Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Friday, December 7, 2012

2012 Judeo-Maghreb Holiday Mix

Line Monty / Cheikh Zekri / Jose de Suza
I've put together an all vinyl end of 2012 Judeo-Maghreb compilation that sets the right tone for the holiday season. It's Tunisian tango, Algerian "All About the Benjamins," and the one and only Line Monty - all in one mix.

I recommend playing this LOUD at your holiday hafla. Feel free to pass this one around.

Track List:
Jose de Suza aka Youcef Hedjaj. Consolacion (Guitarra). Metronome. c. 1970s.

Cheikh Zekri. Qoulchi maa el flous (Everything with money). Dounia. c. 1970s.

Line Monty. Berkana menekon. Dounia. c. 1970s.

Happy Hanukkah!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Record Digging, Cassette Collecting, and Musical Memory in Jewish Morocco

Samy Elmaghribi and Salim Halali are still played at the Astor, Fez's last kosher restaurant and bar
Hadj Belaid fresco in Tafraoute (2012)
Some three years after first discovering the magic of musician Haim Botbol in a record store in Casablanca, I returned to Morocco to find his music in cassette stalls across the country. In fact, I got an even deeper sense of the critical importance of music in the Maghreb on this trip. In Tafraoute, in the country’s deep southwest, frescos of musical instruments like the rebab and images of musical standouts from the 1940s like Hadj Belaid adorned walls throughout the region’s ancient villages. At a pizza joint along the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a banjo on a chair was displayed prominently. When the restaurant’s owner wasn’t making pies, he would strum a few chaabi notes. And in Casablanca, by the former Lincoln Hotel, a cd seller played Samy Elmaghribi’s version of Gheniet Bensoussan for passersby.

After years of collecting Moroccan and then North African music in general, I was interested in not only finding dusty recordings from Tangier to Fez but also to collect musical memories. I was interested in how Moroccans, Jews and Muslims, understood and remembered their Jewish pop icons of yesteryear and so I went looking.

I started in Tangier and found very little. I figured a Mediterranean port city with a once large Jewish community would herald in an auspicious beginning. Being there during Ramadan hampered my efforts in many ways. Most medina shops were closed during the day. A general lethargy had set in. Additionally, Marcel Botbol’s music club, just outside the medina, was closed and I soon learned he was switching venues but wasn’t due to reopen until the following month. Undeterred, I kept searching. Walking up and down medina thoroughfares and side streets, I finally happened on a store selling clocks that a friend had mentioned. A half dozen sun faded Mohammed Abdel Wahab LPs were displayed prominently in the window. He must have had more stock, I thought. He did but he was too tired, he told me. I pressed him but I decided to let it go. Considering that he had been holding on to records for some thirty years past their utility and interest for most people, I could sympathize with his exhaustion. Besides, there would be other opportunities.
The interior of Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques (2012)
Where Tangier yielded little, Casablanca was a black gold mine. I returned to the places which had launched this musical journey for me three years ago: Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques on Lalla Yacout and Disques Gam in the opposite direction on Boulevard de Paris. At Le Comptoir, also the home to the Tichkaphone label, I snagged a dozen Botbol cassettes. It’s safe to say that Le Comptoir represents one end of the record store spectrum, organized and immaculate, whereas Disques Gam is the other end, chaotic, hot as hell, and magnificent. Gam Boujemma is the store’s proprietor and a repository of musical knowledge. You have to know what you’re looking for here and I did. With every record or cassette he pulled out, I was deluged with hard to come by oral history. Stories of Samy Elmaghribi performing at the nearby Cinema Lux fascinated me. As did his reverence for Albert Suissa. I walked away with a few prize items from his archive including a couple EPs on the N. Sabbah label and Botbol’s only release for Philips.
Two Giants: Albert Suissa on N. Sabbah and Botbol on Philips (2012)
In Morocco, the musical medium of choice corresponds directly to the seller’s knowledge of the industry. Those selling records should be placed at the top of the hierarchy, followed closely by cassette purveyors and CD distributors a distant third. Also, a couple things happened in Morocco in the 1970s that should be noted. One, the music industry was nationalized. Two, cassettes appeared, allowing records to be transferred directly to tape and distributed widely. The era also represents one of the last gasps of the prominence of Jews in the Moroccan music scene.

 Janatte Haddadi's beautiful short on Coq d'Or
The Casa medina was once a musical mecca for Moroccan Jews. It was here where Salim Halali’s club Coq d’Or, now a textile factory, once stood. Albert Suissa continued to live and write music in the mellah until a late age. So I was elated when I stumbled upon one of the remaining few cassette sellers in Casa’s medina. His stall was impossibly tiny. Floor to ceiling tapes lined its walls. With my eyes quickly scanning the now all too familiar artists, I noticed something peculiar. In his collection were dozens of Israeli releases of Moroccan Jewish artists from the Holy Land. While the Zakiphon labels had been removed, these were clearly Jaffa-based releases of Cheikh Mwijo, Raymonde, and Sliman Elmaghrebi. Here was evidence of a fascinating chapter of music moving beyond closed borders.

Found: Samy Elmaghribi in a Casa cassette seller's attic (2012)
I told him what I was looking for and he had everything. I walked away with long sought after Felix El Maghrebi and Zohra El Fassia tapes complete with hand written song titles. On a whim, I asked if he still had records. Without flinching he took a rickety ladder and propped it against a wall of cassettes and started climbing towards his attic. He pulled down two large bags of 45s. I started to comb through them as my heart raced. What would I find? The occasional Samy Elmaghribi EP surfaced as did the odd Botbol cover (including an Algerian release) but unfortunately none of the covers matched the records and none of what he had was what I was looking for. Despite this, I had learned a great deal in this encounter.

