Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Delight of the Faithful: Henry Levi, Cheikh Raymond, and a 1958 Recording from Constantine

From L to R: Alexandre Nissim Benharoun,
- Chalom Lellouche
- Edouard Zerbib
- Sion Bouskila
- Victor Assouline
- Hayo Hassoun
- The father of Chalom Lellouche but no Henri Levy...
I stand humbled before this particular record and I am certainly not the first. Indeed, Cheikh Raymond was so taken by Henri Levy’s voice that he represents the only other artist to have ever been featured on Leyris’ Constantine-based Hes El Moknine label.

To find out anything about Henri “Yosef” Levy, one has to turn to the Algerian Jewish message boards. And yet, he is elusive even there. The lone comment on a stunning photo of Constantinois rabbis from this late 1950s laments the fact that Rabbi Levy is missing from the image. On another site, we are informed that Levy was not a rabbi at all but an “officiant,” someone with rabbinical skills but without ordination. For anyone who has ever been to an active synagogue in North Africa or attended a Maghribi service anywhere, none of this will be surprising for it is the congregants that lead the service. If there is a rabbi among the crowd, he can be difficult to find.

By day, Levy operated a printing press but at prayer time he officiated at the synagogue close to the lycée d’Aumale. There he developed an intimate relationship with none other than Cheikh Raymond. On Forum Zlabia under the “Hazzanims de Constantine” thread “Benj” writes that Levy had, “a fantastic voice and was the delight of the faithful during Shavuot.” He remarks specifically on Levy’s recitation of the Seventh Commandment. Cheikh Raymond was equally struck by Levy’s take on this piece of the liturgical tradition and so much so that he pressed him into recording it. Thus on both sides of the 25 cm LP, Levy is accompanied by Cheikh Raymond and Sylvain Ghrennasia, Enrico Macias’ father.

On another thread, “Benj” asked for more information on this record. I have dutifully provided the first six minutes of it below. The spoken introduction offers us a rare and precise time stamp (right before the month of Nisan 5718 - perhaps March 21, 1958). The chanting itself provides us with a precious aural “glimpse” into the world of Jewish Constantine in 1958. Knowing that all of this crumbles but a few years after this record was made makes Levy’s voice seem all the more powerful.

Like all of the other records in my collection, this one traveled. I’m not sure if Henri Levy brought copies of it with him when he landed in Marseille but someone did and then it made its way to me. For me, this record is symbolic of how temporary my hold on this music is. I don’t “own” any of it but happen to have it at this very moment. For now, though, all I can do is share.