suitable. It was thus with great pleasure that he adopted the LP format, putting out two dozen 33 rpm records in the same period and a similar number of EPs. He invited a few others to record on his label as well.

Mal habibi malou was the twentieth release on his label. It represents one of the more well-known Andalusian pieces and was recorded by nearly everyone worth their weight in the music industry. Cheikh Raymond’s interpretation is breathtaking. You get a real sense of his voice and his passion. Pay close attention to the violin work by Sylvain Ghrenassia as well. This eighteen minute cut is taken from the original.

Cheikh Raymond with Algerian Jewish star Sassi Lebrati.

Cheikh Raymond and his orchestra gave their last large public concert at the Vox Theater in Constantine in April 1960. In the fall, he made his final television appearance, singing Hokmek Hokm el-Bey, that old-new Andalusian song of Ottoman resistance to the 1830 French invasion and which now carried contemporary nationalist overtones. His political stance, the subject of much speculation, seems to be clear in this instance.

Yet, in January 1961, during a short visit to France, rumors about Cheikh Raymond surfaced. He was accused by unknown elements of belonging to the OAS. In another version, he was to have moved to Israel. Neither of course was true and neither could have been farther from reality. In fact, Enrico Macias recalls Cheikh Raymond telling him at the time, “I would rather die in Algeria than live in France.”

On June 22, 1961, two bullets struck Cheikh Raymond as he walked through the crowded markets of central Constantine. There were plenty of witnesses but no arrests. Cheikh Raymond was rushed to the hospital, the same one where he had been delivered and then given up for adoption decades earlier. He was pronounced dead on arrival. In accordance with Jewish custom, Cheikh Raymond was buried in Constantine’s Jewish cemetery the next day. In July 1961, the Leyris and Ghrenassia families arrived in Marseille. Despite pleas to transfer her husband’s remains to France, Hermance Leyris refused. Cheikh Raymond would remain once and forever in his beloved Constantine.

There is much commentary to add to this story but I will try to keep it short. Cheikh Raymond’s murder remains unsolved to this day although FLN participation seems likely. In the course of the turmoil of 1961 and 1962, the perpetrators were never caught and the case was never brought to trial. Names, motives - the answers - are buried probably not too deep in an Algerian archive somewhere. Both scholars and popular observers agree that the death of Cheikh Raymond triggered the flight of Constantine’s roughly 30,000-strong Jewish community to France.

The figure of Cheikh Raymond continues to loom large in the Constantinois Jewish collective memory, with former residents marking their own histories as before and after June 22, 1961. So too do memories remain vivid among Constantine’s Muslim population, especially music aficionados. At least two individuals have worked hard to commit Cheikh Raymond’s memory to history: Enrico Macias, his son-in-law and Francophone variety singer, and Taoufik Bestandji, the grandson of Cheikh Raymond’s mentor Abdelkrim Bestandji and an accomplished musician in his own right. Much of what we know of Cheikh Raymond is thanks to them and countless other individual recollections.

Finally, I would be remiss in not acknowledging two very good works dealing with Cheikh Raymond that contributed greatly to this post. Bertrand Dicale’s Cheikh Raymond: une histoire algérienne is the first and only biography on the singer and an absolute must. The second, Ted Swedenburg’s chapter, “Against Hybridity: The Case of Enrico Macias/Gaston Ghrenassia,” in Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg, ed., Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture is not only insightful but incredibly well written.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Botbol: The Last of an Era

Botbol on electric guitar. 1960s.

Haim Botbol has affected my life in ways he could never imagine. It was his record I picked up four years ago and it was his voice, which opened up a world of North African music for me. This is why this day means so much to me. Today, June 18, 2013, Haim Botbol is being honored by a fascinating cross-section of Moroccans for his sixty plus years in the music business. The event, organized by his manager and producer Maurice Elbaz, will include a roundtable discussion with musicians, musicologists, and journalists on Botbol’s career and of course, a concert - stacked with talent: Maxime Karoutchi and his orchestra, Benomar Ziani, Marcel Botbol, Vanessa Paloma, and apparently a few surprises.
Haim Botbol, known as Botbol to fans, was born in Fez in the 1930s. Like other Jewish musicians who came of age during this period, the young Botbol soon joined a musical dynasty. His father, Cheikh Jacob Abitbol (another variant of the Botbol name), was a well respected violinist and vocalist who released a number of 45s in the 1950s. Marcel, his younger brother, continues to entertain in Tangier.
Haim Botbol on guitar and his father Jacob Abitbol on violin. Marcel in back. Fez. 1950s.
Sampling of Botbol 45s c/o of Toukadime.
Haim Botbol was a favorite of Salim Halali and performed with Albert Suissa as well. He released a considerable amount of music on about a dozen labels (Boussiphone, Musica, Tichkaphone, Canariphone, Philips, etc.). He “made it” well into the cassette era, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. His mesmerizing voice has played a major role in his success and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Botbol, for all intents and purposes, represents the last of the great Jewish Moroccan musicians living in-country (although he has spent the last few years in France). 