Hadj Belaid recording on Baidaphon c. 1940s
Before finally heading to Fez, I spent a week with my girlfriend and friends traveling in the Marrakesh area and to its east. Toward the end of the week, we visited the village of Telouet, home to a breathtaking Glaoui casbah. As we left, it started to drizzle and then pour. A nearby café provided us shelter and piping hot mint tea. On our way in I had noticed a 50s era HiFi system at the entrance. Where there was a record player, I thought, there must be records. I started asking the right questions. Within a moment my hosts informed and then showed me that it still hummed along, in fact, it played beautifully. They put on a couple of Western LPs and then brought out two black plastic bags of 78s. These were all priceless 1940s recordings of Hadj Belaid on Pathé and Baidaphon. We were all having a great time. A waiter took a lighter to one of the records to show me this was no plastic we were dealing with. This was shellac! Handshakes were had all around and then I excused myself to finish my tea.

Le Cristal in Fez, still bustling (2012)
My last few days in Morocco were spent in Fez. For the first time, I stayed in the Ville Nouvelle. I was captivated. For the tourist and the historian, some of the beauty of Morocco, even in its “modern” counterpart to the medina, is the (at least superficially) unchanging landscape and architecture. Thus my hotel in Fez was located right next to the now defunct Astor Cinema, which was next to the still in operation Astor Bar (home to Fez’s remaining kosher restaurant) and a stone’s throw a way from independence era café’s like the Cristal. You quickly started to get a feel for what Jewish Fez must have looked like in the 1950s and 60s.

I was not disappointed by what I found in Fez’s medina. After paying homage to the record-turned-cd label Fassiphone, right outside the old walls, I launched myself into the city’s infamous myriad alleyways. It was not before long before that I located the cassette district. One seller’s stash of Jewish musicians was significantly reduced. About seven tapes were all that remained. He was eager to sell, including what appeared to be his most master-like recordings, but I held off.

Botbol, tea, and towers of tapes in Fez (2012)
A twist and a turn later and I had found my man. “Mohammed” cut a handsome figure against a background of thousands of tapes. He saw me staring and ushered me “in.” A dozen pleasantries later, short introductions, a sip of wormwood infused tea, and the cassettes jumped one after one into the tape deck. Mohammed was a former musician and played often with his Jewish counterparts. His familiarity with the scene was astonishing. When I asked about Botbol, Mohammed mentioned he knew Jacob, the father, and then dutifully put on a recording, which he sang every word to. This pattern of singing along with the uttering of an artist’s name repeated itself with a range of performers from Cheikh Mwijo to Samy Elmaghribi. The mere mention of Zohra El Fassia, the grande dame of Fez, brought a large smile to his face. He started recalling the heyday of places like the Astor and Cristal and others. I couldn’t resist, I bought way too much from him but it was worth it. He then took us to his gorgeous medina home for another cup of tea. His roof view rivaled any in the city. I asked him to see pictures but instead I got his address with a request to keep in touch. I couldn’t have been happier to oblige. Mohammed wasn’t sure if anyone still sold records in Fez but I was happy nonetheless. Not everything has been transferred to CD so getting your hands on tapes is the next best thing.
Prized records including Botbol, bottom row (left) (2012)
Zohra El Fassia on Polyphon c. 1940s (2012)
I took the long way out of the medina and I’m glad I did. A few missteps and backtracks later and I had located what may be Fez’s last record store. The owner, much older than Mohammed, was also a former musician. Hundreds of records were arranged in some of the most creative ways I had ever seen. He displayed his most prized records, including a not-for-sale Botbol, on one side of the store. At his desk were beautiful black-and-white and sepia photos of his former life. Behind him were cassettes of Morocco’s most influential stars including Samy Elmaghribi, whom the proprietor called the best Isra’ili singer in Moroccan history. I painstakingly combed through piles of LPs and EPs and pulled out impossibly difficult to find cuts. As I continued to look high and low for records, which seemed to be hiding everywhere, I saw a dozen 78s in the corner. I gently removed them from the shelf. Sifting through these treasures one by one, my heart skipped a beat. There it was…a 70-year-old recording of Cheikha Zohra El Fassia made for the Polyphon label. I showed it to the owner. He put on his glasses and said zeena (beautiful). Sadly, the record itself was beyond playing condition but its near forgotten presence in this store still sings volumes to me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Refinding Jewish Morocco: East from Marrakesh

Looking out towards Jewish cemetery in former Sidi Rahal synagogue (2012)
 Over the summer, I divided my short time in Morocco between 1) doing some of the research that initially launched this blog (rediscovering remnants of the former Jewish communities of Morocco with a focus on the south) and 2) working to get a better understanding of the role of Jews in the Moroccan music scene in the middle part of the 20th century. Some of the places I visited for the first time included Asni, Sidi Rahal, the Valley of the Roses, Tourbiste, Zaouiat El Bir, Tinghir, Tinjdad (Asrir), and Goulmima. As usual my intent is to put these places on the blogoma, to share my impressions and photos, and to hopefully start a conversation by those who remember these places. Here are some musings on a few of these locales.
In Sidi Rahal's Jewish cemetery with temps rising to 117 (2012)
Sidi Rahal
At the end of August, we left Marrakesh and headed east. Thankfully, we opted for the air-conditioned rental car. By the time we arrived in Sidi Rahal, the temperature had already risen to 117 degrees. Bsara, piping hot pea soup, seemed like the most sensible lunchtime option. It was also being served at one of the few restaurants in the shade. Another bowl? The owner asked. No, I said with a smile. This used to be the mellah, he offered, and we were soon off. Sidi Rahal, once home to over 500 Jews, multiple synagogues, and the other trappings of communal life, had long interested me. It was visited in the 50s by a number of travelers who chronicled its final Jewish years. It had a vibrant past but now it seemed dusty. We walked for about 2 miles along the wadi. Surprisingly there was a sidewalk of sorts. Along the way it was clear that knowledge of the Jewish cemetery was common currency. We spotted the cemetery. It was on a dangerously dry hill. As we started to ascend, we spotted a pickup truck. We introduced ourselves and told the men where we were going. As luck would have it, the guardian of the cemetery was with the truck driver. As mazal would have it, the truck had just come from Casablanca. We arrived at the very moment that a new marble grave marker was being laid for the tzaddik Hagai Peretz. Maktoub I thought.

