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Louisa – Ya Manna – Parlophone, c. 1930

In 1931, Gramophone described Louisa al-Israïliyya (Louisa the Jewess) as “the most famous ‘méââlma’ in Algeria.”[1] Given her fame, Parlophone could refer to her in their catalogue simply as Louisa. Her mononym provided more than enough recognition to sell their records. That Louisa, sometimes also known as Louisa al-Dziriyya (Louisa the Algeroise), was among the biggest names of her era is clear from what can be pieced together from the historical record. Given her renown, it is all the more curious that Louisa has been almost completely forgotten.

Beginning as early as the mid-1920s, Louisa appeared alongside Mahieddine Bachetarzi, Sassi, the pianist Mimoun, and Yamina bint al-Hajj al-Mahdi (the other great muʿalima) in concert and on radio. Among those giants, she could hold her own. Algerian newspapers reported as much about Louisa, who was, in addition, one of the few artists of the era to be explicitly referred to as Jewish. At the same time, reporters never neglected to mention that despite her French citizenship, “the Jewish star” (la vedette israélite), as she was called, was nonetheless “a native.” That indigeneity was evidenced by the fact that Louisa performed (almost) exclusively in Arabic and so too, that she was a staple of the largest Ramadan celebrations of the interwar period.

Louisa recorded the song Ya Manna (O object of my desires) in 1930 for Lili Labassi’s Parlophone label. In fact, the voice introducing the record is none other than that of Labassi himself. The Parlophone catalogue declared that, “her ‘Ya Manna’ will be a triumph.” Indeed, it was. The Tunisian song, part of the wedding repertoire, would henceforth be covered by Meriam Fekkaï, another major Algerian artist, while near contemporaneous versions by Tunisian musicians Bichi Slama and Fadhila Khetmi were released as well. Decades later, its most famous version would be performed by Naâma, one of the greats to emerge right around Tunisian independence in 1956.

Notes
Label: Parlophone
Title: Ya Manna
Artist: Louisa
Issue Number: 46.764
Matrix Number: 114521 [Side 1] and 114522 [Side 2]
Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] Or muʿalima, meaning “master” and in this case, “master musician.”

Joamar Elmaghribi – Istikhbar Sahli & Rani Nestana Fik – Philips, c. 1954-1956

Just prior to Moroccan independence in 1956, a Jewish vocalist by the stage name of Joamar Elmaghribi recorded at least seven records––six in Arabic and one in Hebrew––for the Philips label in Morocco. Approximately a decade later and now resident in Israel, Jo Amar, the internationally acclaimed artist, would hold the honor of being the first Moroccan to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Of course, before the world knew him as Jo Amar, Moroccans had known him as Joamar Elmaghribi. Unfortunately, the remarkable journey of Jo Amar has been mostly unmoored from its Moroccan point of origin. But it was there, in the Maghrib, that Amar first got his musical bearings, developed his signature voice, and launched his career in the recording industry. At Philips, he joined other Moroccan Jewish artists including the veteran Zohra El Fassia (a major influence on Amar) and the relative newcomer Lili Mamane El Maghribi.

Jo Amar - Rani Nestana Fik - Philips

Like almost all of Amar’s earliest recordings, Rani Nestana Fik (I’m waiting for you), released on Philips sometime between 1954 and 1956, was animated by the virtuosic Moroccan Jewish accordionist “Sam.”[1] In similar fashion, Jo Amar’s rather unique take on the mawwal, his signature vocal melissma with a Spanish lilt which would pepper his later Hebrew-language hits like Shir hasShikor (The Drunkard’s Song), emerged in Morocco before migrating with him to Israel.


Finally, it should be noted that Amar continued to record a variety of Moroccan and Algerian music on 78 rpm in Israel under the name Joamar Elmaghribi (usually rendered Joe Amar Moghrabi) for the label initially known as Sacchiphon, soon after R. Zaky, and eventually Zakiphon. Among the first Joamar Elmaghribi records either re-recorded for or re-released by Zakiphon for the burgeoning Moroccan population was appropriately Rani Nestana Fik. Much as he was waiting for his audience, his audience was waiting for him.

Notes
Label: Philips
Titles: Istikhbar Sahli [Side 1] and Rani Nestana Fik [Side 2]
Artist: Joamar Elmaghribi [Jo Amar]
Issue Number: 78.125 H
Matrix Number: 243-A [Side 1] and 244-B [Side 2]
Date of Pressing: c. 1954-1956

[1] One has to wonder whether the accordionist Sam is perhaps Sami Amar, Jo Amar’s brother.

