Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chanting Kol Nidre in Tunis: The Sounds of Yom Kippur from a Half Century Ago

On the subject of the Yom Kippur chant “Kol Nidre,” a Tunisian record sleeve from the 1960s reads, “Every Jew must listen to it with feeling.” As Yom Kippur is upon us and now that I have digitized Nathan Cohen’s “Kol Nidre,” I invite all readers of this blog to do the same.

There seems to be something novel about a Tunisian record label – “En Nour” – remarking on “Kol Nidre” (meaning “All my vows), reminding Jews to listen to the solemn chant, and distributing such a record in the heart of Tunis and other cities. But let us recall that as late as the mid-late 1960s, this was, in many ways, par for the course. When this recording was made, for instance, Jewish musicians Acher Mizrahi, artist-composer-cantor, and Raoul Journo, among the pioneers of modern Tunisian song, were still living in Tunisia.

Nathan Cohen, credited on the record, has appeared before on this blog. Four years ago I posted his stunning Arabic rendition of Had Gadya. Cohen, we recall, was also a frequent collaborator of the Benghazi-born Tunisian artist Doukha, who passed away in December 2014 and who I wrote about in April 2015. Together the two formed part of the Tunis-based “cinq chanteurs” (the five singers), which included the musician Clement Hayoun. (On a quick side note, Doukha’s family is posting some incredible black and white and sepia-toned photos from his early career on his Facebook page. I strongly encourage you to check out.)

Nathan Cohen’s “Kol Nidre” intrigues for many reasons. First, it constitutes a rare glimpse into the sonic world of Tunisian Jewish religious life in the 1960s. Second, it seems that the main chanter on this recording is not Nathan Cohen but another artist – or  rabbi or cantor or combination of all three. Cohen, it should be noted, does respond throughout the recording and in doing so, adds a certain spirituality to an already intensely spiritual chant. Third, we are treated to instrumental accompaniment on music that normally would not receive such treatment. Fourth and finally, this version of “Kol Nidre” helps shine a light on the “En Nour” record label on which it was released and which seems to have specialized in Tunisian Jewish music throughout the early independence period.

There is more to say but for now I leave you with a taste of what Tunis sounded like more than half a century ago on the eve of Yom Kippur. Wishing everyone a good holiday, an easy fast, and a better year.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tickling the Ivory in Tunisia: Messaoud Habib and the 1928 Columbia Records Sessions

(L-R, Messaoud Habib, Dalila Taliyana, Acher Mizrahi, Paris c. 1930)
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the name Messaoud Habib was synonymous with Tunisian music. Indeed, Messaoud Habib, described in his day as “the greatest North African pianist,” maps fascinatingly onto the history of Tunisian music from his debut in the 1920s through the end of his career in the 1950s. Proficient in piano, organ, and harmonium, Habib’s career would begin at a moment when that brand of Western instrument was on the ascendant and end with the re-entry of the qanun into Tunisian music.

Messaoud Habib on player piano scroll. Released by the Bembaron firm.
Messaoud Habib was nothing if not prolific. Pick up any Tunisian record with piano in the first half of the twentieth century and you’ll find the Jewish artist tickling the ivory. His dexterity served him well at a moment of expanding musical tastes across the Maghrib. Thus Habib was equally comfortable serving as head of the Beylical orchestra as he was accompanying the artist Babi Bismuth on a series of Jewish paraliturgical recordings made for Pathé in the 1920s. To give you but a sense of his scope: Messaoud Habib recorded nearly every musical genre of the era - from tango to ghaita - on nearly every label of the time – including Pathé, Columbia, Polyphon, Odeon, and the local Bembaron label – with every major Tunisian recording star of the day – from Habiba Messika to Khailou Esseghir to Bachir Fahmy.

Habib, in fact, was not just an instrumentalist, but so too an impresario. During the interwar period, the pianist served as artistic director for Pathé in Tunisia along with his coreligionist and orchestral leader Kiki Attal. Being the visionary that he was, Habib was also responsible for discovering a young Raoul Journo – before rushing him into Bembaron to record his first sides – recordings long lost to time.

That it is difficult to find Messaoud Habib records is a given. This, of course, often means that he’s forgotten or overlooked. But as you’ll hear on this Columbia side, an unmetered improvisation, a taqsim recorded 88 years ago this month in a rather cavernous space in Tunis, Messaoud Habib deserves our attention. Messaoud Habib should be written back into the music history of the region and remembered as he was nearly a century ago: as (one of) the greatest of North African pianists.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Album Artwork of North African Passover LPs

Pulled a few Maghribi Passover albums from my collection in advance of the Passover holiday. More music coming this spring. Chag Sameach!