Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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.