Zohra El Fassia – Mayli Sadr Hnine – Pathé, c. 1956

Among the many North African musical forms recorded by Zohra El Fassia, her interpretations of Algerian hawzi (or haouzi) stand out. Her “Mayli Sadr Hnine,” recorded c. 1956 for Pathé and complete with accordion accompaniment, is no exception.

Zohra El Fassia was born Zohra Hamou to a Jewish family in Sefrou in 1905. Soon thereafter, the Hamou’s moved to Fez (or Fas) from whence her stage name of “El Fassia” derives. Her father, a butcher by trade and a paytan[1] by pleasure, provided her with early musical training. First recognized for her talent as a teenager, she started recorded in the 1930s and would continue to do so in Morocco through the late 1950s. By mid-century, she found herself in Casablanca, like so many musicians of the time.

“Mayli Sadr Hnine,” a song text in colloquial Arabic––like the rest of the hawzi repertoire, has long been held in high regard by a range of Algerian recording artists from Tlemcen but so too their Moroccan Jewish analogues like El Fassia. While the Tlemencis Larbi Bensari and Elie Bensaid had already recorded the song in the late 1920s, it appears that Zohra El Fassia may have been the first Moroccan woman to record it, even if decades later.

It should also be mentioned that there is a rather wonderful surprise at the end of this recording. Just as the song finishes on the second side, an eager Pathé employee or perhaps a member of Zohra El Fassia’s entourage can be heard swinging open a door.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Mayli Sadr Hnine
Artist: Zohra El Fassia
Issue Number: PV 549
Matrix Number: CPT 12.183 – M3-179133
Date of Pressing: c. 1956

[1] A paytan is a singer of piyyut or Hebrew liturgical poetry.

Sassi – Tchambar Sika – Parlophone, c. 1930

Alfred or Fredj “Sassi” Lebrati was many things: an Algerian Jew born to Meyer Lebrati and Rebecca Chemla in 1885, a shoemaker in the early twentieth century, and an entrepreneur who opened a lively café in Algiers during the interwar period.[1] But Lebrati, the musician who became known simply as “Sassi,” was also the greatest North African mandolinist of the twentieth century. Indeed, Sassi, born in Constantine but raised in Algiers, was not only the most accomplished mandolin player of his generation––almost always described as a virtuoso––but among the most prolific recording artists of his era.

Sassi’s rise to musical prominence owed much to the musical incubator that was the lower Casbah of Algiers at the turn of the last century. The streets of Bab El Oued, Socgemah, and de la Lyre––where Sassi lived, worked, and made music––were occupied by the likes of record impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil and the mostly Jewish members of El Moutribia, Algeria’s first Andalusian orchestra and association.

Sassi’s recording career began early––in 1912 at the latest. And over the next three decades, he would record dozens of records for Pathé, Gramophone, Columbia, and Parlophone. To put it lightly, his repertoire was varied. This included almost all of the genres and sub-genres associated with the classical Andalusian repertoires of Algeria’s major cities but so too Hebrew paraliturgical music. He also dabbled in the popular.

Parlophone first started recording in Algeria in 1930. This record dates from those early and wide-ranging sessions, which grabbed the attention of both commentators and the record-buying public at the time. In large part, that attention was the result of the presence of Sassi, “the seal of the mandolinists,” as one commentator later referred to him. Here, he performs a “chambar” (tshanbar), what anthropologist Jonathan Glasser has described as a “prelude or metered overture.”[2] Like the inqilab or the istikhbar, the tshanbar, performed in a specific mode, served to welcome the listener to a particular nuba (the Andalusian musical suite). On this side, Sassi, along with Algerian pianist Amar (who has left us only his last name), masterfully executes the tchanbar in the mode of sika. While this piece may sound rather timeless, it should be recalled that both the mandolin and piano were rather new additions to Andalusian music. As much as Sassi was a musical master of a particular repertoire, he should also be remembered as a master of innovation.

Notes
Label: Parlophone
Title: Tchambar sika
Artist: Sassi (mandoline); Amar (piano)
Catalogue Number: B 46.510 a
Matrix Number: 114020
Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] For the most complete biography of Alfred or Fredj “Sassi” Lebrati, see Ouail Labassi’s “Alfred LEBRATI: Maalem Sassi (1885 – 1971),” http://yafil.free.fr/album_Sassi.htm, posted on February 16, 2018.

[2] Jonathan Glasser, The Lost Paradise: Andalusi Music in Urban North Africa, University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 97.

