Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dounia, A World: El Kahlaoui Tounsi and His Record Empire

Tunisian lyricist Ridha Khouini once described El Kahlaoui Tounsi as, “the most gifted percussionist of his generation.” Take the A side of this 45 rpm for a spin and you’ll soon see why.

And yet, El Kahlaoui Tounsi was, as music journalist Bouziane Daoudi called him, “a man of many chéchias.” Indeed, the Sidi Mehrez-born Elie Touitou could lay claim to a burgeoning record empire - in addition to a successful recording career - by the time he was in his late 20s.

Traces of El Kahlaoui Tounsi & Dounia in Tunis
Like many Tunisians who came of age in the 1940s, the young Touitou (born in 1932) was captivated by Egyptian music. He not only modeled himself on Egyptian singer Mohamed El Kahlaoui but hitched his own stage name to the already established star. El Kahlaoui Tounsi’s star was rising as well and as a teenager in the late 1940s, he was already drawing the attention of blind Jewish qanunist Kakino de Paz and others. After stints in Paris at venues like the famed El Djazair cabaret in the Latin Quarter, he returned to Tunis where he became a Radio Tunis regular. By 1953, he recorded his first single (Min youm elli ratek aini) - and never looked back. Over the next few years, he would record for a staggering array of labels: Ducretet-Thomson, Teppaz, La Voix Du Globe, Bel-Air, Pathé, and of course, Dounia.

Meaning “world” in Arabic, Dounia was a fairly well-regarded 78 rpm outfit in the 1950s but made a difficult transition to vinyl. In 1960, Tounsi bought the label outright and soon transformed it into an empire. The sheer breadth of artistry and genre of the Dounia catalog is mind-boggling. Dounia at once provided a forum for the likes of Maati Ben Kacem, Cheikh Mohamed El Anka, Oulaya, Fadila Dziria, Cheikha Remitti (and even the Syrian-Egyptian Farid El-Atrash, reportedly a friend) but so too for their recently uprooted and now France-based Jewish colleagues like Lili Boniche, Line Monty, Raoul Journo, Edmond Atlan, Blond Blond, Albert Guez, Réne Perez, Luc Cherki, Cheikh Zekri, Aida Nassim, Albert Perez, and Nathan Cohen. In fact, the importance of El Kahlaoui Tounsi and his Dounia label cannot be overstated. Tounsi and Dounia gave a voice to some of the best North African artists of the twentieth century when few others would.

Being an impresario hardly slowed his own musical career. Throughout the end of the vinyl era, El Kahlaoui Tounsi provided high energy performances on dozens of Dounia LPs and 45s and continued to perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This piece of Djerban folk, which appears to have been recorded around 1976, is one of my favorites. It is hypnotic, full of zukra (otherwise known as zurna), and pairs very well with Celtia (as the album artwork makes clear).
Afterward: On February 15, 2000 (almost exactly fifteen years ago), France’s Liberation newspaper ran the following headline, “Tounsi ne jouera plus de derbouka.” El Kahlaoui Tounsi had died at the all too young age of 67. Tounsi, of course, has been anything but silent in the years since his death. In 2002, the Bataclan concert hall on Boulevard Voltaire, purchased by Tounsi in 1976 and now owned by his sons, honored El Kahlaoui Tounsi and his larger than life musical contribution to both North Africa and France through an evening of song. And for anyone who has ever picked up a CD on the Trésors de la Chanson Judéo-Arabe series on Buda, rest assured that you are hearing El Kahlaoui Tounsi. The contents are pulled almost entirely from the Dounia label.

One final thought: I am posting this entry after a devastating week in Paris. I am still processing and mourning but have found some solace in a turn to El Kahlaoui Tounsi, his record label, and music…music that points to a different dounia, a different world in which Jews and Muslims came together to create an art that stands the test of time.