Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating Life: Saoud l'Oranais, Algerian Music-Making, Yom Kippur, and Eid al-Kabir

Box labeled "Saoud l'Oranais" and filled with Algerian 78s
On Monday July 13, I left a blisteringly hot Marseille bound for Montpellier. I was heading there to meet a Mr. Sultan about a collection of “oriental” records he was looking to part with. Upon arrival at Mr. Sultan’s apartment, a friendly-faced nonagenarian greeted me, welcomed me in, and poured me a much-needed glass of water. He pointed me to a table on which sat a small box and a plastic bag, both dangerously packed with Algerian 78 rpm records, and we began to talk. Mr. Sultan, originally from Oran, was in the process of moving into a retirement home, he told me. His children were uninterested in the ancient discs and so he was looking to give (sell) them to a good home - someone who appreciated their value. The records in his collection were his father’s - a man, who judging by the condition of these records and confirmed by Mr. Sultan, was serious about his music. As he spoke, I carefully pulled out record after record for inspection. Most were in their original Pathé and Polyphon sleeves and most reflective of an Oranais musical sensibility. Among the lot was Lili Labassi, Cheikh Zouzou, and of course, Saoud l’Oranais. It was the latter, Mr. Sultan made clear, that his father was particularly fond of. Indeed, the box in which all of the records had sat for way too long contained a single mark designating its contents: on the cover Mr. Sultan or his father had written “Saoud l’Oranais” in a now-faded blue ink. I closed the box, reorganized some of the other discs, gently packed them into a record bag, and bid Mr. Sultan farewell - likely for the first and last time. My heart raced the whole train ride home knowing what was inside my bag.

Since that fateful encounter with Mr. Sultan, I have been thinking much about Saoud l’Oranais. I have of lately been writing about the way in which the Second World War collided with North Africa and North African music-making and no such story is complete without mention of Saoud l’Oranais. But his life was much more than his end and I want to first sketch out the details of that rather remarkable existence before doubling back to how it was cut short and why I’m posting this now.

Saoud l'Oranais, Baidaphon, 1935
Saoud l’Oranais was born Messaoud El Médioni in 1886 in Oran. He came from a long line of musical Medionis and it appears that he first recorded for Pathé at the age of 26 (the first mention of Saoud l’Oranais is in a Pathéphone catalogue from 1912). To give you a sense of that early Algerian recording world he inhabited, that same 1912 record catalogue featured Ed. Yafil (Edmond Nathan Yafil) singing and Mouzino described as “éleve de Sfindja” - a student of the great Andalusi master who still needed to be listed according to his lineage. Throughout the 1910s and through the 1930s, Saoud performed regularly with El Moutribia, Algeria’s premier indigenous (and most Jewish) orchestra. He was first bestowed the title of cheikh sometime in the early-1920s and by the end of that decade, he served as President of the Société de Chant in Oran. He collaborated with José Huertas while in Oran and also served as the director of the Mouloudia, Oran’s premier “oriental music” society. Saoud was happy to bring his children into the music business and recorded with his son Henri and managed to have his son Georgeot record for Parlophone at the age of 12. His most famous musical descendent, his nephew Maurice El Medioni, is of course, still very much alive and remarkably, still performing.  
Sadia Bendenoun (student of Saoud)

 Among his many accomplishments were his musical protégés. Indeed, he took a chance on a blind Jewish girl by the name of Sultanta Daoud and soon turned her into Reinette l’Oranais. On Reinette’s earliest recordings, the announcer would belt out, “Istwanat Polyphon…Reina…éleve de Saoud.” The “éleve de Saoud” brand was a powerful one and would be attached to a number of musicians throughout the 1930s.

Saoud recorded prolifically. His music could be found on Pathé, Polyphon, Parlophone, HMV, Philips, and Baidaphon. His range was rather remarkable as well. He sang gharnati, hawzi - as well as lighter songs about Oran’s championship soccer team. When he wasn’t singing, he managed his own bar, Café Saoud, in the Derb, Oran’s Jewish quarter.

Sometime in the second half of the 1930s, Saoud made his home in Marseille. This was likely done out of opportunity more than anything else. Indeed, Saoud would join a steady flow of North African Jewish and Muslim musicians who made the metropole their base in the 1930s. Like in Oran, Saoud operated a café in his newly adopted city.
And then in June of 1940, Saoud suddenly found himself behind enemy lines. The German occupation of northern France had ushered in the rise of a collaborationist regime, known as Vichy, based in the country’s southern half and including Marseille. From here things get murky. What life was like for Saoud and his family during those years is unknown although surely it was terrifying. Then, on the evening of January 22, 1943, but a few months since Operation Torch and after a massive roundup of Jews in Marseille, the Germans deported Saoud, his son, and too many others to Drancy, the internment camp just outside of Paris. From there, Cheikh Saoud l’Oranais, now once again Messaoud El Médioni - for few would have recognized him, was sent to the Nazi death camp at Sobibor. On March 23, 1943, Saoud and his son Joseph, age 13, were murdered.
In some ways, it is easier to dwell on his death than on his exceptional life. His recordings, although once everywhere, have become scarce. Thus, I’m posting something from the recently acquired Sultan collection so that we may honor that life. Given that it is both Yom Kippur and Eid (at the time of writing), I thought his “Idd El Kebir (Eid al-Kabir)” recorded in the late 1920s for Pathé was more than appropriate. Let us remember that this recording comes from a time when North African Jewish musicians like Laho Seror and Mouzino performed at mosque dedication ceremonies, when Ramadan evenings were spent at the casbah cafes and music venues of Jewish performers like Sassi Lebrati, and when Jews like Saoud l’Oranais sang about Muslim holidays like Eid al-Kabir.
May Saoud’s memory be for a blessing and may that blessing carry us through this next year.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mediterranean Musical Trajectories: Judah Sebag and a Rare 78 RPM Recording of Adon Olam

l'Alcazar as it once was
This is a post about the global Mediterranean. It is about Marseille, France serving as a hub of North African music in the era of decolonization. It is about surprising partnerships engendered by the pioneering work of the Armenian-owned record label Disques Tam Tam. Finally, it is about a rare 1950s 78 rpm recording of Judah Sebag performing “Adon Olam,” the liturgical poem chanted weekly in synagogues around the world.

