Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"God, Country, King" in Song - The Music of Esther Elfassy, Albert Suissa & Samy Elmaghribi

Morocco's motto: God, Country, King
From time to time I have small groups over at my apartment for listening sessions. These listening sessions allow me to share old recordings and the overall listening experience in an intimate setting while also providing me with a laboratory to demonstrate certain themes or try out new ideas. At a recent session, I decided to play some pieces that reflected the theme of “God, Country, King,” the official motto of Morocco. What I love about this theme is that it allows me to showcase some unexpected music from some well known artists including Esther Elfassy, Albert Suissa and Samy Elmaghribi. At first I thought that for readers / listeners familiar with Moroccan music and the role that Moroccan Jews played in the music industry that perhaps these tracks wouldn't be so unexpected but on second thought I'm not so sure. Even if the themes are expected - nationalist, religious - the singers, timing and styles aren't. A young Esther Elfassy singing about the oneness of God in haunting Arabic in Israel in the 1970s or Samy Elmaghribi singing a marche Marocaine shortly before his departure from Morocco - especially when contrasted with his other music.

Nonetheless this music is very different from what I have posted previously. Below I've including some biographical information on these three great singers and some of their dynamite tracks. As you'll see, there is some biographical information missing, especially with Esther and Albert. I would love for readers to help me fill in these gaps.

Esther Elfassy

Esther Elfassy performing in Paris

Esther Elfassy began recording for the Azoulay brothers under the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels in Israel in the early 1970s. She mostly recorded songs written by Moshe Ben Hamo but did also write some of her own work. She sang chaabi and incorporated some Hebrew in her music from time to time. What I love about her in many ways is her Arabic (of course in addition to her killer voice). She reminds us of course that Moroccan Jews have historically expressed even Jewish religious concepts in Arabic. One of my favorite tracks of hers is called Zoro El Kotel (Visiting the Western Wall in a combination of Maghrebi Arabic and Hebrew).

Esther Elfassy. Zakiphon. 1970s

The track below is religious / devotional in nature. It is a song about the oneness of God and the repetitiveness is rhythmic. Judging from some of her other work and her picture, it's not what one would expect from her but that's what I love about it.

Albert Suissa

Albert Suissa performing at a Bar Mitzvah celebration in Morocco. 1950s

Albert Suissa was a giant of Moroccan music. He recorded dozens of records (including many 78s) for a half dozen labels including N. Sabbah, Casaphone, Boussiphone, Koliphone and Zakiphon. He was a killer singer and oudist.
Albert Suissa. Koliphone. 1960s
Below is a song called Hasan Tani Ala Slamtic Sidna. Suissa uses the honorific "sidna" for King Hassan II, a Moroccan title used for royalty and the exaltation of saintly figures. The song pulls you in from the very beginning. The song in many ways is about power and protection and conveys both those feelings from the start through pounding singing and instrumentals. Check it out below.

Samy Elmaghribi
Advertisement for Samyphone records. Le Voix des Communautés (Rabat, published 1950-1963). March 1, 1963, pg. 3.
I'm not going to give his entire bio here but needless to Samy Elmaghribi was one of the all time great Moroccan musicians. At the height of his popularity there wasn't a person in Morocco who didn't know his name or who hadn't heard heard his music. Even to this day, mention the name Samy Elmaghribi in Morocco and elsewhere and you will get a big smile.

Samy Elmaghribi (center with oud) signing records after a performance
Born Solomon Amzalleg in the coastal city of Safi in 1922, he was already a singing sensation by the 1940s and throughout the course of his early career he recorded dozens of 78 records for Pathe. In 1955-56, he established his own record label Samyphone and by 1959 he had moved to France. He sang in a variety of styles including in the various Moroccan and Algerian Andalusian traditions, his own sometimes scandalously secular work and classic popular tunes. By 1962 the Azoulay family began exclusively distributing Samy Elmaghribi's recordings under the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels. The Azoulays were also the first to bring Samy to Israel to perform and managed his career there.  In 1967 he settled in Montreal, served as the cantor at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and continued to perform around the world. In 1987 he moved to Ashdod, Israel where he lived until 1996 when he returned to Montreal. He died on Mary 9, 2008 at the age of 86.

