Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Forget Your Worries: A 1930 Recording of El Moutribia, Algeria's premier Andalusian orchestra

(R) Kespi in Berlin. 1929.
Ok, friends. For the last night of Hanukkah, we’re going to listen to something truly special. This record, in fact, comes from the same catalogue as the Tunisian Hatikvah recording which kicked off this whole "eight North African Youtube rarities in eight nights" adventure.

Until 1930 or so, Algeria’s Andalusian orchestras were overwhelmingly Jewish and its most popular was El Moutribia. El Moutribia was founded by Algerian musical impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil in 1911, later conducted under the direction of Joseph Kespi, and presided over by the one and only Mahieddine Bachtarzi through the interwar period. El Moutribia set the bar for Algerian music for much of the first half of the twentieth century and brought those sounds to neighboring Morocco and Tunisia and to France and Italy via life performances which included dozens of vocalists and instrumentalists - and then to the entire world via disc. These recordings, until recently, have been all but impossible to find.


What better way to end this series, then, with El Moutribia’s performance of "Selli Houmoumek" (Forget your worries) recorded under the direction of "cheb" Joseph Kespi for the Gramophone label on December 19, 1930? As the chorus starts up, try imagining yourself in Algiers' famed National Theater. I think you'll be happy.

One final thought as we round out this series. Perhaps we can find small solace in the fact that this record and the others I’ve been posting have somehow survived for nearly a century despite the odds (time + war + dislocation + transport across continents…and the list goes on). These discs serve as reminders of what once was and what was once possible. If we can “forget our worries” or our fears for just a moment, maybe we can start making music again together.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Between Yesterday and Today: Petit Armand and the performance of North African music in Israel

When I first began to get drawn into the world of North African Jewish musicians, I often wondered (sometimes aloud) about the fate of Arabic-singing musicians in Israel. For the second to last night of Hanukkah, we listen to the sounds of one of those musicians: Petit Armand.

Petit Armand, sometimes referred to as Ptti Armo, Ptti Armon, or even Patti Armo, was born Armand (Amram) Peretz in Casablanca (?), Morocco in 1936. He began singing seriously at the age of 18, joining up with famed Jewish qanunist Salim Azra and performing at the still stately movie theaters of Casablanca at mid-century. Although it's unclear if he recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he certainly made a name for himself both in the Maghrib and in France as he toured some of the larger venues at home and abroad. In 1967, Petit Armand, like many Moroccan Jews, made the move to Israel.

Petit Armand was a specialist of Salim Halali’s repertoire. This was not uncommon for his generation of vocalist. Not only did Petit Armand give close study to Halali but so too to Samy Elmaghribi, and other greats of the Maghrib. The result was often a Maghribi musical intertextuality that leaves the listener grinning from ear to ear. Take a listen to Petit Armand’s “l’Oriental,” recorded for the Azoulay brothers in 1970. Here Petit Armand gives us a beautiful take on the song originally written by Youcef Hedjaj, recorded famously by Line Monty and later by almost everyone - from Lili Labassi to Enrico Macias. And then, at the eight-minute mark, Petit Armand launches into Spanish and a Spanish-inflected mawwal, dips into Salim Halali’s "Sevillana" and "Rit ezzine" before dazzling us with one more pass at l’Oriental.

I want to also include a live performance of Petit Armand so that you can see the man in action. Here he is in Israel doing a killer cover of another Salim Halali hit: “Bin el barah ouel youm.”

Finally, for those who weren’t aware, Petit Armand also happens to be the father of Kobi Peretz, mainstay of the Mizrahi scene. Last year, the two did a very musika mizrahit take on Samy Elmaghribi’s “Omri ma nensak.”

Friday, December 11, 2015

From Secular to Sacred: Rabbi David Buzaglo, Samy Elmaghribi, & Paul Bowles' 1959 Field Recordings

The blurring of secular and sacred lines that was North African music in the twentieth century is an absolute delight. Melodies intended for coffee shops and cabarets soon made their way into religious spaces. For the sixth night of Hannukah, we’ll dig into that phenomenon in the form of a wonderfully scandalous song that was soon adopted for synagogue use.

