Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hatikvah in Tunis: A Rare 1930s Recording Surfaces

Mea culpa. I’ve been slow on posts this year. To make up for this absence, I’m going to use Hanukkah as an excuse to shine a light on some of my favorite North African recordings on Youtube. In the spirit of the holiday, I’ll be posting once a day for all eight days of Hanukkah. Why am I turning to Youtube? Well, buried on the video sharing site are some real musical gems that don’t always get the circulation and attention they deserve due to either creative orthography or because titles are written in Arabic or Hebrew. Indeed, each one of these records on Youtube has a story and over the next week or so I’ll be teasing that out and putting them in their historical context. I’ll try to keep these posts short and really place a spotlight on the music.

Perhaps we should start with a question: What did Hatikvah, the Zionist hymn-turned-official anthem of Israel, sound like in Tunisia circa 1932? Well, thanks to this impossibly rare Gramophone recording from Tunis by a Mr. Cohen, we know that it was pretty rocking.



You can compare it to this Alma Gluck (soprano) and Efrem Zimbalist (violin) version, recorded in 1918 for Victor, which I imagine many of my readers will be far more familiar with.


Courtesy of Sephardicmusic.org

In the last few years, I have by and large written about North African Jews who recorded in Arabic but we should not forget that a plethora of languages were committed to disc in the Maghrib - including Hebrew. In terms of their Hebrew output, North African Jews not only released liturgical music on the major labels but so too, comic songs, and as we’ve already heard, Hatikva (meaning “hope” in Hebrew and also the name of the Zionist anthem). In addition to Mr. Cohen’s version (which you’ve now hopefully played multiple times), Babi Bismuth and Messaoud Habib, two of the biggest Tunisian stars of their generation, released their take on the original 1897 nine-stanza poem by Naftali Herz Imber in 1926 for Pathé.

What is remarkable about all of this is just how uncontroversial the release of Hatikvah in North Africa was at the beginning of the twentieth century. First, Hatikvah, which obviously pre-dated the founding of Israel and thus carried different connotations, could be heard in Tunisia for some time. We even have accounts of mixed Muslim-Jewish orchestras performing it in places like Sousse as early as 1917. Second, the recording industry across the Maghrib was used to handling this kind of musical diversity. In the 1932 Gramophone record catalogue for Algeria and Tunisia, then under the direction of Mahieddine Bachtarzi, we find the artist Louisa al-Israiliyya (Louisa “the Jewess,” and listed in later catalogues as Louisa al-Djaziriyya or Louisa l’Algérienne), who was described as the most “respected maalema” in Algeria, while Mr. Cohen’s Hatikvah appears on the same page as recordings by the Soulamia sufi brotherhood of Nabeul and Mohamed Triki’s al-Islamiyya orchestra (also known as La Musulmane), which had just released their recording of another anthem - the Beylical hymn.

In far more recent years, there have been calls in Israel to make the current, shorter version of Hatikvah inclusive of all of the state’s citizens. One wonders if setting it to the rhythms, instrumentals, and vocal flairs of Mr. Cohen’s version from Tunisia might be (at least) a step in the right musical direction.

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