This track - Ba Lahcen - is one of my favorites. The song became a serious hit for many including the likes of Hajja Hamdaouia. For anyone who has spent considerable time in Morocco or grew up speaking darija, you will love the song’s refrain.

Mazal tov, mabrouk, and félicitations to Cheikh Haim Botbol.

I will be posting additional Botbol-related material on my Facebook page and on Twitter throughout the week. Please make sure to check out.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sing Out, Maghreb! Jewish Moroccan Protest Music

Maurice Touboul. The Housing Crisis. MT. Early 1960s?

In the course of the recent Arab uprisings, journalists have paid a surprising amount of attention to the role of music in protests. In general, this has been a welcome development, especially when one considers the all but silent soundscape which those writing about the region have reinforced by ignoring it. However, this has also led to the reifying of the notion that protest music in the region is imported. This manifests itself in the focus on style, usually hip hop, over content. Yet, when one digs just a little bit deeper it become eminently clear that at least in the Moroccan case, the likes of rappers Bigg, H-Kayne, and El Haqed (L7a9ed) are taking inspiration from much closer to home, namely the late 1960s and 1970s protest standouts Nass El Ghiwane, Jil Jilala, and Lemchaheb, who themselves drew on indigenous sources.

In fact, protest music in Morocco and in North Africa more generally, is hardly new. The phenomenon goes back to at least the rise of the recording industry in the Maghreb and probably much earlier. Unsurprisingly, Jews played a disproportionate role here as well. The very styles Jews pioneered in early Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian music, whether cha’abi or francarabe, can and should be seen as a challenge to the status quo and to the musical powers that were. Jews were derided at the time for such sonic innovation and castigated for corrupting conservative ears. Ultimately, however, these music forms won the day.

Salim Halali. Arja' li bladi. Pathé. 1930s.
In addition to the implicit protest, Jews were considerably explicit as well. In Tunisia, Habiba Messika sang El Ittihad (Unity) in the mid-1920s and Louisa Tounsia sang Ana Arabiya (I'm an Arab) a decade later. In Algeria, Salim Halali sang about his homeland returning to him. Even Zohra El Fassia sang out, championing the cause of Sultan Mohammed V (he was eventually exiled and then returned to the throne by the French) in the late 1940 and 1950s.

As Jews dispersed in the 1950s and 1960s, those who stayed in North Africa past when they were “expected” to, like Algeria’s Alice Fitoussi, challenged nationalist and exclusionary conceptions of citizenship. In many ways, it is these musicians who I am most curious about. What can be said for sure is that wherever North African Jewish musicians went, they and their instruments didn’t remain silent for long. Whenever there was a breach of justice, they took pen to paper and vocalized what was on their minds, thereby giving voice to their compatriots battling difficult or unfamiliar terrain. Their audience enthusiastically joined the chorus.

Jo Amar was one of these musicians. Despite enjoying considerable success in Morocco and internationally, Amar was met with deaf ears by the Ashkenazi music establishment upon aliyah to Israel. To paraphrase the Moroccan-born Azoulay brothers out of Jaffa: Who would sign Jo Amar? We would. Before recording for the mainstream labels, Amar enthusiastically belted out hit after hit for the Azoulay’s Zakiphon imprint. While he sang separately in both Arabic and Hebrew, it was his song Lishkat Avodah (Employment Office) which combined the two and became the darling of the Moroccan community in Israel. I would wager that while many American Jews know Jo Amar well, nearly none have heard this one. In Lishkat Avodah, Amar masterfully calls attention to the suffocating discrimination faced by Moroccans upon their very arrival in Israel. In Arabic, he sings about the separation of children from parents as the former is sent off to the kibbutz in what is a totally alien environment. There is the utter sense of despair coming from the great unknown:

Taken from Haifa to Beit Lid…we were to told to keep going…
We were separated from our parents…
God have mercy on us

Beyond this and the musical dexterity he displays in rhyming the Arabic flous (money) with the Hebrew kibbutz (collective community), he reserves his most blistering verbal attack at minute 3:47 in Hebrew and for all to understand:

I went to the employment office
He asked me where I was from
I told him Morocco
He told me to get out

I went to the employment office
He asked where I was from
I told him Poland
He told me to please to come in

Of course, Amar sang in good company before leaving Israel for the United States. In Israel, his cohort continued to strike a chord regarding passion-stirring issues of the day while his French counterparts frequently intoned on local living conditions. This track by the Moroccan Maurice Touboul is in part the inspiration for this post. It is one of the more curious EPs in my collection and I unfortunately know little about Touboul other than the fact that he was deeply respected by the likes of Samy Elmaghribi and that he was no one hit wonder. In La Crise du Logement, he records at least one Moroccan Jewish attitude to a housing crisis in France and similar to Amar, he calls on God to take note.