Although many of the details here are obscure, we can begin to trace the trajectory of Judah Sebag. Born in Morocco, Sebag likely made his home in Marseille sometime in the 1950s. There, in the Cours Belsunce quarter, he would have found a space long home to North African cultural production. Indeed, it was here, at l’Alcazar, that Julie Abitbol earned a name for herself some two and half decades prior and became known professionally as Julie Marseillaise (her daughter Widad eventually married the Tunisian artist Hédi Jouini but I’ll save that for another post).

Bobo musicians from Burkina Faso on Tam Tam
In the heart of Cours Belsunce, at 9 Rue Des Dominicains, Sebag would have found the Armenian-owned Disques Tam Tam. So too did other Moroccan Jewish musicians, including but not limited to Abraham El Fassi and Jo Amar. At the Disque Tam Tam studio, Sebag teamed up with a small orchestra consisting of oud, darbouka, and qanoun. Who knows, perhaps the West African and Armenian stars of Tam Tam were milling about when Sebag began to warm up.

Sebag recorded at least two records for Disques Tam Tam but likely a few more. You are about to hear an exceedingly rare 78 rpm recording of Judah Sebag performing that staple of synagogue service, Adon Olam. While Arabic-language North African 78s are difficult to come by, Hebrew-language discs are that much more scarce, so this is a treat. And I have to admit, that Adon Olam, originating sometime in the fifteenth century and meaning “Master of the Universe,” has never quite sounded so good as it has when put to mid-century Moroccan rhythms - despite some surface noise.

I’m not sure what became of Judah Sebag but if any readers out there have any leads, please do send them my way. In the meantime, wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Of Tunisian Jewish Saints, Stambeli, and Wedding Singers: Remembering Doukha

Undated photo of Doukha.
Found at the bottom of many of the articles on the victims of the Paris kosher supermarket attack last January, was a notice that Yohan Cohen’s maternal grandfather was none other than the popular Tunisian singer Doukha, who had himself died just a month prior in Netanya, Israel. Little more than a mention was given to the multitalented artist, whose given name was Mordekhai Haddad, so I thought I would pay tribute to him here with the few details that I could find.

Undated newspaper clipping of Doukha.
Mordekhai Haddad was born sometime in the first third of the twentieth century in Tunis. Like many Tunisians of the era, Haddad was reared on equal parts Farid al-Atrash and Raoul Journo and eventually joined the latter’s orchestra as a percussionist, specializing in the tar and the darbouka. As a vocalist, Doukha (likely a diminutive of Mordekhai), as he soon became known, was adept at a range of styles: from Tunisian popular music (including the trance inducing stambeli you’ll hear below) and religious song (including for the various anthems associated with pilgrimages to tombs of Jewish saints and the genre of thalil). In the 1950s and through the 1960s, Doukha recorded for at least two Tunisian record labels: En Nour and Studio Sonor. Studio Sonor was founded by Victor Uzan and was based at 6 Rue d’Athenes in Tunis, just northeast of the medina. The label put out a number of what it called “Judeo-Tunisian folkloric” discs including those by Doukha and Nathan Cohen. Doukha and Cohen were frequent collaborators, would often trade off lead vocals under the direction of Clement Hayoun, and worked as a quintet with two other unnamed artists. If anyone has any more information on the other two, please do send my way and I’ll add.

A rare photo of Studio Sonor in Tunis.
Below are both sides of a Doukha EP released for En Nour around 1960. You will get a sense not only of his breadth of musical knowledge here but of his very palpable energy. The A side is “Ana nzourek bel farha kouia (I visit you with great joy),” and is an ode to al-Sayyed Rabbi Yossef El Maarabi of Gabès. El Maarab, as he is often referred to, was a Moroccan-born disciple of the sixteenth century Safed-based kabbalist Rabbi Isaac and Luria. What I dig about this track is that it seems to straddle that sacred-popular line that I have recently been transfixed with. In other words, this is a devotional song that makes you want to dance to the beat.

UPDATE (5/20/2015): Last month I wrote that this track "seems to straddle that sacred-popular line." I was listening to some Raoul Journo the other day and then it dawned on me: "Ana nzourek bel farha koui" has the same melody as his "Ana Targui (I'm a Touareg)." I was blown away. Check it out!

Raoul Journo Ana Targui Weld Ettarguia by Artiste-Tunisien

The second track, “Ghita et Fezzani,” is led by Clement Hayoun. It is a variant of stambeli, the trance inducing music that often comes with mizwid (North African bagpipe) and zukra (horn), which I have written about recently. I think you’re gonna enjoy this one as well.

It seems that for much of his career, Doukha was the wedding, Bar Mitzvah, and other event singer of Tunis’ Jewish community. I searched the internet far and wide for memories of Doukha (in multiple languages) but could find only a few scattered ones on the various message boards of the Tunisian Jewish diaspora. Hopefully this post will make the rounds and we can bring more of Doukha to the fore.

One almost final note. I’m going to be doing a fair bit of traveling over the next few months and through the summer (Boston, Spain, Israel, Poland, France - to name but a few) and will be bringing records with me. If you want to put together a night of North African vinyl, shoot me an email and we’ll see if we can make something happen.

Finally, Chag Sameach and Happy Passover!

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.