Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Record Digging, Cassette Collecting, and Musical Memory in Jewish Morocco

Samy Elmaghribi and Salim Halali are still played at the Astor, Fez's last kosher restaurant and bar
Hadj Belaid fresco in Tafraoute (2012)
Some three years after first discovering the magic of musician Haim Botbol in a record store in Casablanca, I returned to Morocco to find his music in cassette stalls across the country. In fact, I got an even deeper sense of the critical importance of music in the Maghreb on this trip. In Tafraoute, in the country’s deep southwest, frescos of musical instruments like the rebab and images of musical standouts from the 1940s like Hadj Belaid adorned walls throughout the region’s ancient villages. At a pizza joint along the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a banjo on a chair was displayed prominently. When the restaurant’s owner wasn’t making pies, he would strum a few chaabi notes. And in Casablanca, by the former Lincoln Hotel, a cd seller played Samy Elmaghribi’s version of Gheniet Bensoussan for passersby.

After years of collecting Moroccan and then North African music in general, I was interested in not only finding dusty recordings from Tangier to Fez but also to collect musical memories. I was interested in how Moroccans, Jews and Muslims, understood and remembered their Jewish pop icons of yesteryear and so I went looking.

I started in Tangier and found very little. I figured a Mediterranean port city with a once large Jewish community would herald in an auspicious beginning. Being there during Ramadan hampered my efforts in many ways. Most medina shops were closed during the day. A general lethargy had set in. Additionally, Marcel Botbol’s music club, just outside the medina, was closed and I soon learned he was switching venues but wasn’t due to reopen until the following month. Undeterred, I kept searching. Walking up and down medina thoroughfares and side streets, I finally happened on a store selling clocks that a friend had mentioned. A half dozen sun faded Mohammed Abdel Wahab LPs were displayed prominently in the window. He must have had more stock, I thought. He did but he was too tired, he told me. I pressed him but I decided to let it go. Considering that he had been holding on to records for some thirty years past their utility and interest for most people, I could sympathize with his exhaustion. Besides, there would be other opportunities.
The interior of Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques (2012)
Where Tangier yielded little, Casablanca was a black gold mine. I returned to the places which had launched this musical journey for me three years ago: Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques on Lalla Yacout and Disques Gam in the opposite direction on Boulevard de Paris. At Le Comptoir, also the home to the Tichkaphone label, I snagged a dozen Botbol cassettes. It’s safe to say that Le Comptoir represents one end of the record store spectrum, organized and immaculate, whereas Disques Gam is the other end, chaotic, hot as hell, and magnificent. Gam Boujemma is the store’s proprietor and a repository of musical knowledge. You have to know what you’re looking for here and I did. With every record or cassette he pulled out, I was deluged with hard to come by oral history. Stories of Samy Elmaghribi performing at the nearby Cinema Lux fascinated me. As did his reverence for Albert Suissa. I walked away with a few prize items from his archive including a couple EPs on the N. Sabbah label and Botbol’s only release for Philips.
Two Giants: Albert Suissa on N. Sabbah and Botbol on Philips (2012)
In Morocco, the musical medium of choice corresponds directly to the seller’s knowledge of the industry. Those selling records should be placed at the top of the hierarchy, followed closely by cassette purveyors and CD distributors a distant third. Also, a couple things happened in Morocco in the 1970s that should be noted. One, the music industry was nationalized. Two, cassettes appeared, allowing records to be transferred directly to tape and distributed widely. The era also represents one of the last gasps of the prominence of Jews in the Moroccan music scene.

 Janatte Haddadi's beautiful short on Coq d'Or
The Casa medina was once a musical mecca for Moroccan Jews. It was here where Salim Halali’s club Coq d’Or, now a textile factory, once stood. Albert Suissa continued to live and write music in the mellah until a late age. So I was elated when I stumbled upon one of the remaining few cassette sellers in Casa’s medina. His stall was impossibly tiny. Floor to ceiling tapes lined its walls. With my eyes quickly scanning the now all too familiar artists, I noticed something peculiar. In his collection were dozens of Israeli releases of Moroccan Jewish artists from the Holy Land. While the Zakiphon labels had been removed, these were clearly Jaffa-based releases of Cheikh Mwijo, Raymonde, and Sliman Elmaghrebi. Here was evidence of a fascinating chapter of music moving beyond closed borders.