The track below is one side of one of his rare Samyphone 78s and his 8th release on his label. It is an upbeat anthem that invokes the Moroccan motto of God, Country, King. He sounds young here but nonetheless is clearly in command of his band known affectionately as "Samy's boys." Here he sings in praise of all things nationalist Moroccan - the Moroccan military, King Mohammed V, King Hassan II and of course the people. Listen to it a couple of times - it's much different than anything you've heard him sing.
Samy Elmaghribi. Samyphone. 1956

Friday, November 4, 2011

Between Forgetting and Remembering: Charli Elmaghribi and the Other Artists

I recently read a comment on a Youtube video that stirred something inside me. If I recall correctly, the video was of an old recording of the great Moroccan oudist Sliman Elmaghribi. After watching the video I scrolled down to see that one commenter on the video was looking for more information on Sliman. Another commenter said something to the effect of: “It’s sad that barely a generation after many of these artists have passed away…no one remembers them.” In many ways, I feel the same sentiment but in other ways when I look at my own record collection or meet other collectors I realize that not all is lost. Perhaps it just needs to be gathered.

It seems that in every generation North African music is forgotten, rediscovered and recovered to some extent. To get a sense of this historically, I recommend reading Jonathan Glasser’s excellent work on the concept of Andalusian musical patrimony in Algeria in the early 1900s. I have to say that these preservers of this patrimony, whoever it belongs to, often did and continue to do a decent job. There is hoarding to be sure and reluctance to share but thanks to the work of individual ranging from Edmond Nathan Yafil in Algeria to Rafael Azoulay in Israel to Tounsi El Kahlaoui in France, a good deal of North African music is out there somewhere, in some form, waiting to be rediscovered and ripe for new listeners. When I speak about this music publicly, I often ask myself the rhetorical question, “Why does any of this matter?” My first answer - and in many ways the best answer - is that this music is good. It moves the listener. Like that video, it stirs something inside us. For a moment, we share space and time with musicians who gave their heart and soul to this craft and thus it is a part of us.

Charli Elmaghribi (third from left). Le Guerre de Yom Kipour. Koliphone. 1973

I say all this because I want to share some music of a lesser known artist whose work begs to be rediscovered. There are a number of artists who I make frequent mention of on this blog due to how talented they were, how prolific they were and to my dismay how quickly I feel they have been relegated to historical amnesia. But we must remember them because for every Zohra El Fassia there was an Esther Elfassy - also talented, prolific but who likely came of singing age in a different time (the 1970s) and the wrong place (Israel and not Morocco or other parts of the Maghreb) and thus didn’t have the same chances of success. And so for every Jo Amar there was a Sami Amar and for every Samy Elmaghribi there was a Charli Elmaghribi.

Charli Elmaghribi. Koliphone. 1980s.

Charli Elmaghribi recorded for Koliphone/Zakiphon from at least the early 1970s. He is a fantastic oudist and has a distinct voice. He performs everything from Algerian to Moroccan and Andalusian to piyyutim. I want to thank my fellow collector Eilon for pointing out this Youtube video of Charli Elmaghribi in Morocco that seems to date from the late 1980s or early 1990s.

I have digitized the first side of a Charli Elmaghribi cassette from the early 1980s. The little background information I know on Charli is that he is still alive and performing and lives in France. He comes to Israel throughout the year to perform. I wish I could tell you more (his real last name, the city he hails from in Morocco, who his musical influences were) but for now his name and music will have to suffice. I want to stress one more thing.

Charli Elmaghribi - Yamslmin kalbi - Koliphone by CBSilver

Charli Elmaghribi - Ya kalbi chali el hal - Koliphone by CBSilver
In case of I haven’t made this abundantly clear; much of this music still exists in the Azoulay brother’s shop in Jaffa. I strongly recommend stopping there on your next trip to Israel and purchasing what you can before this music once again becomes lost to time.