Jewish Morocco

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dounia, A World: El Kahlaoui Tounsi and His Record Empire

Tunisian lyricist Ridha Khouini once described El Kahlaoui Tounsi as, “the most gifted percussionist of his generation.” Take the A side of this 45 rpm for a spin and you’ll soon see why.

And yet, El Kahlaoui Tounsi was, as music journalist Bouziane Daoudi called him, “a man of many chéchias.” Indeed, the Sidi Mehrez-born Elie Touitou could lay claim to a burgeoning record empire - in addition to a successful recording career - by the time he was in his late 20s.

Traces of El Kahlaoui Tounsi & Dounia in Tunis
Like many Tunisians who came of age in the 1940s, the young Touitou (born in 1932) was captivated by Egyptian music. He not only modeled himself on Egyptian singer Mohamed El Kahlaoui but hitched his own stage name to the already established star. El Kahlaoui Tounsi’s star was rising as well and as a teenager in the late 1940s, he was already drawing the attention of blind Jewish qanunist Kakino de Paz and others. After stints in Paris at venues like the famed El Djazair cabaret in the Latin Quarter, he returned to Tunis where he became a Radio Tunis regular. By 1953, he recorded his first single (Min youm elli ratek aini) - and never looked back. Over the next few years, he would record for a staggering array of labels: Ducretet-Thomson, Teppaz, La Voix Du Globe, Bel-Air, Pathé, and of course, Dounia.

Meaning “world” in Arabic, Dounia was a fairly well-regarded 78 rpm outfit in the 1950s but made a difficult transition to vinyl. In 1960, Tounsi bought the label outright and soon transformed it into an empire. The sheer breadth of artistry and genre of the Dounia catalog is mind-boggling. Dounia at once provided a forum for the likes of Maati Ben Kacem, Cheikh Mohamed El Anka, Oulaya, Fadila Dziria, Cheikha Remitti (and even the Syrian-Egyptian Farid El-Atrash, reportedly a friend) but so too for their recently uprooted and now France-based Jewish colleagues like Lili Boniche, Line Monty, Raoul Journo, Edmond Atlan, Blond Blond, Albert Guez, Réne Perez, Luc Cherki, Cheikh Zekri, Aida Nassim, Albert Perez, and Nathan Cohen. In fact, the importance of El Kahlaoui Tounsi and his Dounia label cannot be overstated. Tounsi and Dounia gave a voice to some of the best North African artists of the twentieth century when few others would.

Being an impresario hardly slowed his own musical career. Throughout the end of the vinyl era, El Kahlaoui Tounsi provided high energy performances on dozens of Dounia LPs and 45s and continued to perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This piece of Djerban folk, which appears to have been recorded around 1976, is one of my favorites. It is hypnotic, full of zukra (otherwise known as zurna), and pairs very well with Celtia (as the album artwork makes clear).
Afterward: On February 15, 2000 (almost exactly fifteen years ago), France’s Liberation newspaper ran the following headline, “Tounsi ne jouera plus de derbouka.” El Kahlaoui Tounsi had died at the all too young age of 67. Tounsi, of course, has been anything but silent in the years since his death. In 2002, the Bataclan concert hall on Boulevard Voltaire, purchased by Tounsi in 1976 and now owned by his sons, honored El Kahlaoui Tounsi and his larger than life musical contribution to both North Africa and France through an evening of song. And for anyone who has ever picked up a CD on the Trésors de la Chanson Judéo-Arabe series on Buda, rest assured that you are hearing El Kahlaoui Tounsi. The contents are pulled almost entirely from the Dounia label.

One final thought: I am posting this entry after a devastating week in Paris. I am still processing and mourning but have found some solace in a turn to El Kahlaoui Tounsi, his record label, and music…music that points to a different dounia, a different world in which Jews and Muslims came together to create an art that stands the test of time.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mazal Haï Mazal: Eight North African Tracks to Light Your Soul On Fire

2014 came and went too quickly. I wanted to post more often but as so frequently happens, life got in the way. In lieu of my more regular posts, I offer you, “Mazal Haï Mazal: Eight North African Tracks to Light Your Soul On Fire,” as an end of the year treat. These are eight (one for every night of Hanukkah) of my favorite Moroccan and Algerian tracks (mostly on vinyl but one on cassette) and articulate a range of Maghrebi Jewish sounds - from Andalusian to chaabi to a song about the atomic bomb! Feel free to stream, download, and share.

