Laho Seror – “Kam wa-kam ya ʿayni” – Pathé, c. 1907-1912

Eliaou “Laho” Seror was among the first cohort of Algerians to record for the phonograph at the turn of the twentieth century. That his recording career lasted decades, from his first appearance on a set of cylinders made in Algiers in 1905 through sessions which brought him to Berlin in the 1930s, makes it all the more surprising that to date, so few of his records have surfaced. What this means is that while his name has long been invoked among aficionados of Algerian music, his voice itself has been harder to come by since his passing in 1940.

Laho Seror was born in the lower Casbah of Algiers on September 8, 1860 to Moïse Seror and Bellara Seror (née Bensimon). Like all Algerian Jews at the time, Laho, the youngest of the Seror’s three children, was a subject of France rather than a citizen (that would change with the promulgation of the Crémieux Decree a decade later). The young Seror grew up in both an arabophone and Ladino- (or as it was known in Algeria, Tetouani-) speaking family. At some point in the 1880s, or possibly earlier, he apprenticed himself to Shaykh Mohammed Ben Ali Sfindja, the doyen of Andalusian masters in the Algerian capital. Although Sfindja was sixteen years Seror’s senior, the two had much in common. Both were cobblers by trade. Both spent much time in and around a greasy spoon by the name of Maklouf Loubia. And both formed an important relationship with Maklouf’s son Edmond Nathan Yafil, the pioneering figure behind the North African recording industry.[1]

In the earliest years of the twentieth century, Yafil (who we will learn more about in a follow up post) began collaborating with Sfindja, Seror, and an emerging European musicologist by the name of Jules Rouanet in order to render the Andalusian repertoire onto the printed page in the form of sheet music. By 1905, Yafil turned to the technology of the phonograph cylinder to make a series of commercial recordings as part of what he called “Collection Yafil.” Among those featured on the “Collection Yafil” cylinders was Seror.

In addition to his independent recording activities, Yafil represented Pathé, Gramophone, Odeon, and other labels then operating in Algeria. Again, Seror featured prominently. This recording made by Laho Seror for Pathé under the supervision of Yafil is difficult to date but suffice it to say that it has been little heard for a century or so. It appears, for instance, in a 1912 record catalog but its matrix numbers align well with a print publication released by Yafil in 1907. As music historian Ouail Labassi has observed, “Kam wa-kam ʿayni” (How much, my eyes), the side featured here, is a khlas or mkhiles, an integral component of the Andalusian repertoire in that it serves to close a particular suite (in this case, nubat maya).

As with many of the early Pathé releases at the time, there is quite a bit of surface noise on this record. As Jonathan Ward has noted, this owes, in large part, to the labels iconoclasm. Pathé records, for example, were vertically cut, meaning that the music was to be found at the bottom of shallow grooves rather than on the sides of deeper channels (as was more common practice). The label also continued to record initially on cylinders, rather than on master discs, well past the point of their competitors. Still, you might find that if you close your eyes and come to focus on the voice and instrumentation, the surface noise will start to melt away. With a careful ear, you will hear Seror on the kwitra (a type of ʿud), accompanied by Alfred “Sassi” Lebrati on the mandolin. You may also detect Seror repeating the vocables, “ya la la” and “ya la lan,” at once, understood as making reference to al-Andalus itself and at the same time, as a form of copyright. In other words, by omitting some of the words of “Kam wa-kam ʿayni” and replacing them with “ya la la,” the artist could protect a difficult to learn repertoire from imitation by competitors.

From just before the First World War until the eve of the Second World War, Seror also played a foundational role in the ever-expanding world of Algerian musical associations, including Yafil’s El Moutribia (est. 1912) and El Andalousia (est. 1929).[2] In 1914, he also served as artistic director of an early incarnation of the aforementioned El Andalousia, which was then a part of the Young Algerian association El Toufikya.

Seror made his final records in the early 1930s for the Baidaphon label in Berlin. Throughout the end of the interwar period, he remained a regular on stage in Algeria’s principal cities and on Radio Alger. Shaykh Eliaou “Laho” Seror died in 1940 and is buried in Cimetière de St. Eugène in Algiers.

Notes

Label: Pathé

Title: Kam wa-kam ya ʿayni (كم وكم يا عيني)

Artist: Laho Seror

Issue Number: 10.409

Transfer number?: 428

Date of Pressing: c. 1907-1912


[1] Much of the detail for this post is adapted from Chapter 1 of Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2022): Available here and here for North America and here for Europe, MENA, and beyond.

[2] On Algerian musical associations in the early twentieth century, see Silver (2022), Jonathan Glasser (2016), Malcolm Théoleyre (2016), Hadj Miliani (2011), Omar Carlier (2009), and Nadya Bouzar-Kasbadji (1988).

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