Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Banned! Tracing the Journey of a Lili Labassi Disc from Release to Censorship in the late 1930s

As the third night of Hanukkah approaches, I bring you one of my favorite records from Algeria (a disc which happened to enjoy a tremendous amount of success in Morocco - as you'll soon see).

We begin again with a question and a mystery. Did Lili Labassi, among the most popular of interwar Algerian recording stars, sing clandestinely about Moroccan political exile Allal El Fassi on his now difficult to find “Lellah yal ghadi lessahra” (O you, who is going to the Sahara)? According to French colonial authorities in late 1930s and early 1940s Morocco, he most certainly did. As a result, his Polyphon disc (issue number 46.117) was subjected to repeated ban throughout the Cherifian Empire in 1938, 1939, and 1940. To the French, his lyrics read as nothing less than subversive…and served as nothing less than a reminder to Moroccans to keep Allal El Fassi in their hearts. He was after, “still alive” (mazal hay mazal):

“O you who is going to the land of the gazelles!
If you find my love (ghazal/gazelle)
Tell him: He’s.. he’s still alive (mazal hay mazal)
No one can replace him in my heart…”

Lili Labassi re-release on Philips
But to most Moroccans at the time, the ambiguous “he” was heard as “she” - as is common in much of North African music (think: male singers longing for their habibi and not habibti). Thus, “he’s still alive,” was understood as “she’s still alive” (mazal hay mazal) and no one could replace “her in my heart.” In fact, in the massive search and seizure efforts undertaken by the French to find the Labassi disc, police discovered the record time and again in the brothels of cities like Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Agadir. Why? Because Labassi’s “O you who is going to the Sahara,” was a love song (and seemingly a song to make love to as well).

Almost eighty years since its first ban, Labassi’s original is hard to come by. Despite the fact that it was released again on Polydor/Polyphon and also on Phillips, few copies remain. What we do have, however, is a version of “O you who is going to the Sahara” recorded by the inimitable Blond Blond, Lili Labassi’s musical disciple, which as you’ll hear, is fantastic, pulsing, and damn-near danceable.

One question remains, of course. Did Lili Labassi know that any of this was happening? Well, take a listen to his similar “Mazal haï mazal” (She’s still alive), released on the Pacific label in the 1950s and recently uploaded by Jon Ward on Excavated Shellac. Mazal haï mazal contains many of the same elements of “Lellah yal ghadi lessahra” although this version seems to lay any fears of political subversion to rest.

What is clear, however, is that Labassi’s song, first released in the mid-1930s, retained its popularity through the 1950s and some might argue until today.

Blond Blond performs Lellah yal ghadi lessahra live. Note: song is listed as "mazal hay mazal."


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