In 1959, American author and composer Paul Bowles made a series of field recordings in Morocco for the Library of Congress. Below, you’ll find a recording he made in the Benamara synagogue in Meknes in December of that year. Bowles set out to capture what he called “the musical antique shop” of Jewish liturgical music - in theory, a timeless, ancient tradition. What he found (unbeknownst to him) was the early twentieth century liturgical poetry of Rabbi David Buzaglo, in this case, "El hay ram gadol," set to the early 1950s tune of Samy Elmaghribi’s “Qaftanec mahloul” (Your robe is open, my lady). Again, unwillingly, Bowles managed to capture on disc the swiftness that Moroccan secular music was adapted for synagogue use.

First, take a listen to Bowles’ 1959 recording of El Hay Ram Gadol in Meknes:

Next, listen to Algerian artist Blond Blond’s cover of Samy Elmaghribi's "Qaftanec mahloul." As you’ll note, the two pieces employ the same melody - with Blond Blond speeding things up just a tad. Toggle back and forth and you’ll be quite happy.

You can hear more of this blurring on the excellent “Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews” (edited by Edwin Seroussi, with the assistance of Rabbi Meir Atiya - the men who first brought all of this to our attention) put out by Rounder records in 2000. Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Who was Smarda el Olgia? A microhistorical account of Rachel Hayat and her 1935 recordings

A year and half ago, our friend Thomas at the Ceints de bakélite blog put up an exquisite piece of malouf music by a seemingly unknown Tunisian artist by the name of Smarda el Olgia. After a bit of digging around my own collection, some sorting through archives, and a turn to some published sources, we can begin to piece together a few biographical details for Smarda el Olgia - as well as the circumstances that led to this recording.

Rachel Hayat (Sitbon)
Smarda el Olgia was born Rachel Sitbon in Tunis in 1892. She married Israel-Eugene Hayat and thus became known as Mrs. Rachel Hayat (Sitbon). In addition to being a fixture of Tunisian Jewish high society, presiding over a number of charitable organizations, she was also very well regarded among practitioners of the eastern Algerian and Tunisian classical Andalusian tradition known as malouf.

Throughout the end of the 1920s and the 1930s, patrimony became the watchword across the Maghrib. In large part it was fear of Egyptian music’s popularity that caused French colonial figures and indigenous musical impresarios to leap into action. Thus, institutions dedicated to safeguarding Andalusian music in all of its local forms, as well as committed to protecting Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian musical traditions more broadly constructed, were established. One thinks of the erection of the conservatory in Rabat, the formation of orchestras like El Djazairia in Algeria, and of course, the emergence of La Rachidia in Tunis in 1934. As part of this effort, Emile Gau, Director General of Public Instruction and Beaux-Arts in Tunisia, concerned that the suites associated with malouf were in danger of being lost (a common trope and no doubt influenced by the work of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger and La Rachidia), commissioned Rachel Hayat to make a series of malouf recordings in Paris in order to preserve Tunisian heritage in perpetuity (take a close look at the label and you’ll see much of this background come alive). And in September 1935, Rachel Hayat (Sitbon), under the name Smarda el Olgia (Smarda or Zmarda was a common Tunisian Jewish name), performed that task beautifully - recording this and dozen or so other records.

P.S. There is always a bit of serendipity in writing these posts. In the course of putting this one together, I discovered that Rachel Hayat’s daughter may have lived in Los Angeles for much of her life - and even been involved in a bit of a Hollywood-esque scandal. I’m still gathering details but will keep everyone posted. Hag Sameah!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name: La Jeune Ouarda (Warda) sings "Ya Oummi"

For the fourth night of Hannukah, I bring you the earliest recording of the classic, "Ya Oummi." 

Like their Ashkenazi counterparts, North African Jewish musicians sang songs to honor their mothers. "Ya Oummi" (Dear Mama), written, composed, and eventually recorded by Tunisian-born Youcef Hedjaj (aka José de Suza), was one of those songs. While Algerian Jewish chanteuse Line Monty is most closely associated with Ya Oummi - and indeed, her version is stunning, she was not the first woman to record it.