Witnessing the reconsecration of Hagai Peretz's tombstone (2012)
What remains of Sidi Rahal’s Jewish past is its extended cemetery walls. Few tombs have survived the weather and neglect. The mausoleum containing the tombs of Haggai Peretz and Yaakov Nahmias remains. The extended Nahmias family, scattered across the world, makes an annual pilgrimage to the tomb as attested to by the logbook on site. The remnants of a small synagogue exist, as does a fondouq for Jewish pilgrims. We headed back to the car but not before purchasing a 5-liter bottle of water. Skhoun chweeya, I said to the owner of the hanout. He smiled just enough to make me happy.

The Valley of the Roses
Our initial plan was to continue east until Figuig and then cut up to Debdou before making our way back west. Needless to say, our plans would eventually change.

Jewish woman in Tillit c. 1950s
After leaving Sidi Rahal, we skipped Tazarte due to the heat. We made our way straight to the Valley of the Roses. A number of iconic images from the area photographed in the 1950s by Elias Harrus, former head of the AIU, occupied my thoughts as we approached a remarkably more fertile area than Sidi Rahal. I knew of two villages – Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit - that once had Jewish communities. Upon arrival in the Valley, almost everyone we met pointed us the mudbrick village of Tourbiste as the site of one of the oldest Jewish communities in Morocco’s south.
Tourbiste is located above Ait Said (2012)

I had never heard of Tourbiste, nor could I find it on a map. A series of vague directions and a short drive along a winding road and we had found it from a distance. To get to Tourbiste we had to literally ford a river. A halved tree spanned the diameter of the water, acting as a bridge between the village and the rest of the Valley. As we crossed the river, I made the mistake of looking down, only to notice how swiftly the current was moving. The halved tree was impossibly thin. I had flashes of vertigo. It was too late to turn around and yet it was difficult to keep going. I closed my eyes and slowly moved forward…and then I fell in. I was fine but shaken and eventually made it across. As we walked toward Tourbiste, which reminded me in architecture of Ighil N’Oro, we passed mostly women but some men who offered us the fruits of the land. Person after person gave us delicious peaches, apples, and figs. Tourbiste itself, incredibly tiny, felt like a ghost town. Women were working the fields. I later learned that the men worked in the larger cities of the north. Upon arrival, I quickly saw something that resembled a synagogue and I heard male voices inside. I softly and then loudly knocked on the iron door. A woman answered who spoke little Arabic. Were there men home? I asked. A man came to the door and quickly we were invited inside to eat along with what amounted to be the village’s elders.
Approaching Tourbiste from its agricultural fields (2012)
We washed our hands and we were introduced to the Cheikh, muezzin, and other notables. We dug into delicious lamb tagine. It was just after Ramadan and people were happy. What better group to inform me of Tourbiste’s Jewish past? I thought. And so I asked and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. There never was a Jewish community here, one said. Another mentioned Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit. Are you sure? I asked. A resounding, “yes,” filled the air. We finished eating with them, thanked them, helped two young boys with their English homework, and were on our way. As we walked back, crossing dangerously worn wooden bridges, I began to wonder how Tourbiste had become constructed in people’s minds as Jewish. Was it ever really Jewish? Hadn’t others told informants that this village was seemingly never Jewish? I let these questions linger.

Zaouiat El Bir Judeo-Berber family names (2012)
Zaouiat El Bir
The Jewish cemetery in Zaouiat El Bir is almost impossible to miss. It’s located right next to the local Post Office, along the main road. The cemetery itself has a few curiosities. First, the family names of the former residents are listed on a plaque in the cemetery and all of the families bear the Berber patronym “Ait.” While this is not surprising given that the former Jewish community would have been comfortable in the local Tashelheit and Moroccan Arabic, I had never seen this before. Second, a hand painted sign in the cemetery mentions the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492, pointing to real or imagined Iberian refugee origins for the local Jewish community as well. The juxtaposition was fascinating.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the guardian of the cemetery, a man in his 80s. I asked him the usual question about the location of the mellah, when the last residents left, etc. But this time I came with musical questions as well. Had he heard prayers in Hebrew? He had. I also asked him if there were any local, relatively famous Jewish singers. If so, did they perform Chleuh ahwash and ahidous? I had caught his attention. As he began to sing what he called Jewish ahwash, I cursed myself for leaving my digital recorder in the car. He beautifully sang a few more pieces, we had tea and sweets, and we continued east.
Handpainted sign marks the Jewish exodus from Spain in Zaouiat El Bir (2012)
We spent a couple of days in Tinghir, touring the city with our friend Kamal Hachkar. Hachkar is the visionary behind the film Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah. He has done incredible work historically reconstructing Tinghir’s once populous Jewish community and is using his documentary to have necessary, difficult conversations about Moroccan identity. His film is now touring the US and I strongly recommend going to check it out.
Clip from Tinghir-Jerusalem
Tinghir’s mellah is well preserved in many ways. The mellah gate can still be seen, as can its unique architecture. We had the pleasure of attending a presentation on Tinghir’s Jewish past at the local community center with remarks by Hachkar and a professor from Agadir. About 100 Tinghiri youth were not only in attendance but engaged. Watching this conversation happen was one of the highlights of this short trip to Morocco.

