|Salim Halali in pose. 1970s?|
In his memoirs, Mahieddine Bachetarzi, the “Caruso of the Desert” and founding father of Algerian theater, describes Salim Halali as having “the greatest Arab male voice” of the post-War period. Halali’s music, blending Latin styles like flamenco and paso doble with popular Arabic pieces written by the likes of Gaston Bsiri and Mohamed El Kamel, was at once distinctly modern and traditional. It was also everywhere. By 1946, you could catch Halali multiple times a week on Algerian radio. His records, made exclusively for Pathé in the 78 rpm era, were sold in Algeria’s major cities, across the Maghreb, and in Paris and Marseilles. Some have gone as far as to call him North Africa’s first pop superstar and when considering his dashing good looks, his swoon-inducing voice (among women and men), and international appeal – sought out by Um Kulthum and others, it’s not difficult to see and hear why.
|A very young Halali in Algeria|
Halali is deserving of a full-length biography but I won’t get into all of the details here. In broad strokes, Halali remained in Paris during the War years (apparently hidden from Vichy with the help of the Grand Mosque), established the “oriental” music venue Ismaïlia Folies in 1947 before moving to Casablanca to open a similar cabaret in the form of Coq D’Or. He eventually returned to France, release dozens of songs, and toured the world along the way. For many, he retired too early. He lived out his last days in the solitude of a retirement home on France’s southeastern coast. He died at the age of 85 in 2005.
Halali represents a sort of musical continuum between Arab and Jewish at a moment when the two were being torn apart in Algeria. Born in Annaba in 1920, Simon, as he was then known, lived a fully Algerian Jewish life complete with a passion for music. His gift of voice was noticed early and by his teens he had, like many other North African musicians of his generation, relocated to Paris to try his luck in the cabaret scene there. He soon met the already mentioned Mohamed El Kamel and the duo produced a truly remarkable number of hits. One of them, Taali, is among the more moving and evocative love songs I have ever laid ears upon. I have reproduced it below. My suggestion, before listening, is to pour yourself a glass of wine or non-alcoholic beverage (North African, preferably) and cuddle up with someone special. Then hit play. Open a window because it might get hot.
I have seen copies of this record turn up in various forms in places as diverse as Tunis and Jaffa. It is little surprise then that it has recently found a new, younger audience eager to pay homage to the original. The unbelievably talented team of Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen, Israeli artists of Moroccan origin, have created this mind blowing version below. One can only imagine Halali approving and then joining in.
This sultry jazz version by Georgian-French singer THékO also deserves a listen. It seems like nearly eighty years after its original release, Taali and Salim Halali are enjoying a comeback.
|Halali on oud|
Five years later I can proclaim loudly that Zohra El Fassia, Marie Soussan, and Habiba Messika have left an indelible mark on my life. I have dedicated myself full time (graduate school) to the endeavor of telling their story and the stories of the whole enterprise and I couldn’t be happier. Each one of these personalities complicates something we know, fragments binaries, and further enriches that thing we call History. It is nothing less than a soundtrack of this era and has been missing for too long.
Things have certainly changed since 2008. Elkayam and Cohen, in the clip above, recently performed the works of Zohra El Fassia, Jacob Abitbol, and Albert Suissa in Essaouira at the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques, and in many ways have brought all of this full circle. The audience welcomed them with open arms, greeting the two with a certain contagious enthusiasm before joining in themselves.
This blog, I hope, will also change. I aim to retitle it, redesign it, make it more truly pan-Maghrebi, and come to focus more and more on those rarest of rare 78 rpm records. To do that requires time and an investment in the right technology and I will be calling on you to help with both. In the meantime, if you have suggestions, requests, leads, and so on, please do send my way.
Finally, thank you, choukrane, todah, and merci for all of your love and support over the years. It is appreciated more than you will ever know.