Consider the title of this end of the year Hanukkah mixtape an Arabic-Hebrew play on words. Indeed for most of the mid-century North African Jewish artists featured here, “mazal” always carried two meanings. In Arabic, mazal meant “still,” as in Lili Labassi’s “Mazal haï mazal” (S/he’s still alive) - a track beautifully presented on the Excavated Shellac blog. But so too did mazal recall the Hebrew for “luck” or “fortune,” a point made by Labassi’s disciple Blond Blond, who sang, “mazal, c’est la chance,” in what is perhaps the only Algerian Hanukkah song ever to be recorded commercially. I say all of this to convey the following: treat my take on Mazal Haï Mazal in both of these senses. Not only is this music “still alive” but so too should we remember that it is through a combination of fortune and luck (and all of our good graces) that it continues to live on.

One last point before we get to the music. Treat this as a soft launch of a crowd funding campaign to turn my private record collection into a public sound archive. On my shelves are historical audio gems that deserved to be shared and I want to make that happen as soon as possible. In other words, keep an eye out on this site in 2015!

Best wishes for the New Year!

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Algerian Jewish Soundscape

Bootleg Salim Halali LP found in Algiers.
Algeria’s Jewish past is often framed as one of contemporary invisibility. Jews are gone, synagogues have been converted into mosques, and still other visual markers of Jewish life all but effaced. Indeed, all of this is true. But since arriving in Algeria two weeks ago to do research on the North African music industry of the first half of the twentieth century I have wondered the following: What happens when we shift our focus to that of the aural? In other words, are Algerian Jews more present in the present if we replace vision for sound and the landscape for the soundscape? The answer, in short, is a resounding, “yes.”

Discussing the Algerian 78 era over coffee.
If one listens close enough, Jewish voices are everywhere in Algeria. One must only enter one of the myriad CD shops to catch the sounds of popular Jewish recording artists from more than half a century ago like Lili Boniche. Peek your head into a bric-a-brac shop in Oued Kniss and you will find a dust covered pile of records including the likes of Salim Halali and Lili Labassi. Catch an Andalusian performance at the National Theater (named for Mahieddine Bachetarzi, himself closely identified with Algerian Jewish musical impresarios of the past like Edmond Nathan Yafil) and you will hear a piece of the classical suite - and now an inextricable part of Algerian patrimony - once closely associated with Jewish legends like Mouzino and Sassi. Meet with an octogenarian musician and wait just seconds before he regales you with tales of Alice Fitoussi and la belle époque of Algerian music. Tell just about any Algerian, young or old, about your research subject in the broadest of terms and wait for them to interject with, “Ah! Then you must study the Jews.”

There is much more to say but I am still very much processing it all. My daily strolls through the casbah, that shockingly compact musical incubator which once nurtured the high point of Jewish-Muslim music making, helps tremendously. So too does listening to the music again and again. Shortly before leaving for Algeria, I put together an all-45 rpm mix for Afropop Worldwide which serves as both a primer and a testament to the outsized role played by the country’s Jewish musicians in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Disco Maghreb. What else?
Here is what I wrote for their website: “In an era immediately before chaabi and preceding raï by some decades, multi-talented artists like Lili Labassi pushed the boundaries of Algerian Arabic music in new, exciting directions while laying down 78 rpm record after 78 rpm record for Columbia, Polydor, and even RCA. Later, Lili Boniche and Luc Cherki, the so-called “crooners of the casbah,” blended Western and North African rhythms to produce hits like the former’s “Ya Samira,” included here. Over the next hour you will hear a sampling of all of this and more. We start with Salim Halali and his iconic cover of the Moroccan Sidi Hbibi before moving on to a Luc Cherki istikhbar and disco number and eventually to a trio of pieces performed by Blond Blond, Lili Labassi, and the Algéroise diva Line Monty dedicated to a love of city (Oran and Algiers) and nation (Djazaïr). René Perez and Lili Boniche round out this mix before we arrive at the rarest piece in this collection: the Andalusian piano stylings of the one and only Sariza Cohen.”


