Fritna Darmon – Ouh alia el hachmia [Sides 1-2], Columbia, c. 1930

The Tunisian Jewish vocalist Fritna Darmon was a force. She was also a pioneer. Born sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century, she was among the first cohort of artists to record in Tunisia. She and her music were integral, for example, to Gramophone’s 1907 sessions, one of the label’s first such recording expeditions in the region. Over the next few decades, in addition to appearing regularly in concert, she would release dozens of records for Gramophone, Pathé, Odeon, Anker-record, Orient Record, and the Tunisia-based Bembarophone. Darmon’s voice carried well beyond the bounds of Tunisia as well. On March 12, 1930, for example, international music critic Irving Schwerke happened upon one of her records at the shop of the Padova brothers in Paris. Writing in the European edition of the Chicago Daily Tribute, he remarked of one of her Odeon releases that it, “consists of ditties from the land of Tunis, interpreted and sung in Arabian, and in conformity with the best vocal traditions of the country.”[1] The following year, her records could likewise be heard at the Tunisian pavilion of the Colonial Exposition of 1931 at Vincennes.

Her staggering output was split three ways between Egyptian song, ma’luf and especially the related ʿarubi genre, and an emerging repertoire of popular song which began to hold sway during the interwar period. Indeed, Jewish female artists like Darmon served as the driving force behind what became known as ughniyya, which while dismissed by contemporary and later critics as “decadent,” served as an important vehicle to challenge a wide variety of social norms, including gender roles and the place of women.[2]

“Ouh alia el hachmia” (اوه علي الحشمية) recorded by Fritna Darmon for Columbia c. 1930, was very much part and parcel of the ever-expanding and ever-popular ughniyya tradition. The song concerns a very modern relationship about a young man and woman who have suddenly laid eyes on each other: “From the moment I saw him (ritu),” Darmon sings around minute 2.10, “he loved me and I loved him (habitu).”[3] Immediately afterward, she proclaims, “He asked for a kiss and I gave him a hundred.” But, of course, her parents find out. And the lover turns out to have been less than sincere. She promises that such a transgression will not happen again and that she will never leave her room, but the listener assumes otherwise. If “Ouh alia el hachmia” is performed by Fritna Darmon with a wink and a smile, the two brief but stirring instrumental solos at beginning and end are rather serious. Just before she sings “Ya layl” (O night), for example, we are introduced to an improvisation by Khailou Esseghir on the violin and one by Messaoud Habib on the harmonium. Both were considered among the greatest instrumentalists of their generation.

By my estimate, this is only the third Fritna Darmon record––out of the dozens released by her over her lifetime––to be made available again to the public. The route it traced to arrive at my doorstep and now on Gharamophone was a circuitous one. Its improbable preservation, carried, as it was, across seas and oceans in hurried circumstances, speaks to the importance such sound objects held for so many and for so long. We are fortunate to listen to it again thanks to Marco Soria of Milan. His mother Suzette (Perez) Soria, first purchased this record, alongside those of Um Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and their French counterparts, from her native Tunis before transporting her collection to Italy. Some two years ago, I was fortunate enough to have had Mr. Soria contact me and well, the rest is history.

As for the final chapters of Fritna Darmon’s life, that story is being pieced together at present. Thanks to an initial conversation with her great grandson Jesse Emsalem, we now know that while she settled in Paris at mid-twentieth century, she also spent some years living in Sydney, Australia.


Label: Columbia

Title: “Ouh alia el hachmia” (اوه علي الحشمية) [Sides 1-2]

Artist: Fritna Darmon

Issue Number: GF 427, W.L.T. 55; V 45.572 B

Matrix Number: 57418; 5254 BK

Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] Irving Schwerke, “Notes of the Music World,” Chicago Daily Tribute (European edition), March 12, 1930, p. 4.

[2] For more on Tunisian Jewish women and ughniyya, see Christopher Silver, Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2022), Chap. 2; and Ruth F. Davis, “Jews, Women and the Power to be Heard: Charting the Early Tunisian Ughniyya to the Present Day,” in Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, ed. Laudan Nooshin (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 187-206.

[3] This translation is indebted to the careful listening of Leila Ben-Gacem and the extended Ben-Gacem family.