Found: Samy Elmaghribi in a Casa cassette seller's attic (2012)
I told him what I was looking for and he had everything. I walked away with long sought after Felix El Maghrebi and Zohra El Fassia tapes complete with hand written song titles. On a whim, I asked if he still had records. Without flinching he took a rickety ladder and propped it against a wall of cassettes and started climbing towards his attic. He pulled down two large bags of 45s. I started to comb through them as my heart raced. What would I find? The occasional Samy Elmaghribi EP surfaced as did the odd Botbol cover (including an Algerian release) but unfortunately none of the covers matched the records and none of what he had was what I was looking for. Despite this, I had learned a great deal in this encounter.

Hadj Belaid recording on Baidaphon c. 1940s
Before finally heading to Fez, I spent a week with my girlfriend and friends traveling in the Marrakesh area and to its east. Toward the end of the week, we visited the village of Telouet, home to a breathtaking Glaoui casbah. As we left, it started to drizzle and then pour. A nearby café provided us shelter and piping hot mint tea. On our way in I had noticed a 50s era HiFi system at the entrance. Where there was a record player, I thought, there must be records. I started asking the right questions. Within a moment my hosts informed and then showed me that it still hummed along, in fact, it played beautifully. They put on a couple of Western LPs and then brought out two black plastic bags of 78s. These were all priceless 1940s recordings of Hadj Belaid on Pathé and Baidaphon. We were all having a great time. A waiter took a lighter to one of the records to show me this was no plastic we were dealing with. This was shellac! Handshakes were had all around and then I excused myself to finish my tea.

Le Cristal in Fez, still bustling (2012)
My last few days in Morocco were spent in Fez. For the first time, I stayed in the Ville Nouvelle. I was captivated. For the tourist and the historian, some of the beauty of Morocco, even in its “modern” counterpart to the medina, is the (at least superficially) unchanging landscape and architecture. Thus my hotel in Fez was located right next to the now defunct Astor Cinema, which was next to the still in operation Astor Bar (home to Fez’s remaining kosher restaurant) and a stone’s throw a way from independence era café’s like the Cristal. You quickly started to get a feel for what Jewish Fez must have looked like in the 1950s and 60s.

I was not disappointed by what I found in Fez’s medina. After paying homage to the record-turned-cd label Fassiphone, right outside the old walls, I launched myself into the city’s infamous myriad alleyways. It was not before long before that I located the cassette district. One seller’s stash of Jewish musicians was significantly reduced. About seven tapes were all that remained. He was eager to sell, including what appeared to be his most master-like recordings, but I held off.

Botbol, tea, and towers of tapes in Fez (2012)
A twist and a turn later and I had found my man. “Mohammed” cut a handsome figure against a background of thousands of tapes. He saw me staring and ushered me “in.” A dozen pleasantries later, short introductions, a sip of wormwood infused tea, and the cassettes jumped one after one into the tape deck. Mohammed was a former musician and played often with his Jewish counterparts. His familiarity with the scene was astonishing. When I asked about Botbol, Mohammed mentioned he knew Jacob, the father, and then dutifully put on a recording, which he sang every word to. This pattern of singing along with the uttering of an artist’s name repeated itself with a range of performers from Cheikh Mwijo to Samy Elmaghribi. The mere mention of Zohra El Fassia, the grande dame of Fez, brought a large smile to his face. He started recalling the heyday of places like the Astor and Cristal and others. I couldn’t resist, I bought way too much from him but it was worth it. He then took us to his gorgeous medina home for another cup of tea. His roof view rivaled any in the city. I asked him to see pictures but instead I got his address with a request to keep in touch. I couldn’t have been happier to oblige. Mohammed wasn’t sure if anyone still sold records in Fez but I was happy nonetheless. Not everything has been transferred to CD so getting your hands on tapes is the next best thing.
Prized records including Botbol, bottom row (left) (2012)
Zohra El Fassia on Polyphon c. 1940s (2012)
I took the long way out of the medina and I’m glad I did. A few missteps and backtracks later and I had located what may be Fez’s last record store. The owner, much older than Mohammed, was also a former musician. Hundreds of records were arranged in some of the most creative ways I had ever seen. He displayed his most prized records, including a not-for-sale Botbol, on one side of the store. At his desk were beautiful black-and-white and sepia photos of his former life. Behind him were cassettes of Morocco’s most influential stars including Samy Elmaghribi, whom the proprietor called the best Isra’ili singer in Moroccan history. I painstakingly combed through piles of LPs and EPs and pulled out impossibly difficult to find cuts. As I continued to look high and low for records, which seemed to be hiding everywhere, I saw a dozen 78s in the corner. I gently removed them from the shelf. Sifting through these treasures one by one, my heart skipped a beat. There it was…a 70-year-old recording of Cheikha Zohra El Fassia made for the Polyphon label. I showed it to the owner. He put on his glasses and said zeena (beautiful). Sadly, the record itself was beyond playing condition but its near forgotten presence in this store still sings volumes to me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Refinding Jewish Morocco: East from Marrakesh