Salim Halali - Layali Maghrib / Salim Halali - Sidi H’bibi / Luc Cherki - Stekhbar Sahli / Luc Cherki - Oumparéré / Blond Blond - El Porompompero / Blond Blond - Wahran El Behya / Lili Labassi - Ouaharan El Bhya / Lili Labassi - Edzayer Zint Elbouldan / Leïla Fateh (Line Monty) - Alger Alger / René Perez - Elli Mektoub Mektoub / Lili Boniche - Elli Mektoub Mektoub / Lili Boniche - Ya Samira / Sariza Cohen - Variations sur Touchia Dhil

More to come when I return but in the meantime pour yourself a Phénix or an Orangina (both of Algerian origin) and enjoy the music. Saha!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Delight of the Faithful: Henry Levi, Cheikh Raymond, and a 1958 Recording from Constantine

From L to R: Alexandre Nissim Benharoun,
- Chalom Lellouche
- Edouard Zerbib
- Sion Bouskila
- Victor Assouline
- Hayo Hassoun
- The father of Chalom Lellouche but no Henri Levy...
I stand humbled before this particular record and I am certainly not the first. Indeed, Cheikh Raymond was so taken by Henri Levy’s voice that he represents the only other artist to have ever been featured on Leyris’ Constantine-based Hes El Moknine label.

To find out anything about Henri “Yosef” Levy, one has to turn to the Algerian Jewish message boards. And yet, he is elusive even there. The lone comment on a stunning photo of Constantinois rabbis from this late 1950s laments the fact that Rabbi Levy is missing from the image. On another site, we are informed that Levy was not a rabbi at all but an “officiant,” someone with rabbinical skills but without ordination. For anyone who has ever been to an active synagogue in North Africa or attended a Maghribi service anywhere, none of this will be surprising for it is the congregants that lead the service. If there is a rabbi among the crowd, he can be difficult to find.

By day, Levy operated a printing press but at prayer time he officiated at the synagogue close to the lycée d’Aumale. There he developed an intimate relationship with none other than Cheikh Raymond. On Forum Zlabia under the “Hazzanims de Constantine” thread “Benj” writes that Levy had, “a fantastic voice and was the delight of the faithful during Shavuot.” He remarks specifically on Levy’s recitation of the Seventh Commandment. Cheikh Raymond was equally struck by Levy’s take on this piece of the liturgical tradition and so much so that he pressed him into recording it. Thus on both sides of the 25 cm LP, Levy is accompanied by Cheikh Raymond and Sylvain Ghrennasia, Enrico Macias’ father.

On another thread, “Benj” asked for more information on this record. I have dutifully provided the first six minutes of it below. The spoken introduction offers us a rare and precise time stamp (right before the month of Nisan 5718 - perhaps March 21, 1958). The chanting itself provides us with a precious aural “glimpse” into the world of Jewish Constantine in 1958. Knowing that all of this crumbles but a few years after this record was made makes Levy’s voice seem all the more powerful.

Like all of the other records in my collection, this one traveled. I’m not sure if Henri Levy brought copies of it with him when he landed in Marseille but someone did and then it made its way to me. For me, this record is symbolic of how temporary my hold on this music is. I don’t “own” any of it but happen to have it at this very moment. For now, though, all I can do is share.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Songs in the Key of Chakchouka: the North African Light and Comic Chanson

An early Edmond Nathan Yafil comic monologue at 90 rpm.
Before David Guetta, there was his great grandfather Kiki Guetta. Born in Tunis at the end of the nineteenth century, Jacob “Kiki” Guetta championed neither popular nor Andalusian music but rather the North African comic song. Taking a cue from the light hearted repertoire then being refined on vaudevillian stages as far afield as Paris and New York, Guetta adapted the genre to Arabic, established his own troupe, and entertained mixed Muslim and Jewish cabaret audiences beginning in the earliest years of the twentieth century. When Gramophone released its first catalogue in Tunisia in 1910, Guetta’s discs were featured prominently.

