Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meeting the Legendary Cheikh Mwijo

Cheikh Mwijo. #12. Koliphone/Zakiphone. 1970s

When you google Koliphone, the Israeli record label started by the Azoulay brothers in Jaffa in 1953 that pioneered and produced Arabic music sung by Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, a couple of things come up. One is my blog and other is the work of Uri Wertheim in Israel. Knowing I would be in Israel in December, I sent Uri a fairly benign Facebook message about record digging for North African LPs in Haifa and Jerusalem. Our conversation quickly moved beyond finding records and soon involved tracking down and interviewing the remaining Arabic singing musicians from the 1960s.

In December, we met in person for the first time. I was greeted by Uri and his dog Fred in the Florentine section of Tel Aviv not too far from the Central bus station. We headed to Hummus Abu George for lunch. We ordered two bowls of hummus with ful. We spoke about Koliphone records, the Azoulay brothers, how Uri got into collecting (he started working for one of the Azoulay brothers earlier in his career), record digging and everything in between. On our way out we ran into the other members of his band The Apples.

We headed to Uri’s apartment with Fred. Uri’s record collection really blew me away. Outside of the Azoulay brothers themselves, I would venture to say that Uri has the most complete collection of Koliphone records in the world. My personal interest in Koliphone stems from my interest in Moroccan Jewish music and North Africa in general but Uri has done an excellent job focusing on this label and the various associated labels (Zakiphon, Pianophon, etc.) and building a collection. Amongst other things, Uri had 45s that I had never seen before – for instance, before I arrived in Israel I knew of two Zakiphon 45s entitled Alass Ya Nasser (Why O Nasser) songs in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic on Israel’s 1967 victory - but Uri had a whole series of these EPs. He also had a nice collection of Albert Suissa, Cheikh Elafrite (Tunisian), Geoula Barda (Libyan), Raoul Journo (Tunisian) and anything else you can imagine – it was really unbelievable. We listened to some records including some 78s on an old portable phonograph that we weren’t sure was going to work (it did). We then listened to some Cheikh Mwijo.

Cheikh Mwijo. #7. Koliphone/Zakiphone. 1970s

Somehow in the course of our messages and emailing before I arrived in Israel, Cheikh Mwijo had come up. Cheikh Mwijo, (real name: Moshe Attias), had long occupied my imagination. Of all the Moroccan Jewish performers he was one of the most recognizable and perhaps the most flamboyant. The album artwork on his records was unmistakably him. There is the one where he gazes admiringly at a record, the one where he wears a fur coat and holds a cigarette in one hand and a violin in the other, another where there are four different images of Mwijo – one in traditional Moroccan garb, one wearing a yarmulke and studying text, one in a suit and one by a video camera. Above all else, Mwijo’s voice is distinct and that is what makes him stand out. Before arriving in Israel we (mostly Uri) worked on tracking down Mwijo so that we could interview him and record him. Most of the musicians of Mwijo’s era have passed – many in recent years (Samy Elmaghribi, Jo Amar, etc.) and that was part of the reason why this was so important.

Back of Cheikh Mwijo #7. Album Covers. Koliphone/Zakiphone. 1960 - 70s

We called Cheikh Mwijo from a landline. The phone was on speaker. It was a tremendous feeling to hear the voice that I only knew from 60s and 70s LPs. Mwijo told us he welcomed our visit, we hung up the phone and Uri and I got to planning.

I met Uri and Uri’s brother Noam at the car rental agency, stopping by a liquor store on the way to buy a nice bottle of arak for Cheikh Mwijo. We left Tel Aviv by late morning and headed toward Kiryat Ata, Cheikh Mwijo’s adopted city. The journey took a couple of hours with a stop for lunch. We made our way north through areas recently devastated by fire.

We pulled into Kiryat Ata and began to look for Mwijo’s home address. As we slowly crept up his street I spotted Mwijo sitting at a café wearing his signature tarbush. He looked like he had always looked. My heart raced. We were originally supposed to meet him at his house but there he was sitting in the café by his apartment smoking a cigarette. This was a future album cover. We parked the car and tried not to overwhelm him with our enthusiasm. He knew we wanted to meet him but he wasn’t sure what the point was. Moroccans the world over already knew Mwijo, he told us. We told him that not everyone knew his story and that this was an important endeavor we were embarking on. We showed him my blog (the whole thing was very meta) and the recently posted clip from Haim Abitbol. He wasn’t impressed. Mwijo had performed with Marcel Abitbol. He told us to follow him to his home.

