Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jewish Morocco Turns 5! Salim Halali, Taali, & Change

Salim Halali in pose. 1970s?
In his memoirs, Mahieddine Bachetarzi, the “Caruso of the Desert” and founding father of Algerian theater, describes Salim Halali as having “the greatest Arab male voice” of the post-War period. Halali’s music, blending Latin styles like flamenco and paso doble with popular Arabic pieces written by the likes of Gaston Bsiri and Mohamed El Kamel, was at once distinctly modern and traditional. It was also everywhere. By 1946, you could catch Halali multiple times a week on Algerian radio. His records, made exclusively for Pathé in the 78 rpm era, were sold in Algeria’s major cities, across the Maghreb, and in Paris and Marseilles. Some have gone as far as to call him North Africa’s first pop superstar and when considering his dashing good looks, his swoon-inducing voice (among women and men), and international appeal – sought out by Um Kulthum and others, it’s not difficult to see and hear why.
A very young Halali in Algeria

Halali is deserving of a full-length biography but I won’t get into all of the details here. In broad strokes, Halali remained in Paris during the War years (apparently hidden from Vichy with the help of the Grand Mosque), established the “oriental” music venue Ismaïlia Folies in 1947 before moving to Casablanca to open a similar cabaret in the form of Coq D’Or. He eventually returned to France, release dozens of songs, and toured the world along the way. For many, he retired too early. He lived out his last days in the solitude of a retirement home on France’s southeastern coast. He died at the age of 85 in 2005.

Halali represents a sort of musical continuum between Arab and Jewish at a moment when the two were being torn apart in Algeria. Born in Annaba in 1920, Simon, as he was then known, lived a fully Algerian Jewish life complete with a passion for music. His gift of voice was noticed early and by his teens he had, like many other North African musicians of his generation, relocated to Paris to try his luck in the cabaret scene there. He soon met the already mentioned Mohamed El Kamel and the duo produced a truly remarkable number of hits. One of them, Taali, is among the more moving and evocative love songs I have ever laid ears upon. I have reproduced it below. My suggestion, before listening, is to pour yourself a glass of wine or non-alcoholic beverage (North African, preferably) and cuddle up with someone special. Then hit play. Open a window because it might get hot.

I have seen copies of this record turn up in various forms in places as diverse as Tunis and Jaffa. It is little surprise then that it has recently found a new, younger audience eager to pay homage to the original. The unbelievably talented team of Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen, Israeli artists of Moroccan origin, have created this mind blowing version below. One can only imagine Halali approving and then joining in.

This sultry jazz version by Georgian-French singer THékO also deserves a listen. It seems like nearly eighty years after its original release, Taali and Salim Halali are enjoying a comeback.

Halali on oud
Five years ago, when this blog launched, I could have never predicted any of this. In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about Salim Halali or anyone else making up this constellation of Maghrebi Jewish stars. I was living in Washington, DC at the time and daydreaming of Morocco constantly. In my previous Moroccan travels, I felt like I had just scratched the surface of the Maghreb and I had grown desperate to find the most remote traces of Jewish life from the Sous to the Sahara and everywhere in between. I quit my job, headed to Morocco, recorded what I found, and for a long time that was what this blog was. On a return visit I happened on that now iconic record store in Casablanca and “discovered” Haim Botbol in cassette form. I digitized the tape, uploaded it, and the internet (you) encouraged me to keep going. I started collecting and listening and then really connecting. As I assembled this history record by record, I made sure to keep putting pieces online and writing about these complicated and talented larger than life figures. Soon relatives contacted me. Fans of the original musicians sent me emails and letters (and the occasional record). I met this cohort wherever they were to be found: in Tangier and Tel Aviv and Marrakesh and Marseilles. When I was lucky, I even had the opportunity to sit with the musicians themselves. I also have gotten to know others on this journey, who, like me, are trying to bring this music out of the storage room and back onto the turntable. Through it all, I have faithfully inhaled my share of dust, climbed dangerously rickety ladders in order to peek into an attic, and spent countless hours walking the medina in rising temperatures, all in search of these elusive, fragile, and yet resilient records.

Five years later I can proclaim loudly that Zohra El Fassia, Marie Soussan, and Habiba Messika have left an indelible mark on my life. I have dedicated myself full time (graduate school) to the endeavor of telling their story and the stories of the whole enterprise and I couldn’t be happier. Each one of these personalities complicates something we know, fragments binaries, and further enriches that thing we call History. It is nothing less than a soundtrack of this era and has been missing for too long.

Things have certainly changed since 2008. Elkayam and Cohen, in the clip above, recently performed the works of Zohra El Fassia, Jacob Abitbol, and Albert Suissa in Essaouira at the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques, and in many ways have brought all of this full circle. The audience welcomed them with open arms, greeting the two with a certain contagious enthusiasm before joining in themselves.

This blog, I hope, will also change. I aim to retitle it, redesign it, make it more truly pan-Maghrebi, and come to focus more and more on those rarest of rare 78 rpm records. To do that requires time and an investment in the right technology and I will be calling on you to help with both. In the meantime, if you have suggestions, requests, leads, and so on, please do send my way.

Finally, thank you, choukrane, todah, and merci for all of your love and support over the years. It is appreciated more than you will ever know.