Tinjdad, Goulmima, and back to Fez
Jewish cemeteries in Asrir, Tinjdad (2012)
It was starting to rain by the time we reached Tinjdad. An older man on an even older bicycle, pointed us to Asrir, the douar which housed one of the region’s still identifiable mellahs. Yossef Chetrit has written about the former community of Asrir. Some of the Jews there used to own farmland and apparently the largest landowning family in the area was Jewish. As we walked through the mellah and toward the bright pink walls of the cemeteries, the sky opened up. Intense gusts of wind and rain made it difficult to see and walk. The doors of the cemetery were locked and the walls were too high to scale comfortably. A man with a sickle approached. Since my last travels in Morocco, I had trained myself to embrace this type of encounter rather than be petrified. He offered to give me a boost but I was afraid that once inside the cemetery I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back out. I decided to try to jump up and grab the top of the wall myself and to some how hoist myself to a position where I could see what was inside. One, two, and I was up. I peered down. Literally nothing remained. It was unfortunate but not uncommon. It was raining even harder and so we left. When we finally settled in to Goulmima and spent an afternoon visiting the mellah there, I got increasingly interested in drastically altering our itinerary.

I was fixated on the prospect of returning to Fez. My deep passion for the Maghreb’s musical history was pulling me to the city once home to one of Morocco’s greatest female singers, none other than Zohra El Fassia, and to a host of other musicians like the Botbol clan. I dreamed of chatting with those who remembered the music scene and maybe even finding a stash of 78s buried somewhere deep in the medina. With only a few days remaining in Morocco, we hurriedly made our way back west and north.

You can find more photos of my recent travels to Morocco on the Jewish Morocco Facebook page (which you can also “like”). My next post, which I’m putting the finishing touches on, will be on record digging, cassette collecting, and musical memory in Jewish Morocco. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

El Gusto, Algerian Jewish Mothers, and Luc Cherki

Just a few weeks ago I moved from New York to Los Angeles. This relocation was part of a long journey home for me. It began in the south of France, took me to Morocco, afforded me a short stop in Israel, and cut through New York before dropping me in California. Over the next few posts I will attempt to capture the most salient memories and observations from my travels. Along the way I’ll be digitizing some of the most interesting pieces of music I collected.
Moroccan and Algerian Jewish records in Marseille.
A Note on Putting this Post Together
As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I found myself racing against time. I started writing this last Thursday shortly before I was to head to the airport for a quick trip back to New York. I had wanted to digitize a piece of music to go along with it but since everything was literally in boxes I had almost no idea where anything was. By chance I opened a closet door where I was storing clothing and some 45s. Staring back at me was a near mint Luc Cherki record I had nearly forgotten about. Suddenly, everything came into focus. I recalled a short conversation I had with the Algerian vocalist and guitarist over the summer. I had told him I was a fan and a collector. He told me (with his characteristic smile) that he longer had any of his own records (not at all uncommon). All of this crystallized for me as time was running out before my flight. I was inspired. I started (gently) tearing open boxes and soon found my record player and the necessary cables for digitization. The platter on the record player had barely stopped spinning before I ran out the door for LAX.

South of France: From Marseille to Sète
As some of you read in my last post, I spent two weeks over the summer seeking out remnants of the once vibrant North African music scene in Marseille. While there I not only had the good fortune of finding physical records and cassettes but also passionate individuals chronicling the local incarnation of this transnational musical saga. Along the way I rediscovered tantalizing hints of how this story plays out spatially through various artifacts like a stamped label with the former address of the Algerian Cheikh Zekri’s music club.
Cheikh Zekri's old stomping grounds in Marseille. Stamped on back of LP.
While in France, I had the tremendous opportunity to see live music as well. Thanks to the kindness of Safinez and Nabila I met with members of the recently reconstituted 1950s-era Algerian chaabi orchestra El Gusto. I was privileged to have ftour (Ramadan break-fast meal) with these master musicians and glean hidden nuggets of music history from the likes of Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni through informal interviews backstage. The concert itself, in an amphitheater on the water in beautiful Sète (also interestingly a ferry point for North Africa), was electric. A couple observations from the concert before I jump to our artist of interest.
  • Throughout the concert, Abdelmajid Meksoud referred to Maurice El Medioni as Cheikh.
  • The set list included a majority of songs popularized or written by Algerian Jews including Mchate Aaliya (Lili Boniche), Alger Alger (Line Monty-Maurice El Medioni), and one of my favorites - Ghir Ajini Ajini (Lili Labassi).
I’m including a short clip I shot with my phone (so please forgive the quality) of El Gusto performing Ghir Ajini Ajini. I’m pairing it with Toukadime’s recent upload of Lili Labassi’s Ghir Ajini Ajini original for RCA (Yes, the Recording Corporation of America was recording North African Jewish musicians as well).

El Gusto performs Lili Labassi's Ghir Ajini Ajini in August 2012.

Lili Labassi's original Ghir Ajini Ajini for RCA.

