Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Friday, December 11, 2015

From Secular to Sacred: Rabbi David Buzaglo, Samy Elmaghribi, & Paul Bowles' 1959 Field Recordings

The blurring of secular and sacred lines that was North African music in the twentieth century is an absolute delight. Melodies intended for coffee shops and cabarets soon made their way into religious spaces. For the sixth night of Hannukah, we’ll dig into that phenomenon in the form of a wonderfully scandalous song that was soon adopted for synagogue use.

In 1959, American author and composer Paul Bowles made a series of field recordings in Morocco for the Library of Congress. Below, you’ll find a recording he made in the Benamara synagogue in Meknes in December of that year. Bowles set out to capture what he called “the musical antique shop” of Jewish liturgical music - in theory, a timeless, ancient tradition. What he found (unbeknownst to him) was the early twentieth century liturgical poetry of Rabbi David Buzaglo, in this case, "El hay ram gadol," set to the early 1950s tune of Samy Elmaghribi’s “Qaftanec mahloul” (Your robe is open, my lady). Again, unwillingly, Bowles managed to capture on disc the swiftness that Moroccan secular music was adapted for synagogue use.

First, take a listen to Bowles’ 1959 recording of El Hay Ram Gadol in Meknes:

Next, listen to Algerian artist Blond Blond’s cover of Samy Elmaghribi's "Qaftanec mahloul." As you’ll note, the two pieces employ the same melody - with Blond Blond speeding things up just a tad. Toggle back and forth and you’ll be quite happy.

You can hear more of this blurring on the excellent “Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews” (edited by Edwin Seroussi, with the assistance of Rabbi Meir Atiya - the men who first brought all of this to our attention) put out by Rounder records in 2000. Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Worth mentioning (since the Amazon link does not) that the double CD, "Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews," was edited by Edwin Seroussi, with the assistance of Rabbi Meir Atiya, one of the leading authorities and performers of Moroccan Jewish religious music in Israel. On the RR website at:

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