Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Who was Smarda el Olgia? A microhistorical account of Rachel Hayat and her 1935 recordings

A year and half ago, our friend Thomas at the Ceints de bakélite blog put up an exquisite piece of malouf music by a seemingly unknown Tunisian artist by the name of Smarda el Olgia. After a bit of digging around my own collection, some sorting through archives, and a turn to some published sources, we can begin to piece together a few biographical details for Smarda el Olgia - as well as the circumstances that led to this recording.

Rachel Hayat (Sitbon)
Smarda el Olgia was born Rachel Sitbon in Tunis in 1892. She married Israel-Eugene Hayat and thus became known as Mrs. Rachel Hayat (Sitbon). In addition to being a fixture of Tunisian Jewish high society, presiding over a number of charitable organizations, she was also very well regarded among practitioners of the eastern Algerian and Tunisian classical Andalusian tradition known as malouf.

Throughout the end of the 1920s and the 1930s, patrimony became the watchword across the Maghrib. In large part it was fear of Egyptian music’s popularity that caused French colonial figures and indigenous musical impresarios to leap into action. Thus, institutions dedicated to safeguarding Andalusian music in all of its local forms, as well as committed to protecting Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian musical traditions more broadly constructed, were established. One thinks of the erection of the conservatory in Rabat, the formation of orchestras like El Djazairia in Algeria, and of course, the emergence of La Rachidia in Tunis in 1934. As part of this effort, Emile Gau, Director General of Public Instruction and Beaux-Arts in Tunisia, concerned that the suites associated with malouf were in danger of being lost (a common trope and no doubt influenced by the work of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger and La Rachidia), commissioned Rachel Hayat to make a series of malouf recordings in Paris in order to preserve Tunisian heritage in perpetuity (take a close look at the label and you’ll see much of this background come alive). And in September 1935, Rachel Hayat (Sitbon), under the name Smarda el Olgia (Smarda or Zmarda was a common Tunisian Jewish name), performed that task beautifully - recording this and dozen or so other records.

P.S. There is always a bit of serendipity in writing these posts. In the course of putting this one together, I discovered that Rachel Hayat’s daughter may have lived in Los Angeles for much of her life - and even been involved in a bit of a Hollywood-esque scandal. I’m still gathering details but will keep everyone posted. Hag Sameah!

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