Monsieur Luc Cherki
In the lead up to the concert I chatted with Luc (sometimes Lili) Cherki, a musician who had long been a curiosity of mine but whom I had never written about. Luc was born on August 8, 1936 and spent his formative years in Algiers, Algeria. He came of musical age in the 1950s at a time when chaabi music across the Maghreb was on the ascent. What made him special (in part) was that he could not only jam on the guitar in a number of styles but could also sing distinctively in Arabic, French, and Hebrew. As the end of the decade approached, his identity as an Algerian Jew of French citizenship became increasingly complex. Like most of his fellow coreligionists Luc Cherki left Algeria for France by 1962 and has never returned. He increasingly sang in French and became associated musically and politically with his French hit Je Suis Pied Noir.

Luc Cherki's Je Suis Pied Noir.

Luc Cherki recorded for a variety of labels in France including Kahlaoui's Dounia. His Arabic music was often forgotten as the years wore on and by the end of the 1980s he seemed to distance himself from music all together. He took a nearly 15 year musical break before returning to the performing stage in the 2000s and now tours with El Gusto.

Luc Cherki. L'Mouèma. Dounia. 1970s.
Yes, I'm posting a song about a Jewish mother, an Algerian Jewish mother to be exact. L’mouèma is the affectionate word for mom in darija, North African Arabic. The album artwork from this 1970s Luc Cherki release features a dedication to children deprived of their mothers' love. When I asked my friend Jawad (check out his Juifs Berberes photo blog) for some help with the lyrics, he concurred that the song was written about a mother but he offered another explanation. L’mouèma can also stand in for the motherland, he said. In other words, it's possible that Luc Cherki is singing here about his longing for Algeria. The song begins with, "separation is worse than death." Take a listen. I hear hints of Cheikh Zouzou's Bensoussan here in the music. The theme of exile, estrangement is ominpresent. What I also find fascinating about this song (and really El Gusto as a concept) is how much it complicates the narrative. Cheers.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Marseille's North African Lower East Side

For North African music lovers, Damien Taillard's blog Phocéephone is a must. Damien, originally from Toulon but through and through a Marseillais, has dedicated his time to documenting the thriving North African music scene in Marseille from at least the 1950s through the end of the 1970s. His research focuses on the Cours Belsunce quarter, one of Marseille's oldest neighborhoods, a hub of North African Jewish and Muslim immigration for at least the last 50 years, and home to its Arabic music scene for decades. Damien has patiently and diligently collected North African records produced and recorded in Marseille and has posted many of these to his blog.

Damien and I had emailed back and forth for some time before I told him I was coming to Marseille. We met for the first time in person at Galette, the record store he works for in the alternative Cours Julien neighborhood. We chatted for a long while. Damien kindly came bearing gifts including a number of Algerian and Moroccan Jewish 45s of which he had multiple copies. I also picked up a rare Cheikh Zekri LP on the Dounia label from the store before making a plan with Damien to meet the following week. We were going to try to meet with the master oudist and native son of Marseille (via Oujda in Morocco) Raymond Azoulay aka Raymond Oujdy. Raymond was a giant to me and many others. He started his own labels in Marseille (Oujdiphone and Oujdisques), played with the likes of Reinette l'Oranaise and Blond Blond, and had a deep respect for his Muslim musical counterparts.

Raymond Oujdy on his label Oujdisques circa 1979
Damien called me the next week and told me that Raymond was unavailable but that he had another idea. He proposed a tour of Cours Belsunce and I quickly jumped at the opportunity.

We met at the famed Alcazar Theatre now turned public library and the site of a future exhibition Damien is putting together on Cours Belsunce. As we meandered through the tiny streets filled with wholesale fabric stores, inexpensive housewares merchants and store front places of worship I couldn't help but compare it to New York's Lower East Side.

Belsunce was the first French home that many Jewish immigrants from North Africa knew. They were joined there by their Muslim counterparts. Most of the Jews have since moved out of the neighborhood but a few still operate shops there. We stopped by one such shop, Chez Youssef, before venturing on. I could imagine Youssef and other merchants closing their shops for midday prayer. Youssef and others would then hurry to a number of neighborhood synagogues, non-descript from the outside but filled with men chanting emotional liturgy on the inside.

Chez Youssef - one of the few remaining Jewish shops in Cours Belsunce
Of those Jews and Muslims who descended on the neighborhood quite a few were professional musicians in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. They quickly regrouped in Belsunce. They formed record labels like Sudiphone, Sonia Disques, and Tam Tam, brought together orchestras, and turned Belsunce into a North African music mecca where literally thousands of records were released. Those passing through would record here as well including the late Jo Amar. Today, almost none of it remains, not even the thriving cinemas and bars once a mainstay of the neighborhood.

Judah Sebag records Adon Olam for Disques Tam Tam in Marseille (1950s)

What do remain, thankfully, are the addresses. As we came to a stop at a corner, Damien pulled out a stack of 45s. Printed on the labels were their past locations. Damien soon guided us to 9 Rue Des Dominicains once the home of the Tam Tam Disques mini-empire. Tam Tam, under the direction of its Armenian owner, was one of the most prolific labels of the neighborhood. The label recorded everything from West African to North African chaabi to Hebrew. Judah Sebbag, Abraham El Fassi, and others would record for Tam Tam over the years. I snapped a picture of what once was and we continued on. Everywhere we went I was struck by this feeling of nostalgia that I couldn't shake.

The former home of Disques Tam Tam at 9 Rue Des Dominicains
Where dozens of record stores once existed are now but a few cd shops. Lots of Arabic and Berber music with electronic keyboards and synthesizers. I soon longed for the day when you could pick up a Raymond Oujdy EP off the shelf and take it for a spin.

Raymond Oujdy. Ya Robi Tahaye - Sadate O Begin - Oujdisques - 1979.