Certainly not all Moroccan Jewish protest music can be categorized as "liberal" but all of it took aim at what the community deemed to be unjust, whether the wanton disregard of Maghrebi interests by Israel’s Labor party or the jailing of Aryeh Deri. Nonetheless, these songs continue to resonate.

Some sixty years after Jo Amar first sang Lishkat Avodah, his words remain as powerful as ever. In Kamal Hachkar’s brilliant documentary Tinghir-Jerusalem, the film’s elderly Jewish protagonists recall Amar’s anthem. Fast forward to minute 43:11 and watch, listen, and try not to be moved as their singing of this classic brings Hachkar to tears.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Happy Passover from Jewish Morocco (and Tunisia)!

Last year I posted about the staggering amount of liturgical and festival music released by North African Jewish musicians on major record labels from the earliest days of the recording industry through at least the 1970s. "These musicians," I wrote, "while mastering and pioneering secular, popular Arabic music were also deeply Jewish and recorded religious music, much like their Jewish musical counterparts around the globe." Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating freedom from bondage, resonated loudly with singers and songwriters from across the Maghreb. While relegating themselves to a single benediction or portions of the Pessah haftarah (a selection of Bible chanted in synagogue on the holiday) on the 78 rpm format, the move to the LP allowed these artists to record the Passover seder in its entirety, complete with instructions on how to lead the ritual service!

Nathan Cohen. Undated photograph.
Over the last few weeks I have been revisiting these pieces. Two LPs in particular stand out: Samy Elmaghribi’s La Haggada and Nathan Cohen’s Haggadah de Paque. What is remarkable about the former is that Samy recorded this with his children. Ses enfants play the role of reciting the Passover instructions in French and Samy dutifully performs the requisite rituals when prompted. Nathan Cohen’s Tunisian version is similarly stunning. His record gathers a number of Tunisian Jewish musicians around him to contribute to his sacred sound.

What I’ve done essentially is cut, spliced, and remixed portions of these two LPs together to make what I hope is an enjoyable aural experience. You will hear French instructions and an entertaining play by play of what the holiday is about at the beginning of the track and then back-to-back versions of the Passover classic Dayenu. Dayenu, meaning it would have been enough for us, is a fifteen-stanza piece about gratefulness to God (If He had only brought us out of Egypt…Dayenu. If He had only given us Shabbat…Dayenu). The track ends with Samy appropriately imbibing the fourth cup of wine.

Listen here to a North African Passover Remix:

Please do make sure to pass this one around but not over ;) Wishing everyone a meaningful Passover holiday. Hag Pessah Sameah.

Finally, here are a couple of extra goodies. You can find my post from last year here:

Here is Nathan Cohen’s version of Had Gadya:

And a  Jo Amar Passover LP:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Felix El Maghrebi: The Voice of an Era

Felix Wizman aka Felix El Maghrebi
The Casablanca cassette seller dusted off a Felix El Maghrebi mix tape, taped it with his index finger, and handed it to me. “This,” he said, “this is it.” Pulling a single cassette from a tower of tapes is no easy feat. Remembering where everything is even more difficult. But Felix El Maghrebi, the young Jewish mainstay of the Moroccan pop scene from the 1950s through the 1980s, is impossible to forget. His voice is smooth and his excitement is palpable. He is also a mighty fine oud player. In fact, wherever I have purchased music in Morocco, Felix has affectionately become the focus of the conversation.

Felix Wizman was born in the southern coastal city of Safi in 1937. Like many other Jewish families, his moved to Casablanca when he was just a boy. Le Petit Felix, as he soon became known, quickly found his voice in the big city, literally. It’s likely his father Meir first noticed his talent at home but it was the synagogue that provided him his initial stage. By the early 1950s, Salim Halali grew aware of Felix the virtuoso, eventually inviting him on stage with him to perform. Around that time, Felix was either bestowed or adopted the stage name Felix El Maghrebi, possibly in deference to his idol, Samy Elmaghribi. By his mid-teens, Felix was already performing professionally, both in front of large audiences and at private occasions, especially weddings. He signed a contract with the Jewish label N. Sabbah likely in the 1950s and cut a number of EPs with them through the 1960s and 1970s.

Felix El Maghrebi and his oud
His Jewish and Muslim contemporaries remember him fondly and with good reason. When many of his Jewish musical peers were making new homes for themselves in France and Israel, Felix remained in Casablanca - singing and playing his heart out. He was not only an audible presence in the 1960s but a visual one as well, making consistent appearances on Moroccan television at the height of his career. He was a familiar face in what must have been a confusing, chaotic, and yet exhilarating period: the initial years of Moroccan independence.

Felix El Maghrebi’s Raya Moghrabiya poignantly captures the Morocco of the time. It is a military march of sorts, a nationalist hymn focused on unity. “Be happy, brothers,” he exhorts over and over again in the refrain.

Take a listen to his golden voice:

Felix Wizman dit Le Petit Felix dit Felix El Maghrebi died five years ago on March 6, 2008. Through his song, his memory lives on.

P.S. If anyone has information on the N. Sabbah label, please be in contact with me directly.