Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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.