Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Bat Yam North Africa Sessions: Chaabi Music Alive in Israel

A few months ago I received an email from Eilon, a fellow record collector in Israel. We exchanged notes and swapped stories and agreed to meet next time I was there. When I found out I would be heading to Israel for work in February, I reached out to Eilon to see if we could catch some music together. He told me there was a rare show in Bat Yam that we had to see. The four hours of music we would later become a part of was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen or heard. The fact that this was more or less underground, North African chaabi in Israel made it all the more thrilling.
Izac Elbergui. Koliphone. LP 18. 1970s (Words by Sliman Elmaghrebi)
On February 9th I met Eilon at his apartment in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. He let me browse his beautiful collection of North African vinyl that he collected over the years at various flea markets in the center of the country. We listened to a few select pieces including a rare David Nidam LP on Zakiphon and then hit the road for Bat Yam, about a 15 minute drive from Tel Aviv.

At 11 pm we entered a large community center close to the Rabbinate in Bat Yam. A small crowd of about 35 listeners, multiple decades our senior, eyed us as we found seats at a table with other guests. I quickly spotted Zaki Elbergui, recording star for the Azoulays and their Zakiphon label in the 1970s, now in his 70s and donning a yarmulke. Interestingly most of these musicians have become increasingly religious as they get older, similar to their Muslim counterparts. Zaki was older now but his voice remained strong, deep and hoarse as he began to sing.

Izac (Zaki) Elbergui performing in Bat Yam, Israel on February 9-10, 2012.
Food – fava beans, spicy carrots and assorted pickles – and drink – Goldstar beer – covered our table. A man beckoned me over to sit next to him. Inta maghrebi? He asked me in Moroccan Arabic. I told him I was from New York. He was from Marrakesh originally and said he was also a singer and had performed everywhere from Casablanca to Montreal to Los Angeles. I was incredulous at first until he pulled out his iPhone and started showing me pictures he had snapped of his old pictures. There he was with the great Jewish and non-Jewish North African and Egyptian musicians - Samy Elmaghribi, Salim Halali, Elkahlaoui Tounsi, Oulaya, Sabah, Farid El Atrash and others. I had just met the renowned Henry Zehavi who would later be called to perform on stage.

For the next few hours, Zaki Elbergui would perform along with an oudist, a hand drummer, a drummer on darbuka and Yaacov m’Akko, a skilled and talented violinist who gave one of the best vocal performances of the evening. At the beginning of each piece performed, the oudist would invoke the names of the honored North African musicians who came before them historically and who were physically before them in the audience – all in rapid-fire Moroccan Arabic. Zaki Elbergui then slowly began to give up the microphone and invite some of these honored voices before him to the stage. Henry Zehavi was pulled up on stage after much ceremonial cajoling. His training and skill were self-evident as he performed a number of songs including those of Salim Halali who he had once upon a time toured with around the globe.

Zaki then invited an unassuming David al-Ruimi on stage. David wore a Kangol-style hat and thick glasses that hid his later obvious talent. There was deep respect given to him from the orchestra and the audience and this respect would prove absolutely deserved. Below is the only known recording of David al-Ruimi on the Internet. I suggest you turn up the volume full blast and close your eyes to this unparalleled performance.

The Bat Yam North Africa Sessions: Volume 2
David al-Ruimi sings in Bat Yam on Feb. 10 2012

I have done my best to capture the feeling of this night but of course much is missing. What isn’t captured by these iPhone videos is the intense audience participation throughout the night. Individuals mouthed the words to these songs, danced with each other and with the musicians, gave money to the performers as thanks and listened intently as they were transported back to a different time and place. Eilon, a skilled darbuka player of his own accord, was also invited on stage with the orchestra. Others would sing throughout the night including a different Mwijo then the one I have previously written about - this one from Casablanca - while classic hits like Samy Elmaghribi's Omri ma ninsak were reinterpreted.

In my mind, however, the best performance of the night was one of the last. Yaacov m’Akko (Jacob from Acre), a master violinst, quickly revealed a voice, style and rhythm the likes of which I have never heard. Here he is on video – likely for the first time ever. I again suggest you bring whatever device you are using to full volume. Stick with this one – this track is killer.

The Bat Yam North Africa Sessions: Volume 4
Yaacov m'Akko on violin and vocals - at the top of his game 

There were a few more performances that followed and then it was over. Never before has 3 am come so quickly. The musicians began to pack up their instruments, put on their jackets and head to their cars. Some were returning to other parts of Bat Yam. Others to Jaffa and Yaacov of course to Akko. He had hours of driving ahead of him. Eilon and I headed to Jaffa to have a bite to eat and process. We had just witnessed an increasingly rare performance of Jewish North African musicians - some of the most talented of their generation. As these musicians and their audience grow older, it is important that these sessions are made available to a wider audience. It is for this reason that I have put what I am calling the Bat Yam North Africa Sessions online. Please make sure to spread around.

For more videos, click here. I’ll be writing again soon on meeting with the Azoulays, record and cassette shopping in Jaffa and meeting with Zohra El Fassia’s relatives in Tel Aviv.