Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Felix El Maghrebi: The Voice of an Era

Felix Wizman aka Felix El Maghrebi
The Casablanca cassette seller dusted off a Felix El Maghrebi mix tape, taped it with his index finger, and handed it to me. “This,” he said, “this is it.” Pulling a single cassette from a tower of tapes is no easy feat. Remembering where everything is even more difficult. But Felix El Maghrebi, the young Jewish mainstay of the Moroccan pop scene from the 1950s through the 1980s, is impossible to forget. His voice is smooth and his excitement is palpable. He is also a mighty fine oud player. In fact, wherever I have purchased music in Morocco, Felix has affectionately become the focus of the conversation.

Felix Wizman was born in the southern coastal city of Safi in 1937. Like many other Jewish families, his moved to Casablanca when he was just a boy. Le Petit Felix, as he soon became known, quickly found his voice in the big city, literally. It’s likely his father Meir first noticed his talent at home but it was the synagogue that provided him his initial stage. By the early 1950s, Salim Halali grew aware of Felix the virtuoso, eventually inviting him on stage with him to perform. Around that time, Felix was either bestowed or adopted the stage name Felix El Maghrebi, possibly in deference to his idol, Samy Elmaghribi. By his mid-teens, Felix was already performing professionally, both in front of large audiences and at private occasions, especially weddings. He signed a contract with the Jewish label N. Sabbah likely in the 1950s and cut a number of EPs with them through the 1960s and 1970s.

Felix El Maghrebi and his oud
His Jewish and Muslim contemporaries remember him fondly and with good reason. When many of his Jewish musical peers were making new homes for themselves in France and Israel, Felix remained in Casablanca - singing and playing his heart out. He was not only an audible presence in the 1960s but a visual one as well, making consistent appearances on Moroccan television at the height of his career. He was a familiar face in what must have been a confusing, chaotic, and yet exhilarating period: the initial years of Moroccan independence.

Felix El Maghrebi’s Raya Moghrabiya poignantly captures the Morocco of the time. It is a military march of sorts, a nationalist hymn focused on unity. “Be happy, brothers,” he exhorts over and over again in the refrain.

Take a listen to his golden voice:

Felix Wizman dit Le Petit Felix dit Felix El Maghrebi died five years ago on March 6, 2008. Through his song, his memory lives on.

P.S. If anyone has information on the N. Sabbah label, please be in contact with me directly.