Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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.