Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tunisia's 78 rpm Era: Reflections on Habiba Messika, Cheikh El Afrite & My Recent Travel to Tunis

The Jewish cemetery at Bourgel in Tunis
Cheikh El Afrite's grave at Bourgel
On my final day in post-revolutionary Tunisia, I headed to the vast Jewish cemetery at Bourgel aiming to find and pay tribute to the final resting places of Tunis’ musical superstars of years past. While the cemetery itself is in a discouraging state of disrepair, the tombs of Habiba Messika and Cheikh El Afrite, two of said vedettes, are readily identifiable, if not difficult to reach. There is a feeling one gets when visiting a mostly abandoned Jewish cemetery in North Africa. In seeking a particular grave, you often have to wade through trash, sidestep discarded beer bottles, whack away overgrowth, and climb over other broken graves with names no longer legible. When you reach your destination, it is both unsettling and uplifting and most certainly a religious experience.

Cassette digging for Habiba Messika
Tunisians’ memory of Habiba Messika, the young Jewish singer, actress, and diva, who took Tunis by storm in the 1920s, is at once fierce and fading. Her cassettes, made from copies of copies of her scare 78 rpm recordings, are easily available in the myriad CD and tape shops around the city. Ask just about anyone – young or old – and they “remember” her. This, of course, is despite the fact that most do not actually remember. While Messika’s brutal murder by a jealous suitor was front-page news across the Maghreb and in Paris at the time, it also occurred over eighty years ago, in 1930, and most were not around to ever see her or hear her live at the Municipal Theatre, at the Casino in La Goulette, or anywhere else. Much like her music now, the memories of Messika are copies of copies. Of course, this makes them no less real but as a result certain details have fallen to the wayside. Thus her Jewishness, very real at the time, comes as shock to quite a few when revealed. Messika, like so many other things in Tunis, has been nationalized.

Stack of broken 78s with Narraci sleeve peeking out
Between meetings and visits to the archives, I went in search of records. On one of my first days in the country, I was encouraged by a find in the medina: a stack of shellac, all with purple sleeves of Joseph Narraci, one of the earliest indigenous (and Jewish) record companies in North Africa. Unfortunately, not a one contained a Narraci-produced record. In fact, most Tunisian records, especially 78s, have disappeared, many thrown out in the transition to vinyl, others captive in storage spaces around Tunisia and in attics in Paris. What stock does exist – in the medina, brocantes, and the occasional used bookstore - is either Western rock or Egyptian. If you’re looking for Um Kulthum on Odeon, you’re in luck, if you’re searching for Gaston Bsiri, bonne chance. While this was personally disappointing, it also served in a way as a testament to a phenomenon reported on by Tunisian observers of the 78-era – Egyptian discs were flooding the market. Only by supporting local artists, critics claimed, could this deluge be averted.

After a little less than two weeks in Tunis (not nearly enough time), I left feeling nostalgic for a place I never really knew. Strolling down Rue Al-Djazair, adjacent to the medina, brings one face-to-face with the once flagship record store of Joseph Narraci, as well as one of the former cinema districts of the silent and then talkie era. Cutting over to Rue Charles De Gaulle, transports you to the small empire of Bembaron, Jewish brothers and impresarios, who began their work by importing harmoniums and ended by creating a powerhouse label which captured the some of the city’s most impressive voices. The TGM (Tunis-La Goulette-Marsa) train is a journey back in time. As it traces the edge of the lake, children pry open the doors to get that fresh, salted wind in their face, only to be pulled back by the scruff of their necks by a responsible adult – much the same, I imagine, as it was sixty years ago. Descending at the La Goulette – Casino stop hurls you straight into Tunis’ music-hall capital, where Jews, Sicilians, Maltese, Greeks, and Muslims jostled for a seat at one of the various music venues around town. At the Casino, one might have caught a show by Messika and Hassan Banane, Cheikh El Afrite or Dalila Taliana. As I dined at one of the seaside restaurants - with some of the freshest fish I have ever tasted - I daydreamed of Raoul Journo, perhaps with Kakino De Paz, crooning about exil in El Ouach ouel Ghorba.

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword though, as it requires absence to make it its most powerful. During my first day in the archives, a young graduate student took an interest in me and we began a conversation. She asked me what I worked on and I told her I was studying the early years of the North African recording industry. She said I must study the Jewish musicians then if I was really serious about the topic. Encouraged, I told her that that was indeed my focus and in fact, I was Jewish. She went blank. You can’t say that here, she said. Not everyone was as open as she was, she claimed. Similarly, while Bachir Rsaissi’s Rsaissi label draws instant recognition among those in the know, the uttering of his Jewish counterparts – Narraci and Bembaron - is met with confusion and the polite protest that those names, in fact, are not Tunisian. Acher Mizrahi, a favorite of Habib Bourghiba long after independence, also sounds impossibly foreign to some.

El Kahlaoui Tounsi 45 in a dust-filled brocante
Despite all this (or perhaps because of it), Tunisia has grabbed my attention in a way I never thought it would. The Tunisians I spent time with were all supportive of my work, even if it was not their area of expertise. Many went completely out of their way to help me and I hope by giving a little more volume to the critically important history of the music industry in North Africa, I can someday soon return the favor.