Guetta, like his Moroccan and Algerian Jewish contemporaries who embraced the style, pushed the boundaries of the acceptable in public. On many of his records, he ridiculed those in power, poked fun at his compatriots, and drew attention to emerging social problems. But, as his successors would soon do, he sang about the more banal.

In some cases, the banal, or the light song, took the form of translated ditties, like Guetta’s Arabic version of La Petite Tonkinoise, while in other instances it meant connecting the latest international music trend - often Latin - to the local palate. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than the array of songs released toward the middle of the century on the subject of chakchouka, the North African tomato and egg delicacy that many of us have come to know and love. Imar Maghy, for instance, a Tunisian Jewish comic of the 1950s and 1960s, would set “chakchouka” to cha cha cha, pepper it with Arabic, and serve up wildly popular results. Even if the tune has little to do with cuisine itself, one can surely appreciate the identitarian aspect of it. You will find a taste below.

Not to be outdone was the Algerian Blond Blond, who sang about both the merguez sausage and chakchouka, and his Sétif-born colleague Alberto Darmon aka Staïffi (and his group: ses Mustaphas), who made his version of “chakchouka” into a dance number while also putting the culinary delights of the Belkacem restaurant - rhyming the Arabic word for “beans” with the French for “unforgettable” - to a foot-tapping harmony.

Of course, there is much more to be said on the subject of Jews and comedy in North Africa in the first half of the twentieth century but an outline will have to suffice for now. Comic monologues and songs can be counted as among the earliest pieces to be recorded on wax cylinder across the Maghreb. In Algeria, the impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil would bring the scène comique to large audiences, impressing none other than Mahieddine Bachetarzi, who himself would take Algerian comedy and theater to the next level.

I would also be remiss in not mentioning that a number of these pioneers of comic song, along with their stand-up counterparts, made their way to France and Israel around mid-century, including the Moroccan Maurice Lusky, who can be heard below doing his classic “drunkard” sketch with Raymonde El Bidaouia.

I will have to leave it here but welcome further thoughts and comments. In the meantime, good listening, bon appétit, and b’saha!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sliman Elmaghribi and Jaffa's Moroccan Sound

Those in the know, know Sliman Elmaghribi. Elmaghribi, born Sliman Benhamou in Meknes, came to define the Moroccan sound in Jaffa in the 1950s and 1960s. And that sound was nothing if not ubiquitous. It could be heard at once blasting from the Azoulay’s shop near the center of town and wafting out of the rough and tumble night clubs - the hamara - dotting the city’s alleyways. There were the Andalusian practitioners there to be sure but Tel Aviv’s better half also drew in those who were ready to sing about their more contemporary experiences in hybrid styles all their own. Sliman, difficult to categorize, falls somewhere into all of this. The ultra-talented singer and oudist was both a major recording star for the Zakiphon label and a musician’s musician who sometimes slipped under the radar. He knew and loved Cheikh Mwijo, indeed the two played together back in Morocco, but seemed to avoid some of his friend’s more extroverted qualities. He was adored by the masters of a previous generation, like Zohra El Fassia and Samy Elmaghribi, and yet never adopted the honorific that so many of his peers were bestowed. What can be said for sure is that Sliman Elmaghribi was prolific and accomplished, putting out album after album for decades and attracting more and more fans along the way.
Young Sliman Elmaghribi (far left) with Maalem David Ben Haroush and Jacob Zerad
His “Yaffo Zint Elbldan” (roughly translated as Jaffa the Beautiful) gives us a slice of what all of this sounded like. It is his homage to the city he spent so much time in and grew to love - despite its very real problems. As you listen to this track, try to put yourself in its time. Imagine yourself winding your way to an address best found by looking for landmarks and not numbers. As you enter the smoke-filled venue, recall that the Kuwaiti brothers are somewhere nearby entertaining Iraqi audiences. Order a round of beers and pickled vegetables as Sliman sets up with his orchestra. Close your eyes as he begins to strum. Yaffo Zint Elbldan for you and for others is now the city’s unofficial anthem.

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.