Looking out towards Jewish cemetery in former Sidi Rahal synagogue (2012)
 Over the summer, I divided my short time in Morocco between 1) doing some of the research that initially launched this blog (rediscovering remnants of the former Jewish communities of Morocco with a focus on the south) and 2) working to get a better understanding of the role of Jews in the Moroccan music scene in the middle part of the 20th century. Some of the places I visited for the first time included Asni, Sidi Rahal, the Valley of the Roses, Tourbiste, Zaouiat El Bir, Tinghir, Tinjdad (Asrir), and Goulmima. As usual my intent is to put these places on the blogoma, to share my impressions and photos, and to hopefully start a conversation by those who remember these places. Here are some musings on a few of these locales.
In Sidi Rahal's Jewish cemetery with temps rising to 117 (2012)
Sidi Rahal
At the end of August, we left Marrakesh and headed east. Thankfully, we opted for the air-conditioned rental car. By the time we arrived in Sidi Rahal, the temperature had already risen to 117 degrees. Bsara, piping hot pea soup, seemed like the most sensible lunchtime option. It was also being served at one of the few restaurants in the shade. Another bowl? The owner asked. No, I said with a smile. This used to be the mellah, he offered, and we were soon off. Sidi Rahal, once home to over 500 Jews, multiple synagogues, and the other trappings of communal life, had long interested me. It was visited in the 50s by a number of travelers who chronicled its final Jewish years. It had a vibrant past but now it seemed dusty. We walked for about 2 miles along the wadi. Surprisingly there was a sidewalk of sorts. Along the way it was clear that knowledge of the Jewish cemetery was common currency. We spotted the cemetery. It was on a dangerously dry hill. As we started to ascend, we spotted a pickup truck. We introduced ourselves and told the men where we were going. As luck would have it, the guardian of the cemetery was with the truck driver. As mazal would have it, the truck had just come from Casablanca. We arrived at the very moment that a new marble grave marker was being laid for the tzaddik Hagai Peretz. Maktoub I thought.

Witnessing the reconsecration of Hagai Peretz's tombstone (2012)
What remains of Sidi Rahal’s Jewish past is its extended cemetery walls. Few tombs have survived the weather and neglect. The mausoleum containing the tombs of Haggai Peretz and Yaakov Nahmias remains. The extended Nahmias family, scattered across the world, makes an annual pilgrimage to the tomb as attested to by the logbook on site. The remnants of a small synagogue exist, as does a fondouq for Jewish pilgrims. We headed back to the car but not before purchasing a 5-liter bottle of water. Skhoun chweeya, I said to the owner of the hanout. He smiled just enough to make me happy.

The Valley of the Roses
Our initial plan was to continue east until Figuig and then cut up to Debdou before making our way back west. Needless to say, our plans would eventually change.

Jewish woman in Tillit c. 1950s
After leaving Sidi Rahal, we skipped Tazarte due to the heat. We made our way straight to the Valley of the Roses. A number of iconic images from the area photographed in the 1950s by Elias Harrus, former head of the AIU, occupied my thoughts as we approached a remarkably more fertile area than Sidi Rahal. I knew of two villages – Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit - that once had Jewish communities. Upon arrival in the Valley, almost everyone we met pointed us the mudbrick village of Tourbiste as the site of one of the oldest Jewish communities in Morocco’s south.
Tourbiste is located above Ait Said (2012)

I had never heard of Tourbiste, nor could I find it on a map. A series of vague directions and a short drive along a winding road and we had found it from a distance. To get to Tourbiste we had to literally ford a river. A halved tree spanned the diameter of the water, acting as a bridge between the village and the rest of the Valley. As we crossed the river, I made the mistake of looking down, only to notice how swiftly the current was moving. The halved tree was impossibly thin. I had flashes of vertigo. It was too late to turn around and yet it was difficult to keep going. I closed my eyes and slowly moved forward…and then I fell in. I was fine but shaken and eventually made it across. As we walked toward Tourbiste, which reminded me in architecture of Ighil N’Oro, we passed mostly women but some men who offered us the fruits of the land. Person after person gave us delicious peaches, apples, and figs. Tourbiste itself, incredibly tiny, felt like a ghost town. Women were working the fields. I later learned that the men worked in the larger cities of the north. Upon arrival, I quickly saw something that resembled a synagogue and I heard male voices inside. I softly and then loudly knocked on the iron door. A woman answered who spoke little Arabic. Were there men home? I asked. A man came to the door and quickly we were invited inside to eat along with what amounted to be the village’s elders.
Approaching Tourbiste from its agricultural fields (2012)
We washed our hands and we were introduced to the Cheikh, muezzin, and other notables. We dug into delicious lamb tagine. It was just after Ramadan and people were happy. What better group to inform me of Tourbiste’s Jewish past? I thought. And so I asked and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. There never was a Jewish community here, one said. Another mentioned Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit. Are you sure? I asked. A resounding, “yes,” filled the air. We finished eating with them, thanked them, helped two young boys with their English homework, and were on our way. As we walked back, crossing dangerously worn wooden bridges, I began to wonder how Tourbiste had become constructed in people’s minds as Jewish. Was it ever really Jewish? Hadn’t others told informants that this village was seemingly never Jewish? I let these questions linger.