That distinction went to a young, up-and-coming Muslim vocalist who then went by the stage name of la jeune Ouarda (al-fattat Ouarda). Yes, before she went from Ouarda to Warda, before she appended al Jazairia (the Algerian) to her name, and before she left Algeria and married Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, la jeune Ouarda committed a beautiful version of Youcef Hedjaj’s Ya Oummi to record. For those who know the stately Warda, I think you'll be blown away by her teenage self.

You can compare to Line Monty's iconic take here:

And you can hear Youcef Hedjaj not only singing Ya Oummi here but also providing us with the details of just how popular the song was (in French).

Since that time we have been blessed with a number of remarkable covers, including this by young Israeli Moroccan artist Neta Elkayam (with exquisite piano by Amit Hai Cohen).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Banned! Tracing the Journey of a Lili Labassi Disc from Release to Censorship in the late 1930s

As the third night of Hanukkah approaches, I bring you one of my favorite records from Algeria (a disc which happened to enjoy a tremendous amount of success in Morocco - as you'll soon see).

We begin again with a question and a mystery. Did Lili Labassi, among the most popular of interwar Algerian recording stars, sing clandestinely about Moroccan political exile Allal El Fassi on his now difficult to find “Lellah yal ghadi lessahra” (O you, who is going to the Sahara)? According to French colonial authorities in late 1930s and early 1940s Morocco, he most certainly did. As a result, his Polyphon disc (issue number 46.117) was subjected to repeated ban throughout the Cherifian Empire in 1938, 1939, and 1940. To the French, his lyrics read as nothing less than subversive…and served as nothing less than a reminder to Moroccans to keep Allal El Fassi in their hearts. He was after, “still alive” (mazal hay mazal):

“O you who is going to the land of the gazelles!
If you find my love (ghazal/gazelle)
Tell him: He’s.. he’s still alive (mazal hay mazal)
No one can replace him in my heart…”

Lili Labassi re-release on Philips
But to most Moroccans at the time, the ambiguous “he” was heard as “she” - as is common in much of North African music (think: male singers longing for their habibi and not habibti). Thus, “he’s still alive,” was understood as “she’s still alive” (mazal hay mazal) and no one could replace “her in my heart.” In fact, in the massive search and seizure efforts undertaken by the French to find the Labassi disc, police discovered the record time and again in the brothels of cities like Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Agadir. Why? Because Labassi’s “O you who is going to the Sahara,” was a love song (and seemingly a song to make love to as well).

Almost eighty years since its first ban, Labassi’s original is hard to come by. Despite the fact that it was released again on Polydor/Polyphon and also on Phillips, few copies remain. What we do have, however, is a version of “O you who is going to the Sahara” recorded by the inimitable Blond Blond, Lili Labassi’s musical disciple, which as you’ll hear, is fantastic, pulsing, and damn-near danceable.

One question remains, of course. Did Lili Labassi know that any of this was happening? Well, take a listen to his similar “Mazal haï mazal” (She’s still alive), released on the Pacific label in the 1950s and recently uploaded by Jon Ward on Excavated Shellac. Mazal haï mazal contains many of the same elements of “Lellah yal ghadi lessahra” although this version seems to lay any fears of political subversion to rest.

What is clear, however, is that Labassi’s song, first released in the mid-1930s, retained its popularity through the 1950s and some might argue until today.

Blond Blond performs Lellah yal ghadi lessahra live. Note: song is listed as "mazal hay mazal."

Monday, December 7, 2015

"If You Ain't Got No Money": Louisa Tounsia sings about marriage

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to be putting up one of my favorite North African rarities from Youtube once a day for the duration of Hanukkah. As we enter evening two of the holiday, we’re going to stick with Tunisia.

This mid-1930s Louisa Tounsia release on Polyphon should remind us that North African music was more than just malouf or other variations of the Andalusian classical suite (although these traditions were and are no doubt incredibly important). Part and parcel of the repertoire of the Maghrib’s Jewish (and Muslim) musicians were popular songs on topical subjects. Written by Maurice Benäis, Tunisian Jewish vocalist, lyrcist, and orchestral leader extraordinaire, and performed by Louisa Tounsia, "Ma fiche flous" (literally, “there is no money,” but loosely translated by me as, “If you ain’t got no money”) in many ways narrates the changing status of women in early twentieth century Tunisia. In "Ma fiche flous," Tounsia gets to decide who she’s going to make her husband and as she says in the chorus, “If you ain’t got no money, then we ain’t got words, honey.” But for the man who can provide, Tounsia reminds, he may have more than a few options (“If you got nice threads, then you got yourself your choice of beds.”).

