Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ya Nas, Ya Nas – Zohra El Fassia Digitized

The recent draft constitution put forward by King Muhammad VI describes Morocco as, “a nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arab, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean.” I thought I would take this opportunity to write about the great Moroccan Jewish singer Zohra El Fassia who embodies much of that diversity.

The Morocco Years
Zohra El Fassia was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Fez. She recorded dozens of records in her career in Morocco and at least seventeen 78s just between the years 1947 and 1957 for Polyphon, Pathe and Philips. She was a favorite of the King and of the people and took pride in the fact that her music was enjoyed by both Muslims and Jews.

Zohra El Fassia – Aita Moulay Brahim (Chant Chleuh) – Pathe, 1950s
I just digitized one of her 78s. To my knowledge no version of this exists online or in CD form. Take a listen. This is a different Zohra El Fassia then the one you will hear later in this post. Rapid paced singing. Chant Chleuh as Pathe describes it – Zohra El Fassia singing ‘aita.

The Israel Years
By 1962, Zohra El Fassia – at the height of her career in many ways - moved to Israel. She lived in Jewish Agency housing in Ashkelon, in conditions strikingly different from the ones she enjoyed in Morocco. Upon arrival in the country, she began recording in Arabic for the Koliphone (Zakiphon) label.

I want to take a moment to point out something interesting here and it is really a point that Ammiel Alcalay made in the past but that hasn’t been resolved. Erez Bitton, the important Moroccan-Algerian poet, who writes about the North African experience in Israel, penned a poem in 1976, a tragic poem, on Zohra El Fassia’s life in Israel and deserves mention here:

Zohra El Fassia’s song
Erez Bitton, 1976

Zohra El Fassia

Singer at Muhammad the Fifth’s court in Rabat, Morocco
They say when she sang
Soldiers fought with knives
To clear a path through the crowd
To reach the hem of her skirt
To kiss the tips of her toes
To leave her a piece of silver as a sign of thanks

Zohra El Fassia

Now you can find her
In Ashkelon
Antiquities 3
By the welfare office the smell
Of leftover sardine cans on a wobbly three-legged table
The stunning royal carpets stained on the Jewish Agency cot
Spending hours in a bathrobe
In front of the mirror
With cheap make-up –
When she says

Muhammad Cinque

Apple of our eyes

You don’t really get it at first

Zohra El Fassia’s voice is hoarse
Her heart is clear
Her eyes are full of love

Zohra El Fassia

Back in 1993, Ammiel Alcalay pointed out in After Jews and Arabs: Remaking of Levantine Culture that the compendium the Modern Hebrew Poem Itself makes a serious error about Zohra El Fassia. Several poems by Erez Bitton are included in the the Modern Hebrew Poem Itself including the poem “Zohra al-Fasiya.”

Alcalay points out that one of the compendium’s editors, Ezra Spicehandler, writes, “Erez Biton (b. in Algiers, 1942), more than any other poet of this younger group, strongly reflects his Middle Eastern heritage. Much of his poetry springs from a childhood spent in the slum world of Moroccan immigrants in Israel. Typical is his ballad of “Zohorah al-fasiah,” a fictive [emphasis mine] Jewish favorite of King Muhammad V of Morocco.

Until this day The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself continues to print in all its editions that Zohra El Fassia was fictive. It’s all the more astonishing to consider that Zohra El Fassia lived, recorded and performed in Israel. Furthermore, her impact on Moroccan music has long been acknowledged in Morocco including most recently at the 2009 music festival in Essaouira.

Zohra El Fassia – Laarosa – Zakiphon, 1960s
I just digitized this 1960s release of Laaroosa by Zohra El Fassia. This EP was released by the Koliphone (Zakiphon) label in Israel. Check it out. A very different sound then the ‘aita on 78. You can hear her voice strain here but it is still a dynamite track. In fact, when writing about this music I always think it’s important to consider whether this music had any impact at all in Israel…

Here is the former Sderot-based band Sfatayim doing their rendition of Laarosa. Not as good but interesting.

Zohra El Fassia died in 1994 in Ashkelon at the age of 87. Erez Bitton, along with the singer Shlomo Bar, of Habrera Hativit and born in Rabat and the Mayor of Ashkelon were some of the very few who attended her funeral.

Two months before her death, Zohra El Fassia said the following in an interview with Maariv: “When I made aliyah to Israel they [the Jewish Agency] gave me a horrible apartment. I suffered from loneliness, no one visited me…Do you know why I cried? I wasn‘t afraid of death, I knew one day I would die but I was afraid that after my death no one would remember who Zohra El Fassia was.”

Spread this music around. I’ll be digitizing more of her 78s soon. Let’s not forget the great Zohra El Fassia.