Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When La Mamma Became Ya Yemma: Lili Boniche, Charles Aznavour, and Algerian Cover Songs

A young Mahieddine Bachetarzi. 1920s?
Somewhere in an attic or an archive exists a recording of Mahieddine Bachetarzi singing Josephine Baker’s iconic J’ai deux amours. Why he chose to cover this particular song and what meaning one can discern from a national figure like Bachetarzi singing about his love for two nations during the turbulent 1930s will have to remain but speculation for now. What this does suggest, however, is the existence of “the cover” as a genre during the middle third of the twentieth century in Algeria. In fact, if it was one thing that Algerian Muslim and Jewish musicians shared, it was a passion for covering the hits. Covers took a variety of forms during this period but the most intriguing, as already eluded to, was the phenomenon of translating mostly French language chansons into Arabic and in that process, giving them entirely new meanings.

Perhaps the best known of these cover artists was one Mahieddine Bentir, of whom Ted Swedenburg has written about recently. Bentir, born in 1934 in Algiers, hit on something big in the 1950s when he began transforming American rock ‘n’ roll into “rock oriental” and set French genres to Algerian rhythms. He brought tremendous energy to his position at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in Algeria and as an independent artist, one who was fond of doing summersaults on stage at a particularly rockin’ moment. He has cited Robert Castel, Lili Labassi’s son, as one of his inspirations. Bentir’s Ana Bouhali, his appropriation of the classic Je Suis Le Vagabond, captures a certain slice of music hall Algeria in the 1950s perfectly. Here’s a short version of the French and then Bentir’s exhilarating Arabic rendition:

Lili Boniche performs at the Salle Pierre Bordes - Algiers, 1959
Lili Boniche, also known as “the Crooner of the Casbah,” was another cover cheikh. Born in 1921 to a Jewish Algerois family, le jeune Boniche was already making a splash in the Algerian papers by the mid-1930s, an especially impressive feat given his age at the time. Boniche became a staple of Algerian radio during the period and then began recording 78 rpm records for the Pacific label in the 1940s. He is most famous for his hit songs (all of which were later covered by others) Elle Est Partie (Mchate aliya), Eili Mektoub, Carmelita, and Bambino, the last an Arabic cover of the Neapolitan song, Guaglione, which was then all the rage in Europe and soon North Africa. Throughout his Algerian career, Boniche attracted tremendously large, mixed audiences.

Luc Cherki in all his disco glory. 1979.
Many have argued, in what appears to be a historiographic misstep, that Boniche, for a number of personal reasons, all but stopped performing in France upon his arrival there. This position helps to bolster the claim that he was “rediscovered” in the early 1990s by Bill Laswell, among others. In fact, a review of his releases reveals the opposite - Boniche recorded constantly and consistently through the 1960s and 1970s, both for his own LB label and for El Kahlaoui Tounsi’s Dounia. Shockingly, he even cut a disco EP, much like Luc Cherki, in the late 1970s.

Lili Boniche. Ya Yemma (La Mamma). LB Disques. 1963.
If Boniche took a break from music, it was possibly during that traumatic and confusing year of Algerian independence, although there is only scant evidence to support this. Whatever the case, he was certainly “back” on the scene as of 1963. It was that year that Charles Aznavour’s La Mamma had reached the number one spot on charts across the continent and unsurprisingly, Boniche chose to cover it for the A side of his first release on his new label. In my opinion, Boniche’s Arabic version – Ya Yemma – is even more powerful than the original. Clearly not just a lament for a mother, Ya Yemma can easily be “read” or heard as a longing for Algeria itself. Below you will find both the Aznavour original and the Boniche cover with the Lucien Attard Orchestre playing back up. Take a listen:

Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning Salim Halali, the subject of my last post, and his Arabic take on another song about mothers, the Yiddish classic My Yiddishe Mama. Below is a classic Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt version and the later Halali adaptation. I dare say this is the only Yiddish song ever translated into Arabic but I would be happy to be proven wrong.


Until next time…Happy New Year to all.


grosmonster said...

Hi Chris amazing blog and great post!
I was wondering if know this "Ya Mama", sung by Shimon Bouskilla:

Hoping it's not too modern, keep those ZakiPhons coming.


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