Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Songs in the Key of Chakchouka: the North African Light and Comic Chanson

An early Edmond Nathan Yafil comic monologue at 90 rpm.
Before David Guetta, there was his great grandfather Kiki Guetta. Born in Tunis at the end of the nineteenth century, Jacob “Kiki” Guetta championed neither popular nor Andalusian music but rather the North African comic song. Taking a cue from the light hearted repertoire then being refined on vaudevillian stages as far afield as Paris and New York, Guetta adapted the genre to Arabic, established his own troupe, and entertained mixed Muslim and Jewish cabaret audiences beginning in the earliest years of the twentieth century. When Gramophone released its first catalogue in Tunisia in 1910, Guetta’s discs were featured prominently.

Guetta, like his Moroccan and Algerian Jewish contemporaries who embraced the style, pushed the boundaries of the acceptable in public. On many of his records, he ridiculed those in power, poked fun at his compatriots, and drew attention to emerging social problems. But, as his successors would soon do, he sang about the more banal.

In some cases, the banal, or the light song, took the form of translated ditties, like Guetta’s Arabic version of La Petite Tonkinoise, while in other instances it meant connecting the latest international music trend - often Latin - to the local palate. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than the array of songs released toward the middle of the century on the subject of chakchouka, the North African tomato and egg delicacy that many of us have come to know and love. Imar Maghy, for instance, a Tunisian Jewish comic of the 1950s and 1960s, would set “chakchouka” to cha cha cha, pepper it with Arabic, and serve up wildly popular results. Even if the tune has little to do with cuisine itself, one can surely appreciate the identitarian aspect of it. You will find a taste below.

Not to be outdone was the Algerian Blond Blond, who sang about both the merguez sausage and chakchouka, and his Sétif-born colleague Alberto Darmon aka Staïffi (and his group: ses Mustaphas), who made his version of “chakchouka” into a dance number while also putting the culinary delights of the Belkacem restaurant - rhyming the Arabic word for “beans” with the French for “unforgettable” - to a foot-tapping harmony.

Of course, there is much more to be said on the subject of Jews and comedy in North Africa in the first half of the twentieth century but an outline will have to suffice for now. Comic monologues and songs can be counted as among the earliest pieces to be recorded on wax cylinder across the Maghreb. In Algeria, the impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil would bring the scène comique to large audiences, impressing none other than Mahieddine Bachetarzi, who himself would take Algerian comedy and theater to the next level.

I would also be remiss in not mentioning that a number of these pioneers of comic song, along with their stand-up counterparts, made their way to France and Israel around mid-century, including the Moroccan Maurice Lusky, who can be heard below doing his classic “drunkard” sketch with Raymonde El Bidaouia.

I will have to leave it here but welcome further thoughts and comments. In the meantime, good listening, bon appétit, and b’saha!