Before I left New York I uploaded this Raymond Oujdy track called Ya Robi Tahaye - Sadate O Begin. For me this song represents a bygone era. Here Raymond pours his heart into a song about peace between Egypt and Israel in Moroccan Arabic. And here is a taste of what North African Marseille sounded like in 1979.

Damien and I visited a few other places before ending our journey. I couldn't thank Damien enough for working to preserve this heritage. At our last stop, we came upon a shop with large one Euro cassette bins out front. And there to my great surprise I found something. There amongst Kabyle and Chaoui pop and various forms of rai you could still find North African Jewish chaabi buried deep in Cours Belsunce. I dug in and rediscovered a long neglected tape of a young Pinhass (Pinhass Cohen), still in its original packaging. The title track was kaftanek mahloul. Naturally, I purchased it and immediately felt nostalgic once again for a time I could only imagine. A time when Cours Belsunce was full of Jewish and Muslim musicians, Armenian producers and record label visionaries, bars serving mahia and boukha alongside Ricard and lots of sound.

Pinhass Cohen cassette found in Marseille

Monday, July 9, 2012

Raymonde El Bidaouia: The Blonde Bombshell from Casablanca

A young Raymonde
By the late 1970s and possibly even earlier, Morocco’s King Hassan II was listening to Raymonde El Bidaouia on vinyl. So enthralled with her records, he invited her to perform at the Royal Palace in Rabat in 1981. Raymonde was to perform together with the late, great Samy Elmaghribi. She and Samy knew each other well thanks to the Azoulay brothers. She wasn’t what Samy expected at first but she and her voice soon grew on him. He was certainly the legend but Raymonde was the rising star and soon they began touring the world together.

Raymonde's 12th LP for the Koliphone label
On the night she was set to sing with Samy in front the King, Raymonde considered cancelling. She was understandably nervous. She had never performed before royalty. To add insult to injury, she felt like a fraud. She had always borrowed lyrics from Samy, Albert Suissa, and other greats. The songs that she did write revolved around drinking and partying. Hardly regal (maybe). And yet, she knew she had to go on. She went on stage and approached the mic. Within moments, the tiny blonde with the outsized vocals blew everyone away. What was supposed to be a warm up turned into a full-blown concert lasting until 1 in the morning and only then did Samy take the stage.

Raymonde dons a traditional-ish djelaba for an album cover
Raymonde Abecassis was born in 1943 in Casablanca and moved with her family to Israel in 1952. Like other Moroccan immigrants, life wasn’t easy for Raymonde and her family. She worked hard and married early. It was only after the birth of her daughter, the Israeli actress Yael Abecassis, that she launched her music career. She set herself apart quickly. She rejected trappings like gold jewelry and traditional dress (unless it was for an album cover or special performance) and instead opted for her signature blonde hair, t-shirt, and jeans. By the 1970s, she was recording hit record after hit record for the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels out of Jaffa. She became known as Raymonde El Bidaouia (Raymonde the Casablancan) in Israel, Morocco, and beyond. Some went as far as to call her Cheikha Raymonde. In Israel, she collaborated with Meyer Elbedawi, Judah Assaraf, Eliyahu Kahlaoui (who has been featured on this blog before), and non-Moroccans like the Egyptian violinist Felix Mizrahi.

By the 1990s, after decades of making music, Raymonde launched her television and film career. Today, she continues to act and has since launched a Moroccan Arabic theater project in Israel.

What I love about Raymonde is her voice and her swagger. Raymonde has chutzpah in the best way possible and she laughs in the face of shouma. When a reporter once asked Raymonde why she sings in Arabic and not in Hebrew, she said, “Could I be like Chava Alberstein? No, I am Raymonde.” You can feel all of this drive in her music.

Raymonde. Tomobil. Koliphone. 1970s
Below is one of my favorite Raymonde songs. It’s titled Tomobil, which means car in Moroccan Arabic. This song is about a number of different things – there’s a meta component at the beginning where her and her partner discuss (argue about) driving to the studio to make a record (taklit in Hebrew), there’s the piece where she’s looking to buy a car but doesn’t know how to drive but above all this the song is self-indulgent, celebratory, and one that only Raymonde could pull off. It’s a record you put on at a hafla or in a smoky bar and turn up the volume. Also, not sure if anyone else hears this but the dialogue at the beginning of this track is vaguely reminiscent of the dialogue at the beginning of Lili L’abassi’s original Wahran El Bahia.

Rumor has it that Raymonde is set to tour again in Israel soon. Take a listen to this so that you can sing along in person next time you see her in concert.

So since it’s summer and because it’s blazing hot, I’m adding two additional tracks to this post – both on the subject of drinking (alcohol has been a favorite subject for Moroccan singers – Jewish and Muslim alike – since at least the advent of recorded music).

I suggest you open a Flag beer or take a sip of mahia and listen to Atiuli El Kass by Raymonde. Pay particular attention as Raymonde gives a shout out to the kass (cup) of whiskey. Thanks to Toukadime for uploading this a little while back.

And this is mostly for my Arabic speaking listeners, but check out this routine from Raymonde and the comedian Maurice Lusky. It’s the intro to her song Skran (the drunkard in Moroccan Arabic). For those who don’t speak Arabic, this is still an excellent introduction to Moroccan comedy and the music at the very end of the sketch is beyond great. I would love to see a full translation of this bit if anyone is feeling ambitious.