Aroun Haouzi El Baidi – Ana nadi bel ghram [Sides 1-2], Polyphon, 1932

“I am the one who is in love,” Aroun Haouzi El Baidi sang majestically into a microphone in a Constantine recording studio in 1932, “O my desired one.” On this ninety year old recording of “Ana al-ladhi bil-gharam ya saʿfaya” (أَنَا الذِي بَالغْرَامْ يَا سَعْفَايَا), the Aïn Beïda-born Algerian Jewish musician expertly executes an integral song-text of the mahjuz repertoire, itself part of the extended family of Constantine’s classical maluf tradition (and sometimes considered to be an antecedent to it). Literally meaning “restrained,” mahjuz is anything but. As the ethnomusicologist Maya Saïdani has noted, mahjuz is marked by its suggestive sexual themes––so much so that throughout the twentieth century, conservative Constantinois families of means disallowed its performance in their presence.[1] Despite its association with the urban and the city, as well as Constantine’s Jewish vocalists and instrumentalists, mahjuz’s origins point to Algeria’s south. In this way, it is usually marked by the presence of the zurna, the distinctively nasal woodwind instrument that ornaments much of the more rural sound throughout the region. On this recording, however, the zurna has been replaced by a flute. Perhaps, it was an attempt to make it more “palatable” to a crowd of a certain class, much as the violin was sometimes swapped for the mizwid on some Tunisian records of the era. In either case, El Baida’s interpretation of “Ana al-ladhi bil-gharam ya saʿfaya” is a revelation. Much as the artist Aroun Haouzi El Baidi sings of sleepless nights and a fire blazing in his liver (the organ represents a classic motif in Arab poetry and song), the hope is that listeners here are awakened to a similar sensation when it comes to a musician who deserves much more by way of recognition.


Label: Polyphon
Title: “Ana al-ladhi bil-gharam ya saʿfaya” (أَنَا الذِي بَالغْرَامْ يَا سَعْفَايَا) [Sides 1-2]
Artist: Aroun Haouzi el Baidi
Issue Number: V 45.572 A; V 45.572 B
Matrix Number: 5253 BK; 5254 BK
Date of Pressing: 1932

[1] Maya Saïdani, La musique du constantinois : contexte, nature, transmission et definition (Casbah éditions, 2006), 122.

Abraham Arzouane – Eliyahu Hanavi (E’erokh mahalal nivi) [Sides 1 – 2], (Olympia, 1950s)

Whether he knew it or not, Abraham Arzouane was engaged in a monumental archival project at mid-twentieth century to record and preserve the liturgy of Moroccan Jews. Over a series of 78 rpm records made for the Casablanca-based Olympia label, Arzouane captured the sacred sounds of what was then the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. This archive was not constructed alone, of course. Alongside Arzouane, Slomo Souiri, Isaac Loeb, Jo Abergel, Albert Suissa, and a cast of uncredited instrumentalists etched the sonic contours of the synagogue, Sabbath, and festival holidays onto a format then fading into oblivion. Their effort, in fact, extended beyond shellac alone. Arzouane’s mission, for example, was also carried out on and ornamented the musical portion of “La Voix des Communautés,” Radio Maroc’s Jewish broadcast, which ran more or less weekly from 1950 through 1965.

Arzouane likely recorded what is transliterated in French as, “Elia Hou Habani” (“Eliyahu hanavi”) at the same session where he performed “Midam Bessari”  in the early- to mid-1950s. What can be heard on this recording of “Eliyahu hanavi”––captured on reel-to-reel tape before being transferred to disc––is a stirring rendition of the 18th century piyyut (liturgical poem) “Likhvod hemdat levavi” (לכבוד חמדת לבבי), also known as “E’erokh mahalal nivi” (אערוך מהלל ניבי). Like so much of the Moroccan Jewish liturgical repertoire, it was composed by the towering song poet Rabbi David ben Aaron ben Hassin (1727-1797), author of the compilation (diwan) Tehilah le-David (Amsterdam, 1807). In “Likhvod hemdat levavi” (“E’erokh mahalal nivi”), Hassin narrates the story of the Prophet Elijah in an evocative Hebrew. As was typical of such compositions, the lines of the song text are formed from an acrostic which, in this case, spells out: “I am Rabbi David ben Aaron ben Hassin.” In North Africa, as across many places in Middle East, the piyyut heard here was chanted at the close of the Sabbath (Havdalah) and on the occasion of ritual circumcision (Brit milah) for the last two hundred plus years.[1] On this mid-twentieth century recording, then, furnished by Abraham Arzouane in Casablanca, is an echo not only of a particular person and place but of multiple meaningful moments in time which stretch back to the end of the 18th century.

[1] On Rabbi David ben Hassin, see André E. Elbaz and Ephraim Hazan, “Three Unknown ‘Piyyutim’ by David Ben Ḥasin,” AJS Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1995), pp. 87-97.

Label: Olympia
Title: Eliyahu hanavi (Likhvod hemdat levavi, E’erokh mahalal nivi)
Artist: Abraham Arzouane
Issue Number(s): 1071 and 1072
Matrix Number(s): LSP 5441 and LSP 5442
Date of Pressing:
c. 1950s