Jewish Morocco

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Music and Memory: The Life and Death of Cheikh Raymond


Orchestre Raymond on Hes el Moknine. Mid-1950s.
Nearly fifty-two years to the day, Raymond Leyris, known as Cheikh Raymond on account of his mastery of the eastern Algerian Andalusian musical tradition of malouf, closed his record store at 3 Rue Zévaco for the final time. Within a year, Algeria would gain its freedom from France but at that moment it was deep in the throes of a bloody civil war. With tensions having already boiled over and almost a month after failed talks between the French government and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Cheikh Raymond was trying to do the unthinkable as one of Constantine’s leading professional musicians and a Jewish one to boot: He was attempting to lead a normal life.  After locking up at Disques Raymond, he grabbed his daughter Viviane’s hand and headed toward Place Négrier, home to the bustling Souq el-Assar and adjacent to the city’s Jewish quarter, the Chara. Accompanied by his brother-in-law, the three casually crossed the market place intending to lunch with Raymond’s uncle.  Passing midway between the Sidi el-Kettani Mosque on one side and the Jewish tribunal on the other, Viviane noticed a man approaching.  She felt her father’s grip tighten. Within a moment he had collapsed. He had suffered two gunshots to the neck at close range. The assailant escaped. Cheikh Raymond was rushed to the hospital but it was too late. On June 22, 1961, at the age of forty-eight, he was dead.

Cheikh Raymond has long intrigued me. His story, little known outside the Maghreb and segments of France, is riveting. Here are just some of the details. Raoul Raymond Leyris was born in 1912 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, a rarity in colonial Algeria. He was given up for adoption at the age of two and raised by the Jewish Halimi family, who saw to his conversion. Raymond, as he came to be called, gravitated ever closer to music in his teenage years. He sought out authenticity, spending time in Constantine’s medieval foundouks, where he apprenticed himself to the master musicians Omar Chaqleb and Abdelkrim Bestandji. By 1928, Raymond had begun singing and playing oud with the celebrated percussionist Mohammed L’arbi Benlamri, who would later join his orchestra, and in 1930, he made his debut with Si Tahar Benkartoussa. By the age of eighteen, the musical powers that be had bequeathed him the title of Cheikh.
Sylvain Ghrenassia on violin and Cheikh Raymond on oud.

While paying allegiance to the traditional, Cheikh Raymond managed to do things his own way. Interestingly, he seemed to have never recorded for the larger international record labels. His first recordings were made in 1937 for the Diamophone label, based out of Constantine, but World War II would soon put his recording output on hold. In 1945, Cheikh Raymond formed Orchestre Raymond with the Jewish violinist Sylvain Ghrenassia at his side. By the early 1950s, Cheikh Raymond and Orchestre Raymond represented Constantine’s most sought after Andalusian sound. It was also a fully integrated Jewish-Muslim ensemble. In 1954, at the start of the Algerian War, Cheikh Raymond and Sylvain Ghrenassia expanded their business, founding their own record label, Hes el Moknine, and opening a record store on Rue Zévaco.

In the meantime, Gaston Ghrenassia, Sylvain’s son and the figure who would later come to be known as Enrico Macias, had taken to seeing Cheikh Raymond as an uncle figure, lovingly referring to him as “Tonton Raymond.” The younger Ghrenassia’s musical talent impressed Cheikh Raymond and he invited Gaston to join his orchestra as a guitarist – bucking malouf norms at the time. Gaston made his debut with Orchestre Raymond that same year.

Cheikh Raymond at 78 rpm for Hes el Moknine.
Cheikh Raymond released dozens of 78s for his Hes el Moknine label in the 1950s, although given the length of a typical Andalusian movement, the format was far from suitable. It was thus with great pleasure that he adopted the LP format, putting out two dozen 33 rpm records in the same period and a similar number of EPs. He invited a few others to record on his label as well.

Mal habibi malou was the twentieth release on his label. It represents one of the more well-known Andalusian pieces and was recorded by nearly everyone worth their weight in the music industry. Cheikh Raymond’s interpretation is breathtaking. You get a real sense of his voice and his passion. Pay close attention to the violin work by Sylvain Ghrenassia as well. This eighteen minute cut is taken from the original.


Cheikh Raymond with Algerian Jewish star Sassi Lebrati.

Cheikh Raymond and his orchestra gave their last large public concert at the Vox Theater in Constantine in April 1960. In the fall, he made his final television appearance, singing Hokmek Hokm el-Bey, that old-new Andalusian song of Ottoman resistance to the 1830 French invasion and which now carried contemporary nationalist overtones. His political stance, the subject of much speculation, seems to be clear in this instance.

Yet, in January 1961, during a short visit to France, rumors about Cheikh Raymond surfaced. He was accused by unknown elements of belonging to the OAS. In another version, he was to have moved to Israel. Neither of course was true and neither could have been farther from reality. In fact, Enrico Macias recalls Cheikh Raymond telling him at the time, “I would rather die in Algeria than live in France.”

On June 22, 1961, two bullets struck Cheikh Raymond as he walked through the crowded markets of central Constantine. There were plenty of witnesses but no arrests. Cheikh Raymond was rushed to the hospital, the same one where he had been delivered and then given up for adoption decades earlier. He was pronounced dead on arrival. In accordance with Jewish custom, Cheikh Raymond was buried in Constantine’s Jewish cemetery the next day. In July 1961, the Leyris and Ghrenassia families arrived in Marseille. Despite pleas to transfer her husband’s remains to France, Hermance Leyris refused. Cheikh Raymond would remain once and forever in his beloved Constantine.

There is much commentary to add to this story but I will try to keep it short. Cheikh Raymond’s murder remains unsolved to this day although FLN participation seems likely. In the course of the turmoil of 1961 and 1962, the perpetrators were never caught and the case was never brought to trial. Names, motives - the answers - are buried probably not too deep in an Algerian archive somewhere. Both scholars and popular observers agree that the death of Cheikh Raymond triggered the flight of Constantine’s roughly 30,000-strong Jewish community to France.

The figure of Cheikh Raymond continues to loom large in the Constantinois Jewish collective memory, with former residents marking their own histories as before and after June 22, 1961. So too do memories remain vivid among Constantine’s Muslim population, especially music aficionados. At least two individuals have worked hard to commit Cheikh Raymond’s memory to history: Enrico Macias, his son-in-law and Francophone variety singer, and Taoufik Bestandji, the grandson of Cheikh Raymond’s mentor Abdelkrim Bestandji and an accomplished musician in his own right. Much of what we know of Cheikh Raymond is thanks to them and countless other individual recollections.

Finally, I would be remiss in not acknowledging two very good works dealing with Cheikh Raymond that contributed greatly to this post. Bertrand Dicale’s Cheikh Raymond: une histoire algérienne is the first and only biography on the singer and an absolute must. The second, Ted Swedenburg’s chapter, “Against Hybridity: The Case of Enrico Macias/Gaston Ghrenassia,” in Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg, ed., Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture is not only insightful but incredibly well written.

4 comments:

aamir said...

thank you for this amazing story. how much we have lost in the crazy 20th century.

Chris Silver said...

My pleasure, Aamir. Thanks for reading!

Hammer said...

Interesting details about the life of one of Algiers' most prolific singers and master artists.

Santé!

H.H.

Chris Silver said...

Thank you!