Finally, I’ll be blogging from France and Morocco this summer. Stay tuned for more updates.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moroccan Grooves, Blogged: Jewish Morocco Featured on Tablet Mag

A sampling of North African 45s.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara Ivry at Tablet Magazine last week to record this piece on a history of Jewish musicians in Morocco, my quest to find their recordings and how my personal musical history fits in to all of this. I digitized some Samy Elmaghribi, Line Monty and Cheikh Mwijo especially for the podcast so I hope everyone enjoys.

Here is the introductory text from Tablet:

By day, Chris Silver works for a Jewish task force trying to raise awareness about civic inequalities facing Israel’s Arab citizens. But he dedicates his free time to Jews in an Arab land, with his blog, Jewish Morocco. Silver created the blog in 2008, while traveling in Morocco, as a way of sharing the stories, photographs, and other artifacts he was collecting to document what Jewish life there had been like in its heyday. Along the way, he developed a particular interest in the country’s Jewish musicians and singers—characters who were beloved by Moroccans of all backgrounds, and to whom he gives ample space on his blog. Silver joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about some of the unique voices he’s discovered, what happened to Jewish Moroccan singers once they left the country in the 1950s and ’60s, and where he gets his missionary zeal (hint: It has to do with Bob Dylan; Mama Cass; Bill Cosby; and Chris’s dad, Roy). [Running time: 25:55.]

Listen to the podcast here:

I'll be posting more in a few weeks including some pieces that didn't make it in the final edit - so keep an eye and ear out for fresh posts.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Show this Saturday at JCC + Cheikh Mwijo, Lili L'abassi & Shimon Bar Yohai

Come listen to Cheikh Mwijo and others this Sat., May 26th at JCC Manhattan
I'll be spinning rare North African records this Saturday night, May 26th for a set called Sheikh it, Baby! Arabic Music, Jewish Musicians. The set is part of the wonderful Tikkun Leil Shavuot program at the JCC Manhattan. I go on at 12.30 am (technically May 27th) in the 4th floor studio. I'm adding some recent killer finds to the playlist, so bring a friend and come check it out. The full schedule of events can be found here.

Judeo-Arabic song verse in praise of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai
Composed by Albert Suissa and printed in Casablanca (1950s)
Tikkun Leil Shavuot in its current form is a modern twist on an ancient tradition. Shavuot marks the anniversary of the Israelites receiving the Torah from God. One tradition relates that the Israelites prayed and studied for three days and nights in anticipation of receiving the Torah and so, we emulate this all-night regiment to remember and recreate this sacred study session.

Shavuot (meaning weeks in Hebrew) comes seven weeks after Passover. If you've been following the news or my Twitter feed ( lately, you may have noticed an uptick in Jewish pilgrimages (hilloulot in Hebrew) over the last couple weeks in Morocco and Tunisia. These pilgrimages to Rabbi's tombs usually fall on or right around Lag B'Omer, a holiday that occurs 33 days after Passover and which marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a 2nd century Rabbi and disciple of the famed Rabbi Akiva. According to lore, Lag B'Omer is also the date that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai revealed the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah.

Now the tie-in for all of this is something I've written about before and that is the fascinating convergence of the sacred and secular in North African Jewish music. For example, the melody for Samy Elmaghribi's scandalously secular Kaftanek Mahloul (Blond Blond performs it here) was quickly incorporated into liturgical poetry for the synagogue in 1950s Morocco and beyond (Binyamin Bouzaglo performs El Hay Ram Gadol to the tune of Kaftanek Mahloul here).

I recently discovered another track that made the transition from secular to sacred. Lili L’abassi was born Elie Moyal in Sidi Bel Abbas, Algeria in or around 1909. By his early 20s, he was already being referred to as Cheikh for his mastery of the violin and Arabic song. His popularity rose steadily in the 1930s and 1940s and he can be thought of as the Jewish Hadj Mohammed El Anka in terms of popularizing chaabi music. One of his most popular songs is Wahran El Bahia (Oran the Brilliant/Shining/Beautiful) and is an ode to the city that has produced some of Algeria's greatest musicians, past and present. Wahran El Bahia has become the unofficial anthem of Oran and continues to be sung to this day.

Below is a clip of the song being performed by El Gusto, a Jewish and Muslim orchestra originally formed in Algeria in the 1950s and recently reunited. The musicians of El Gusto, now in their 70s through 90s, had lost touch post-Algerian independence and were brought together over the last few years thanks to the efforts of the filmmaker Safinez Bousbia, who captured this story in her compelling documentary. Make sure you see this film El Gusto, if you haven't already.

Pay close attention to the very animated violinist and singer in this El Gusto concert recording because it is none other than Robert Castel, son of the great Lili L'abassi. To the right, you can also make out Luc (or Lili) Cherki. Play the song in its entirety once or twice, so you get a real feel for the melody.

Check out this 1970s recording by Cheikh Mwijo in Israel. It's called Meron El Bahiya and is a pretty amazing piece about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Mt. Meron (in Israel) is the pilgrimage site for the Lag B'Omer holiday and the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Lag B'Omer and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai have long been popular song topics for Jewish North African recording artists. One of my most interesting 78s, for example, is a 1950s recording of a Lag B'Omer hilloula in Tlemcen, Algeria. Now take a close listen to the Cheikh Mwijo song below. This is the same melody and refrain as Lili L'abassi's Wahran El Bahiya but with Meron swapped for Oran! The sacred has again adopted the secular.

While you're pondering all of this, I'm going to give another shoutout to my twitter feed and mention that you can like this blog on Facebook ( I'll be posting some exciting news keep an eye out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Long Lost Libyan Records Resurface in Jaffa

The late Libyan Jewish recording star Joseph Mango Boaron
Music is subversive. It knows no bounds and no borders. This blog has traditionally focused on Morocco although I have recently ventured into writing about Jewish Algeria and Tunisia. This post will bring us to the far east of the Maghreb: Libya.