Zaouiat El Bir Judeo-Berber family names (2012)
Zaouiat El Bir
The Jewish cemetery in Zaouiat El Bir is almost impossible to miss. It’s located right next to the local Post Office, along the main road. The cemetery itself has a few curiosities. First, the family names of the former residents are listed on a plaque in the cemetery and all of the families bear the Berber patronym “Ait.” While this is not surprising given that the former Jewish community would have been comfortable in the local Tashelheit and Moroccan Arabic, I had never seen this before. Second, a hand painted sign in the cemetery mentions the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492, pointing to real or imagined Iberian refugee origins for the local Jewish community as well. The juxtaposition was fascinating.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the guardian of the cemetery, a man in his 80s. I asked him the usual question about the location of the mellah, when the last residents left, etc. But this time I came with musical questions as well. Had he heard prayers in Hebrew? He had. I also asked him if there were any local, relatively famous Jewish singers. If so, did they perform Chleuh ahwash and ahidous? I had caught his attention. As he began to sing what he called Jewish ahwash, I cursed myself for leaving my digital recorder in the car. He beautifully sang a few more pieces, we had tea and sweets, and we continued east.
Handpainted sign marks the Jewish exodus from Spain in Zaouiat El Bir (2012)
We spent a couple of days in Tinghir, touring the city with our friend Kamal Hachkar. Hachkar is the visionary behind the film Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah. He has done incredible work historically reconstructing Tinghir’s once populous Jewish community and is using his documentary to have necessary, difficult conversations about Moroccan identity. His film is now touring the US and I strongly recommend going to check it out.
Clip from Tinghir-Jerusalem
Tinghir’s mellah is well preserved in many ways. The mellah gate can still be seen, as can its unique architecture. We had the pleasure of attending a presentation on Tinghir’s Jewish past at the local community center with remarks by Hachkar and a professor from Agadir. About 100 Tinghiri youth were not only in attendance but engaged. Watching this conversation happen was one of the highlights of this short trip to Morocco.

Tinjdad, Goulmima, and back to Fez
Jewish cemeteries in Asrir, Tinjdad (2012)
It was starting to rain by the time we reached Tinjdad. An older man on an even older bicycle, pointed us to Asrir, the douar which housed one of the region’s still identifiable mellahs. Yossef Chetrit has written about the former community of Asrir. Some of the Jews there used to own farmland and apparently the largest landowning family in the area was Jewish. As we walked through the mellah and toward the bright pink walls of the cemeteries, the sky opened up. Intense gusts of wind and rain made it difficult to see and walk. The doors of the cemetery were locked and the walls were too high to scale comfortably. A man with a sickle approached. Since my last travels in Morocco, I had trained myself to embrace this type of encounter rather than be petrified. He offered to give me a boost but I was afraid that once inside the cemetery I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back out. I decided to try to jump up and grab the top of the wall myself and to some how hoist myself to a position where I could see what was inside. One, two, and I was up. I peered down. Literally nothing remained. It was unfortunate but not uncommon. It was raining even harder and so we left. When we finally settled in to Goulmima and spent an afternoon visiting the mellah there, I got increasingly interested in drastically altering our itinerary.

I was fixated on the prospect of returning to Fez. My deep passion for the Maghreb’s musical history was pulling me to the city once home to one of Morocco’s greatest female singers, none other than Zohra El Fassia, and to a host of other musicians like the Botbol clan. I dreamed of chatting with those who remembered the music scene and maybe even finding a stash of 78s buried somewhere deep in the medina. With only a few days remaining in Morocco, we hurriedly made our way back west and north.

You can find more photos of my recent travels to Morocco on the Jewish Morocco Facebook page (which you can also “like”). My next post, which I’m putting the finishing touches on, will be on record digging, cassette collecting, and musical memory in Jewish Morocco. Stay tuned.