Mwijo looked sharp – slacks, dress shirt and tarbush. He was much shorter than I ever imagined. Ani ben adam pashut, he kept saying in Hebrew. I am a simple man. It was true. He lived very simply. His home was small and exhibited touches of Morocco (a Moroccan style couch for example). He had a single picture on his living room wall and it hinted at a once great musical career - a framed, color copied image of Mwijo in front of the Eiffel Tower with his name spelled Cheikh Moizo (there are a number of ways his name has been spelled throughout his career) and superimposed above his head. We sat not in the living room but in the dining room. Images of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Baba Sali and Moroccan tzaddiqim adorned the walls. We sat around the dining room table. His chair was a white plastic chair with a leather car seat attached to it for comfort.

The room filled with cigarette smoke quickly. We asked some questions when we could but mostly he spoke. Mwijo was born Moshe Attias in Meknes in 1937. He came from a family of musicians. His father, Yaakov Attias, a musician, died young at the age of 32. Yaakov Attias was originally from Fez and married Mwijo’s mother in Meknes. Mwijo spent some time growing up in the Fez mellah on Rue du Mellah, the main drag. When I asked him where exactly, he asked me in Arabic if I was Arab or Jewish and how I knew about Morocco. He then recalled an incident in the 1940s (he would have been very young) where a Vichy officer recorded his family’s name – anti-Semitism was something that would come up periodically throughout our conversation with Mwijo and this incident, in particular, stuck with him. Mwijo’s grandfather had also been a musician. Mwijo has a number of brothers who are still alive and who he still performs with. He then showed us an unbelievable black and white photo (below):

In the picture (left to right): Sliman Elmaghribi, Sliman’s father Mordechai, Muallem David Ben Haroush, Mimoun Turjeman, Yaakov Zerad and Mwijo’s father Yaakov Attias.

Mwijo first learned music by listening to this band of Jewish musicians. In Israel, Muallem (an honorific title like cheikh) David Ben Haroush would soon become Mwijo’s main influence.

Mwijo moved to Israel in Israel in 1962 at the age 35. His profession, which if I understood correctly, was an embroiderer of military uniforms and was not needed in Israel (with their scaled back, simple military uniforms and their ranks made of medal) and he showed us the 1962 letter from the Security Services Office to prove it. He touched on his experiences in the ma’abarot, the transit camps for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, and on what he described as racism towards Moroccans in Israel then and now.

Muallem Ben Haroush would eventually also settle in Israel, in Kiryat Haim, where Mwijo would support him during his final days. As a gift to Mwijo, Ben Haroush left him his songbooks, which had also been handed to down to him. The songbooks would prove to be the source from which Mwijo drew his strength. I can’t stress enough what these songbooks represent. It is incomprehensible what is tied up in these songs – the heritage of Moroccan music, Moroccan Jewish history -- history that can be found nowhere else but buried somewhere in Mwijo’s modest apartment. Apparently, when Professor Joseph Chetrit of Haifa University became aware of the books he asked Mwijo if he could photograph them for his research. Mwijo refused. He thought Chetrit was just out to make money (clearly not the case and not the case with books published by academic presses) and that Mwijo wasn’t going to get his cut. So for now, only one man has studied and mastered those songs since Ben Haroush and that man is Mwijo. It is because he committed the songs in the books to memory – a dramatic turnaround from his earlier years when he could only ever remember parts of songs – that Mwijo maintains the honorific title of Cheikh – the master of 1,000 songs. In a final odd musical twist, we learned from Mwijo that Muallem David Ben Haroush is buried in Haifa near Mike Brant, the 1970s Israeli pop star who committed suicide at the height of his career.

At this point in Mwijo’s life, a number of things happened in tandem. Mwijo discovered that his profession was no longer needed in Israel and that he had been given two gifts – the songbooks and a voice. Sitting in a café in Haifa one day, Mwijo began to sing and this, he recalled, literally brought unsuspecting patrons to tears. All of these factors – a lack of employment, a mastery of songs and a unique voice helped launch Cheikh Mwijo’s career in the music industry.

Mwijo began his music career singing and playing the mandolin but he would eventually switch to the violin, played in the upright North African style (he would later deride Western style violin playing for not being sufficiently difficult). He never learned to read music. Between 1962 and 1970, Mwijo estimates he wrote and sold about 40 songs to Sliman Elmaghribi, the young musician pictured at the far left of the black and white photo he had showed us earlier.

By 1969, Mwijo had started his own recording career. Zaki Azoulay, one third of the Azoulay trio, came to Mwijo in his home with reel-to-reel tape and recorded him live. It sold very well. Later Mwijo would record dozens of records and cassettes for the Azoulay brothers and their Koliphone/Zakiphon label at their studio on Raziel Street in Jaffa, across the street from where the current Azoulay brothers’ store now stands. The recording sessions were all “live to tape” sessions but today, he told us, he prefers multi-track recording.

In the course of conversation he shared with us a few stories that correspond roughly to the height of his career. At this point I’m not entirely sure how to describe these stories. They are demonstrative of a number of things – Mwijo’s religious zeal, his relationship to other Moroccans and Jews, how Mwijo sees himself in history, his feelings on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism – or perhaps they are just anecdotes that are interesting.

