Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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!

Monday, April 2, 2012

1st Brooklyn Show this Thursday, Apr. 5 at Proteus Gowanus

Get your rare North African music fix the night before Passover! I will be spinning and discussing music in North Africa and North African music in Israel as part of Proteus Gowanus' series on migration. This session comes on the heels of a recent trip to Israel that netted some long lost Libyan music and more.

Samy Elmaghribi and his boys perform in Morocco
Proteus Gowanus
543 Union Street Brooklyn, NY  11215

Thursday, April 5, 8 pm
$5 admission

Music, Migration and the Maghreb
By the beginning of the 20th century, the phonograph had become a fixture in bars, cafes and theaters across North Africa. With an eye toward a new market, the major international record labels soon moved in and recorded the greatest Jewish and Muslim musicians of their generation. The labels captured sounds that would come not only to define Arabic music in the region but also to preserve a fascinating history of Jewish-Muslim musical collaboration in the Maghreb. By mid-century, North Africa and the music scene changed dramatically.

In the immediate aftermath of Israel’s establishment and Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian independence, thousands of Jews from across the region made the Jewish state their new home including many of these musicians. Israel held little promise of a continued career for these artists and almost no hope of continued collaboration until a pioneering Moroccan immigrant found a cache of phonographs in a Jaffa flea market, started recording those around him and preserved this shared patrimony while enabling new styles to emerge. Join us to hear the story as we spin rare records from North Africa and Israel.

For more information, click here.