Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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.

No comments: