Louisa Tounsia – Heukm Ennessouane – Pathé, c. 1930-1931

During Louisa Tounsia’s rise to stardom in the mid-to-late 1920s, the Tunis-born Jewish artist played an instrumental role in carving out a modern Tunisian public. Throughout the interwar period, contemporary newspapers accounts, local observers, and so too those passing through the Tunisian capital and the suburb of La Goulette noted that the concerts of the artist born Louisa Saadoun were different than those of a generation just prior. In a departure from that staging of music, in which smaller audiences were often segregated along socio-economic or gender lines, Louisa Tounsia gathered crowds of both the elite and popular classes, of men and women (sporting a melange of Western and local sartorial styles), and of course, Muslims and Jews. As opposed to the café setting – the domain of so many musicians before her – Louisa Tounsia performed in large venues, filled to capacity, where, as one literary figure remarked, she felt at home among her people. Her fans responded in kind.

Between the wars, Louisa Tounsia’s music, often written by her composer of choice Maurice Benaïs, was heralded in the press and in the literature released by the record labels as a modernist triumph. While much of its modern quality derived from its salaciousness and the fact that it veered considerably from Andalusian music – mixing, as she did, French with Arabic – Tounsia’s songs also gave voice to the modern through their stinging critiques of male-dominated society.[1]

Such was the case with “Heukm Ennessouane,” one of her earliest releases for the Pathé label c. 1930-1931.[2] In the six-minute song, whose title might literally be translated as, “Governing Women,” Tounsia implores her Tunisian “sisters” to seize new opportunities afforded by the current moment while remaining vigilant of men and their desire to govern or control. In fact, Houda Mzioudet, the Tunisian journalist, researcher, translator, and musicophile, who labored diligently on a translation of this record, has suggested that the song’s title could also be understood as, “Empowering Women.” That empowerment, promoted by Louisa Tounsia on the record, was reflected in new forms of socialization in interwar Tunis – including “dancing” the “Charleston” (starting at 1:29 on Side 2).

As with many of Louisa Tounsia’s discs, “Heukm Ennessouane” ends with an exquisite piano solo by Tunisian Jewish pianist Messaoud Habib. Over the course of her career, Habib would accompany her often. But what is most remarkable about Louisa Tounsia – in addition to her choice of subject matter – is the staggering number of records she made for a bevy of labels, including Pathé, Columbia, Polyphon, Baidaphon, Perfectaphone, and Pacific, over a multi-decade career. Given her prolific output and the fact that her music remains so deeply embedded in Tunisian collective memory, curiously little is known about her final years. And yet, if “Heukm Ennessouane” survived passage, other archival documents must have as well. In time, I hope, these too will surface. Until then, the archiving of her music will continue apace.

As already mentioned, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Houda Mzioudet for untangling what proved to be an intricate web of lyrics in “Heukm Ennessouane.” Thanks are also due to Thomas Henry for assistance in dating the record in question.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Heukm Ennessouane
Artist: Louisa Tounsia
Issue Number: X 55269
Pressing Number: N 98915
Date of Pressing: c. 1930-1931

[1] All of this would earn her the ire of cultural conservatives in her own time and for decades to come.

[2] Why this record was labeled “Constantinois” (“Constantine-style”), given that it was crafted by Tunisian artists, is unclear.

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