Louisa Tounsia with gargoulette
Louisa Tounsia was born Louisa Saadoun in 1905 in Tunis. She had a prolific career and recorded for the likes of Gramophone, Columbia, Polyphon, Perfectaphone Baidaphon, Pacific, and Ducretet-Thomson. Her repertoire was equally varied, recording taalil (with Raoul Journo), tango, and yes, a song about heroin. She performed across North Africa and France at the hottest North African cabarets throughout the 1930s and after the war. She was married to the equally impressive Tunisian lyricist Zaki Khraïf. The circumstances of her death have always been unclear to me, having died rather suddenly at the age of sixty-one. If anyone has more information about the final years of her life, please do reach out.

In the meantime, her legacy lives on. Emel Mathlouthi, the singer of the recent Tunisian revolution, has taken to singing Louisa Tounsia’s Ala bab darek on a number of occasions.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hatikvah in Tunis: A Rare 1930s Recording Surfaces

Mea culpa. I’ve been slow on posts this year. To make up for this absence, I’m going to use Hanukkah as an excuse to shine a light on some of my favorite North African recordings on Youtube. In the spirit of the holiday, I’ll be posting once a day for all eight days of Hanukkah. Why am I turning to Youtube? Well, buried on the video sharing site are some real musical gems that don’t always get the circulation and attention they deserve due to either creative orthography or because titles are written in Arabic or Hebrew. Indeed, each one of these records on Youtube has a story and over the next week or so I’ll be teasing that out and putting them in their historical context. I’ll try to keep these posts short and really place a spotlight on the music.

Perhaps we should start with a question: What did Hatikvah, the Zionist hymn-turned-official anthem of Israel, sound like in Tunisia circa 1932? Well, thanks to this impossibly rare Gramophone recording from Tunis by a Mr. Cohen, we know that it was pretty rocking.

You can compare it to this Alma Gluck (soprano) and Efrem Zimbalist (violin) version, recorded in 1918 for Victor, which I imagine many of my readers will be far more familiar with.

Courtesy of

In the last few years, I have by and large written about North African Jews who recorded in Arabic but we should not forget that a plethora of languages were committed to disc in the Maghrib - including Hebrew. In terms of their Hebrew output, North African Jews not only released liturgical music on the major labels but so too, comic songs, and as we’ve already heard, Hatikva (meaning “hope” in Hebrew and also the name of the Zionist anthem). In addition to Mr. Cohen’s version (which you’ve now hopefully played multiple times), Babi Bismuth and Messaoud Habib, two of the biggest Tunisian stars of their generation, released their take on the original 1897 nine-stanza poem by Naftali Herz Imber in 1926 for Pathé.

What is remarkable about all of this is just how uncontroversial the release of Hatikvah in North Africa was at the beginning of the twentieth century. First, Hatikvah, which obviously pre-dated the founding of Israel and thus carried different connotations, could be heard in Tunisia for some time. We even have accounts of mixed Muslim-Jewish orchestras performing it in places like Sousse as early as 1917. Second, the recording industry across the Maghrib was used to handling this kind of musical diversity. In the 1932 Gramophone record catalogue for Algeria and Tunisia, then under the direction of Mahieddine Bachtarzi, we find the artist Louisa al-Israiliyya (Louisa “the Jewess,” and listed in later catalogues as Louisa al-Djaziriyya or Louisa l’Algérienne), who was described as the most “respected maalema” in Algeria, while Mr. Cohen’s Hatikvah appears on the same page as recordings by the Soulamia sufi brotherhood of Nabeul and Mohamed Triki’s al-Islamiyya orchestra (also known as La Musulmane), which had just released their recording of another anthem - the Beylical hymn.

In far more recent years, there have been calls in Israel to make the current, shorter version of Hatikvah inclusive of all of the state’s citizens. One wonders if setting it to the rhythms, instrumentals, and vocal flairs of Mr. Cohen’s version from Tunisia might be (at least) a step in the right musical direction.