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.