First, it should be noted that Mwijo has a number of songs that exalt Moroccan tzaddiqim. One of these songs is a tribute to Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hasira, the grandfather of the Baba Sali, who died on a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel and was buried in the Nile Delta in Egypt. Abu Hasira’s tomb became a site of pilgrimage and has recently attracted media attention due to local Egyptian opposition to the annual influx of Israelis and Jews. When the Baba Sali caught wind of this song and of Cheikh Mwijo he invited Mwijo to visit him in Netivot in the Negev. Mwijo couldn’t make the journey from Kiryat Ata right away but eventually would come to pay his respects. The Baba Sali couldn’t understand how Mwijo knew so much about his grandfather. Mwijo revealed to the Baba Sali that he was a Meknesi at which point the Baba Sali exclaimed that everything now made sense as Meknes was a city of great torah scholars. To honor Mwijo, Baba Sali asked Mwijo to drink arak from the same cup as Rabbi Y. Abu Hasira, his grandfather (it was unclear whether the cup was used by his grandfather or if the arak had actually been partially consumed by his grandfather). Mwijo drank dutifully but was forced to hold his nose while doing so for he hated arak. As Mwijo told this story animatedly, I remembered the arak I had left in the car and thought that somehow the Baba Sali must have been watching over me.

In the 1970s, Mwijo often performed abroad and frequently in France. One time, while in France, a Moroccan (unclear whether this Moroccan was Jewish or Muslim) invited him to perform in Germany. Mwijo adamantly refused to play in Germany because of the Holocaust – even after an offer of 10,00 Deutschmarks from his host which he explained was a lot of money at the time. He was impassioned when telling us this story. His voice rose and sank as he progressed. After the refusal, Mwijo immediately headed to a casino, pulled the handle on a slot machine and won the equivalent of 10,000 Deutschmarks. This was divine intervention, he argued and said rhetorically that if this wasn’t a sign (from God) then nothing was.

Mwijo then transitioned to telling us more about his career in Israel. Mwijo never received any royalties for his music instead he began by earning 10 Israeli lira per song (he would share some of this with Sliman when they performed together) and payment for each record produced. It is unclear what exactly his relationship is today to Zaki Azoulay as a result of their financial arrangements although I would guess based on what I understood from Mwijo and the nature of producer-artist relationships that it is strained at best.

Mwijo feels that he is unique among Moroccan performers. He does not like the style of Salim Halali or a number of other artists. In fact, he prefers Algerian (djiri) music to Moroccan (chaabi) and describes his singing style as djiziri, which he says is more delicate and sweet than other North African styles. To that effect, he says he performed with the Algerian National Orchestra in France in 1981, which to me underscored his complex relationship with North Africa. He has returned to Morocco once and only to perform at a Jewish celebration.

In the course of our time with him he shared with us other fascinating anecdotes. He seems to have been present at all the major life cycle events of Aryeh Deri, the former head of Shas, including his brit milah in Meknes. Mwijo’s connection to Deri, whether ideological or otherwise, is incredibly potent. In fact, Mwijo penned him a song in 2000 as Deri headed to prison on a bribery conviction.

Chris Silver. Cheikh Mwijo. Uri Wertheim. Noam Wertheim - 2010

There was a point when it became clear that it was time for us to leave. We took a picture with Mwijo and exchanged pleasantries. Uri asked Mwijo if he could visit him again. In 10 years – Mwijo said. He had grown tired and preferred to look forward rather than back. For nearly 50 years Cheikh Mwijo has made good Moroccan music. As we exited the apartment, he told us to check him out in March when he would perform at the Dead Sea.

4 comments:

jesse said...

Hi,
I just found your blog by looking up information on Koliphone records. Great stuff here, I'm only starting to dig in. I'm not having much luck finding info on Koliphone, though. I wonder if you know anything about what happened to the label?

Chris Silver said...

Hi Jesse,

Glad you're enjoying. Koliphone / Zakiphon still very much exists. The label is still owned by the Azoulays and they have a store front in the heart of Jaffa across from the clock tower. Lots of great CDs in the store. Let me know if you have any more questions.

Chris

Talal S said...

Chris,
As a Moroccan I appreciate your blog greatly. I discovered sheikh Mwijo on Youtube accidently and since then, I was interested in learning more about him. Surprisingly the Moroccan media did not give this great artist his fair share of recognition back home.
This media has at least mentioned Abitbol brothers as well as Samy El Maghribi among others, but fails to mention many and many of the other major singers of Moroccan jewery.
I thank you for your research, commitment and for keeping the spirit going.
Talal S

AM said...

Thanks for your effort to write about mwijo, I am originally from morocco and his music brings much joy to my commute to work everyday.

Shalom and long live Israel and morocco