Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Friday, April 3, 2015

Of Tunisian Jewish Saints, Stambeli, and Wedding Singers: Remembering Doukha

Undated photo of Doukha.
Found at the bottom of many of the articles on the victims of the Paris kosher supermarket attack last January, was a notice that Yohan Cohen’s maternal grandfather was none other than the popular Tunisian singer Doukha, who had himself died just a month prior in Netanya, Israel. Little more than a mention was given to the multitalented artist, whose given name was Mordekhai Haddad, so I thought I would pay tribute to him here with the few details that I could find.

Undated newspaper clipping of Doukha.
Mordekhai Haddad was born sometime in the first third of the twentieth century in Tunis. Like many Tunisians of the era, Haddad was reared on equal parts Farid al-Atrash and Raoul Journo and eventually joined the latter’s orchestra as a percussionist, specializing in the tar and the darbouka. As a vocalist, Doukha (likely a diminutive of Mordekhai), as he soon became known, was adept at a range of styles: from Tunisian popular music (including the trance inducing stambeli you’ll hear below) and religious song (including for the various anthems associated with pilgrimages to tombs of Jewish saints and the genre of thalil). In the 1950s and through the 1960s, Doukha recorded for at least two Tunisian record labels: En Nour and Studio Sonor. Studio Sonor was founded by Victor Uzan and was based at 6 Rue d’Athenes in Tunis, just northeast of the medina. The label put out a number of what it called “Judeo-Tunisian folkloric” discs including those by Doukha and Nathan Cohen. Doukha and Cohen were frequent collaborators, would often trade off lead vocals under the direction of Clement Hayoun, and worked as a quintet with two other unnamed artists. If anyone has any more information on the other two, please do send my way and I’ll add.

A rare photo of Studio Sonor in Tunis.
Below are both sides of a Doukha EP released for En Nour around 1960. You will get a sense not only of his breadth of musical knowledge here but of his very palpable energy. The A side is “Ana nzourek bel farha kouia (I visit you with great joy),” and is an ode to al-Sayyed Rabbi Yossef El Maarabi of Gabès. El Maarab, as he is often referred to, was a Moroccan-born disciple of the sixteenth century Safed-based kabbalist Rabbi Isaac and Luria. What I dig about this track is that it seems to straddle that sacred-popular line that I have recently been transfixed with. In other words, this is a devotional song that makes you want to dance to the beat.

UPDATE (5/20/2015): Last month I wrote that this track "seems to straddle that sacred-popular line." I was listening to some Raoul Journo the other day and then it dawned on me: "Ana nzourek bel farha koui" has the same melody as his "Ana Targui (I'm a Touareg)." I was blown away. Check it out!

Raoul Journo Ana Targui Weld Ettarguia by Artiste-Tunisien

The second track, “Ghita et Fezzani,” is led by Clement Hayoun. It is a variant of stambeli, the trance inducing music that often comes with mizwid (North African bagpipe) and zukra (horn), which I have written about recently. I think you’re gonna enjoy this one as well.

It seems that for much of his career, Doukha was the wedding, Bar Mitzvah, and other event singer of Tunis’ Jewish community. I searched the internet far and wide for memories of Doukha (in multiple languages) but could find only a few scattered ones on the various message boards of the Tunisian Jewish diaspora. Hopefully this post will make the rounds and we can bring more of Doukha to the fore.

One almost final note. I’m going to be doing a fair bit of traveling over the next few months and through the summer (Boston, Spain, Israel, Poland, France - to name but a few) and will be bringing records with me. If you want to put together a night of North African vinyl, shoot me an email and we’ll see if we can make something happen.

Finally, Chag Sameach and Happy Passover!


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