Between 1949 and Libyan independence in 1951, some 30,000 Libyan Jews left their homeland for Israel. Harvey Goldberg writes in the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (p. 442) that when the Israel-bound ships sailed from the harbor at Tripoli, immigrants sang Moses’ song of redemption at the sea (Exod. 15). But what else were they singing?
Geoula Barda, Libyan master of the mawwal and Zakiphon standout
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Libyan Jewish musicians flocked to Jaffa to record with Raphael Azoulay and his sons for their Zakiphon label. These musicians included Bano Gniss, Joseph Mango Boaron, Geoula Barda, Suffa Kahlon and others. They recorded Andalusian music (ma’luf), Libyan pop and original chaabi songs. Through the latter, these musicians succeeded in narrating their own migration experiences and confronting their new realities.

Libyan Jewish singers introduce themselves, their writers and their label in late 1950s, early 1960s Israel

It is unclear whether any 78 rpm records were ever commercially recorded in Libya in the first half of the twentieth century as attested to by Jonathan Ward at the excellent Excavated Shellac blog. LPs and EPs were indeed recorded in independent Libya but it remains a real challenge to find any of this music today. So when I stumbled upon a stack of Libyan 45s in the Jaffa flea market last month, I knew I had uncovered rare musical artifacts that had to be shared with readers and listeners.
Yaacov Yamin, music writer and composer who worked closely with Geoula Barda
As you will hear, Libyan music is and feels different from the rest of Maghrebi music. Separate the Egyptian pieces out and you are left with killer violin, mawwal that feels like sacred ritual and trance inducing repetition. The Arabic is different as well. It was difficult to choose one 45 side to post but I decided to go with Labnyia Labsitt Sirwal by the famed Joseph Mango Boaron. This is one of the first pieces Boaron recorded in Israel. He manages to capture the initial reaction to the Libyan experience in Israel by narrating the story of a young woman from Amrous, a village-turned-city just outside Tripoli. In Israel, this young Libyan woman flirts, smokes and worst of all - as he repeats over and over again in the chorus: the world and times are terrible…this girl is wearing pants.

Unfortunately most of this music has been lost and many of these musicians have passed including Joseph Mango Boaron. I know very little of Bano Gniss. Suffa Kahlon…well it seems he may still be alive. His story is so unbelievable that I will have to save for another post. I was pleased to learn that Geoula is still belting it out. Check out this performance of hers at a 2011 Libyan wedding.

Of course many questions still remain. Did Jews commercially record in Libya or only in Israel? Were original compositions in Israel in fact based on older Libyan pieces? Did any of the music produced in Israel ever make it back to Libya as it did with the Moroccan repertoire? There is much more work to be done on this music but let’s start with this. If we’re lucky some of this music will finally make it back to Libya and the story will continue to unfold.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Singing "Go Down Moses" in Judeo-Arabic - Happy Passover from Jewish North Africa!

Samy Elmaghribi. Le Chant Des Synagogues - "La Haggada". Pathe. 1960s.

The Passover holiday, commemorating the Israelites exodus from slavery to freedom, begins this Friday at Sunset and so when I re-listened to Nathan Cohen's Judeo-Arabic Had Gadya, below, I couldn't resist posting.

From the very beginning of the 20th century, Jewish artists in North Africa recorded liturgy, piyyutim and festival music in a melange of languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc.) for popular release. The Passover holiday was no different. As many of you know, the festival has always held an important place in the North African Jewish tradition and the unique mimouna celebration marking the end of Passover is a testament to that.

In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of records were released by musicians from Morocco to Libya on labels ranging from Samyphone (rereleased on Pathe/EMI above), to Dounia (originally owned by a Muslim entrepreneur as I learned from Maurice El Medioni recently and later purchased by El Kahlaoui Tounsi) to the Tunisian label Ennour to the various Zakiphon labels in Israel. These musicians while mastering and pioneering secular, popular Arabic music were also deeply Jewish and recorded religious music, much like their Jewish musical counterparts around the globe.
Nathan Cohen. Moise Sauve Des Eaux. Hagadah De Paque. Ennour. 1970s
With all of that being said, Nathan Cohen, a talented musician originally from Tunisia, has provided Jewish Morocco readers with a real treat. Over his career, Cohen recorded Andalusian, Arabic pop (chaabi) and Jewish music for labels based in France, North Africa and Israel. His unique voice and his penchant for piyyutim made him a stand out in his day.
Nathan Cohen. Haggada De Paque. Le Son Du Chofar (Dounia). 1970s and 1981.
I have digitized Nathan Cohen's Had Gadya for your listening pleasure. Had Gadya, meaning, "one little goat," in Aramic, is a playful, cumulative song that traditionally marks the end of Passover. Drop the song into Google and hundreds of versions will show up but very few if any are in Arabic and fewer less in North African Judeo-Arabic.

The version of Had Gadya below, sung by Nathan Cohen and his choir, is performed in Tunisian Judeo-Arabic. Listen to it a couple times and try not to be hooked.

I had to throw in some Jo Amar as well. Thanks to Phocéephone for the digitization of Jo Amar's Passover LP from the Tam Tam label out of Marseilles. The record starts with Jo going over the Passover seder in French. It's a fun listen despite some of the bumps and hisses. Skip to 11:51 to hear Jo Amar's Aramaic Had Gadya.

More music coming after the holiday including recently unearthed Libyan pop. In the meantime, I wish you and your loved ones a happy, healthy and meaningful Passover!