Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jo Amar (El Maghribi) Also Sang in Arabic

Jo Amar. 56120. Zakiphon. 1960s. Side 2 - Mssat Ailaya (Mchate Aaliya by Lili Boniche)
Before I begin a DJ set, I often ask the crowd if they are familiar with any North African Jewish singers and the answer inevitably is, “Yes, the great Jo Amar!” Listeners know his Israeli pop hits like Shir hashikor and Barcelona and his liturgical music like Shalom leben dodi but not much else. Sometimes I will even start off a session playing the album he recorded during his famed 1965 Carnegie Hall performance only to illustrate that this is the music we will not be dealing with in the course of our set. People will say that what set Jo Amar apart was his mastery of various styles including Eastern European melodies but for me that misses the point. Simply put his voice was unparalleled and that is what made him great. He sang almost falsetto. His voice could be soft and lilting at times (which made you listen all the more intently) but in a moment he could switch to a commanding crescendo and just grab you. His voice told a story and this was especially vivid when he sang in Arabic.

What fascinates me is that most are unaware of the fact that Jo Amar recorded 78s in Arabic before moving to Israel and that he continued to not only record Arabic Andalusian music in Israel and elsewhere but also chaabi and Francarabe on LP – Mchate aaliya by Lili Boniche is a perfect example. He wrote his own songs in Arabic and he sang the great songs of others and this post is an attempt to put this history back on the map after being omitted by far too many articles and obituaries.

Jewish cemetery in Settat, Morocco (2008)
Jo Amar was born in Settat, Morocco in 1930. By the late 1940s he was recording music in Hebrew and Arabic for Philips. On his Arabic 78s he was known as Jo Amar El Maghribi (Jo Amar the Moroccan) while on his Hebrew 78s he was simply Jo Amar. In 1956 he moved to Israel where he immediately started recording for the Azoulay family – first on 78 on the R. Zaki label and eventually moving to 33 and 45 on Zakiphon.

"Two weeks after I recorded my first song in Israel," recalled Amar in a 2008 interview, "it reached even the most impenetrable Ashkenazi ears." This is one of my all time favorite quotes. You wouldn't expect it from Jo Amar but there he goes again and surprises. By the time Jo Amar arrived in Israel he was a well known entity in the North African community. The Azoulays helped to put him on the musical map in Israel, when no other record label would. The brothers Azoulay apparently sang backup on Shir Hashikor when it was first recorded in Jaffa. Jo Amar would go onto to record for the major Israeli labels as well, on his own Kol Amar label, and on various labels around the world.

Jo Amar El Maghribi. Goulouli fin. Tam Tam. 1960s (Marseilles)

This track is pure Jo Amar. It was recorded in the 1960s for the Tam Tam label out of Marseilles at a time when a number of North African labels were operating there. Goulouli fin is difficult to capture in meaning and in style. It is chaabi-esque as attested to by Tim at Moroccan Tape Stash but it feels like other things are pulling at it. Goulouli fin is Moroccan Arabic for,"Oh tell me where..." There is a sense of longing to the song and it seems to have been paid particular attention to by a number of North African Jewish artists. Below is the cover of a Lili Boniche EP on Dounia where he is performing the same song.

Lili Boniche. Golole fene (Goulouli fin). Dounia. 1960s
Here is a version by my favorite Cheikh Mwijo off of one of his 1980s cassettes. He recorded the song earlier in his career as well.

By 1970 Jo Amar moved to New York – a combination of push and pull factors including the draw of a better career. He eventually became a Cantor and performed in synagogues spanning the Jewish globe. By the late 1980s / early 1990s Amar returned to Israel and throughout the remainder of his life he would finally collect the honors he so deserved. Jo Amar El Maghribi, arguably Settat's most famous singer, died in Woodmere, New York in 2009 at the age of 79.

Articles on Jo Amar:
Jo Amar, Genre-Blending Jewish Singer, Dies at 79 – New York Times – Bruce Webber – July 9, 2009

He opened Israeli ears to Mizrahi songs – Haaretz – Ben Shalev – July 7, 2009 

Jo Amar, acclaimed Sephardic singer, dies – JTA - Ben Harris - June 30, 2009
- Sam Thomas gives an excellent description of what made Jo Amar so unique.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Set List - Jewish Musicians in North Africa at 78 RPM

I had a great session at the JCC last night. Thank you to everyone for coming out. The next session is next Thursday, February 2nd. There was a request for the set list so I have included below. Also, I will be posting a piece on Jo Amar very soon so stay tuned.

Messaoud Habib (Tunisia)
Taksim Ochak
Columbia – Late 1920s?

Cheikh Zouzou (Algeria)
Ghnayet Bensoussan
Philips - 1938

Salim Halali (Algeria)
Bine Elbareh Oua L’youm
Pathe – 1937

Lili L’abassi (Algeria)
RCA – 1940s

Samy Elmaghribi (Moroccco)
Hobb El Bnet
Pathe – 1948

Zohra El Fassia (Morocco)
Zraa Ouel Matar
Pathe - 1956

Samy Elmaghribi (Morocco)
Allah, Ouatani Oua-Soultani
Samyphone – 1959

Jo Amar (Morocco)
Wine Hbabi Wine Shab
R. Zaki – late 1950s (Israel)