Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating Life: Saoud l'Oranais, Algerian Music-Making, Yom Kippur, and Eid al-Kabir

Box labeled "Saoud l'Oranais" and filled with Algerian 78s
On Monday July 13, I left a blisteringly hot Marseille bound for Montpellier. I was heading there to meet a Mr. Sultan about a collection of “oriental” records he was looking to part with. Upon arrival at Mr. Sultan’s apartment, a friendly-faced nonagenarian greeted me, welcomed me in, and poured me a much-needed glass of water. He pointed me to a table on which sat a small box and a plastic bag, both dangerously packed with Algerian 78 rpm records, and we began to talk. Mr. Sultan, originally from Oran, was in the process of moving into a retirement home, he told me. His children were uninterested in the ancient discs and so he was looking to give (sell) them to a good home - someone who appreciated their value. The records in his collection were his father’s - a man, who judging by the condition of these records and confirmed by Mr. Sultan, was serious about his music. As he spoke, I carefully pulled out record after record for inspection. Most were in their original Pathé and Polyphon sleeves and most reflective of an Oranais musical sensibility. Among the lot was Lili Labassi, Cheikh Zouzou, and of course, Saoud l’Oranais. It was the latter, Mr. Sultan made clear, that his father was particularly fond of. Indeed, the box in which all of the records had sat for way too long contained a single mark designating its contents: on the cover Mr. Sultan or his father had written “Saoud l’Oranais” in a now-faded blue ink. I closed the box, reorganized some of the other discs, gently packed them into a record bag, and bid Mr. Sultan farewell - likely for the first and last time. My heart raced the whole train ride home knowing what was inside my bag.

Since that fateful encounter with Mr. Sultan, I have been thinking much about Saoud l’Oranais. I have of lately been writing about the way in which the Second World War collided with North Africa and North African music-making and no such story is complete without mention of Saoud l’Oranais. But his life was much more than his end and I want to first sketch out the details of that rather remarkable existence before doubling back to how it was cut short and why I’m posting this now.

Saoud l'Oranais, Baidaphon, 1935
Saoud l’Oranais was born Messaoud El Médioni in 1886 in Oran. He came from a long line of musical Medionis and it appears that he first recorded for Pathé at the age of 26 (the first mention of Saoud l’Oranais is in a Pathéphone catalogue from 1912). To give you a sense of that early Algerian recording world he inhabited, that same 1912 record catalogue featured Ed. Yafil (Edmond Nathan Yafil) singing and Mouzino described as “éleve de Sfindja” - a student of the great Andalusi master who still needed to be listed according to his lineage. Throughout the 1910s and through the 1930s, Saoud performed regularly with El Moutribia, Algeria’s premier indigenous (and most Jewish) orchestra. He was first bestowed the title of cheikh sometime in the early-1920s and by the end of that decade, he served as President of the Société de Chant in Oran. He collaborated with José Huertas while in Oran and also served as the director of the Mouloudia, Oran’s premier “oriental music” society. Saoud was happy to bring his children into the music business and recorded with his son Henri and managed to have his son Georgeot record for Parlophone at the age of 12. His most famous musical descendent, his nephew Maurice El Medioni, is of course, still very much alive and remarkably, still performing.  
Sadia Bendenoun (student of Saoud)

 Among his many accomplishments were his musical protégés. Indeed, he took a chance on a blind Jewish girl by the name of Sultanta Daoud and soon turned her into Reinette l’Oranais. On Reinette’s earliest recordings, the announcer would belt out, “Istwanat Polyphon…Reina…éleve de Saoud.” The “éleve de Saoud” brand was a powerful one and would be attached to a number of musicians throughout the 1930s.

Saoud recorded prolifically. His music could be found on Pathé, Polyphon, Parlophone, HMV, Philips, and Baidaphon. His range was rather remarkable as well. He sang gharnati, hawzi - as well as lighter songs about Oran’s championship soccer team. When he wasn’t singing, he managed his own bar, Café Saoud, in the Derb, Oran’s Jewish quarter.

Sometime in the second half of the 1930s, Saoud made his home in Marseille. This was likely done out of opportunity more than anything else. Indeed, Saoud would join a steady flow of North African Jewish and Muslim musicians who made the metropole their base in the 1930s. Like in Oran, Saoud operated a café in his newly adopted city.
And then in June of 1940, Saoud suddenly found himself behind enemy lines. The German occupation of northern France had ushered in the rise of a collaborationist regime, known as Vichy, based in the country’s southern half and including Marseille. From here things get murky. What life was like for Saoud and his family during those years is unknown although surely it was terrifying. Then, on the evening of January 22, 1943, but a few months since Operation Torch and after a massive roundup of Jews in Marseille, the Germans deported Saoud, his son, and too many others to Drancy, the internment camp just outside of Paris. From there, Cheikh Saoud l’Oranais, now once again Messaoud El Médioni - for few would have recognized him, was sent to the Nazi death camp at Sobibor. On March 23, 1943, Saoud and his son Joseph, age 13, were murdered.
In some ways, it is easier to dwell on his death than on his exceptional life. His recordings, although once everywhere, have become scarce. Thus, I’m posting something from the recently acquired Sultan collection so that we may honor that life. Given that it is both Yom Kippur and Eid (at the time of writing), I thought his “Idd El Kebir (Eid al-Kabir)” recorded in the late 1920s for Pathé was more than appropriate. Let us remember that this recording comes from a time when North African Jewish musicians like Laho Seror and Mouzino performed at mosque dedication ceremonies, when Ramadan evenings were spent at the casbah cafes and music venues of Jewish performers like Sassi Lebrati, and when Jews like Saoud l’Oranais sang about Muslim holidays like Eid al-Kabir.
May Saoud’s memory be for a blessing and may that blessing carry us through this next year.