Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, December 7, 2015

"If You Ain't Got No Money": Louisa Tounsia sings about marriage

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to be putting up one of my favorite North African rarities from Youtube once a day for the duration of Hanukkah. As we enter evening two of the holiday, we’re going to stick with Tunisia.

This mid-1930s Louisa Tounsia release on Polyphon should remind us that North African music was more than just malouf or other variations of the Andalusian classical suite (although these traditions were and are no doubt incredibly important). Part and parcel of the repertoire of the Maghrib’s Jewish (and Muslim) musicians were popular songs on topical subjects. Written by Maurice Benäis, Tunisian Jewish vocalist, lyrcist, and orchestral leader extraordinaire, and performed by Louisa Tounsia, "Ma fiche flous" (literally, “there is no money,” but loosely translated by me as, “If you ain’t got no money”) in many ways narrates the changing status of women in early twentieth century Tunisia. In "Ma fiche flous," Tounsia gets to decide who she’s going to make her husband and as she says in the chorus, “If you ain’t got no money, then we ain’t got words, honey.” But for the man who can provide, Tounsia reminds, he may have more than a few options (“If you got nice threads, then you got yourself your choice of beds.”).

Louisa Tounsia with gargoulette
Louisa Tounsia was born Louisa Saadoun in 1905 in Tunis. She had a prolific career and recorded for the likes of Gramophone, Columbia, Polyphon, Perfectaphone Baidaphon, Pacific, and Ducretet-Thomson. Her repertoire was equally varied, recording taalil (with Raoul Journo), tango, and yes, a song about heroin. She performed across North Africa and France at the hottest North African cabarets throughout the 1930s and after the war. She was married to the equally impressive Tunisian lyricist Zaki Khraïf. The circumstances of her death have always been unclear to me, having died rather suddenly at the age of sixty-one. If anyone has more information about the final years of her life, please do reach out.

In the meantime, her legacy lives on. Emel Mathlouthi, the singer of the recent Tunisian revolution, has taken to singing Louisa Tounsia’s Ala bab darek on a number of occasions.


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