Habiba Messika – Souria Anti Biladi & Ya man yahounnou – Baidaphon, c. 1928

By mid-1927, after two years of fighting, the Great Syrian Revolt had finally been suppressed by French forces––and at considerable cost. But despite the Syrian loss––either in terms of the devastating human toll incurred or the actual end of the cross-confessional uprising aimed at dislodging the French mandatory regime––the Great Syrian Revolt inspired generations in country, across the Middle East, and in North Africa. Among them was Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika.

In April 1928, approximately a year after the conclusion of the Great Syrian Revolt––ninety years ago this month––Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika walked into the Berlin studio of the Baidaphon label and recorded, “Syria, you are my country” (“Souria Anti Biladi”). Alongside her was almost certainly the Tunisian Mohamed Kadri, known as “the King of Piano,” who accompanies her on the piece. For Messika (1903-1930), who had released dozens of discs for the Pathé and Gramophone labels over the previous few years, her 1928 Baidaphon sessions represented a notable departure. As I wrote about recently for History Today (The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar), Berlin offered Messika a chance to record at a distance from French authorities, who were increasingly concerned by the trade in Arab discs of both local and foreign manufacture. Indeed, “Syria, you are my country,” was far from the only pan-Arabist or nationalist number she recorded with Baidaphon. The flip side of this record, for example, contains an ode to King Fuad of Egypt, entitled, “Ya man yahounnou al-Bey Fouadi.”

HM-Baidaphon-Ya man yahounnou

While Habiba Messika’s “Syria, you are my country,” was not her own creation (few of the pieces she performed were), the Tunisian Jewish artist’s interpretation was nonetheless among the most sought after records of the era.[1] And just as the popularity of Messika’s pan-Arabist disc served her well and so too garnered considerable profit for the Baidaphon label, the increasing appearance of “Syria, you are my country,” among Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans threw French security services into a frenzy. In the aftermath of her tragic death––she was murdered in particularly brutal fashion by Eliaou Mimouni, a deranged fan, on February 21, 1930)––Messika’s records, much to the chagrin of the French authorities, seemed to be everywhere, including in the hands of nationalists.

The perception that Messika’s Baidaphon discs were everywhere was not without merit. Messika’s records still turn up across the Middle East, in Tunisia and other parts of the Maghrib, and across the Americas. The copy in the Gharamophone archive, for example, was likely first purchased in interwar Syria before being carried in steamer truck to the United States by Syrian immigrant Saleeh Farroh. As he settled into the great Arab American hub of Detroit, Michigan, the turn-of-the-century born Farroh (or Farrah, as his name is spelled in the U.S. Census record of 1940) placed an address sticker on Messika’s record. By doing so, Farroh not only marked its provenance at the time but allowed for the tracking of its movement until the present. Sadly, decades after Farroh last played the record, Habiba Messika’s song for Syria still remains poignant.

Notes
Label: Baidaphon
Title: Anti Souria Biladi
Artist: Habiba Messika
Catalogue / Matrix Numbers: B 086596
Date of Pressing: c. 1928

Label: Baidaphon
Title: Ya man yahounnou
Artist: Habiba Messika
Catalogue / Matrix Numbers: B 086581
Date of Pressing: c. 1928

[1] Egyptian artist Mohamed Abdel Aziz also recorded “Syria, you are my country,” for the Baidaphon label. On the flip side of that record, he performed the Lebanese national anthem.

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.

Flifla Chamia – Moute Habiba Messika – Gramophone, c. 1930

There was near-consensus during the interwar period that Flifla Chamia was the greatest dancer of her generation. The Tunisian Jewish artist’s brilliant performances in both Tunisia and Algeria were widely covered in the press at the time. Her fame even garnered her mention in the literature of the period, including in Vitalis Danon’s Ninette of Sin Street (1937), recently released in English with an introduction by Lia Brozgal and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. By 1937, Flifla Chamia could also lay claim to the Tunisian silver screen. That year she starred in Le Fou de Kairouan (The Madman of Kairouan), Tunisia’s first talkie and a landmark of North African cinema.[1]

But Flifla was also an accomplished singer. In fact, nearly the entirety of her family was. Her sister Bahia Chamia recorded for Pathé, as did her niece Ratiba Chamia, who also lent her voice to the Baidaphon and Rsaissi labels. Flifla’s daughter was the famed mid-century artist Hana Rached.

Despite her success, Flifla’s records—like her archival trail—are difficult to locate. This is all the more surprising given that one of her records, “Moute Habiba Messika,” produced for Gramophone in December 1930, circulated widely across the Maghrib. The disc, presented here and which translates to “the Death of Habiba Messika,” was one of quite a few like it at the time. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the twenty-seven year old superstar’s murder, a flurry of Arabic poetry, printed Judeo-Arabic dirges, and commercial recordings expressed a very national grief that attended Messika’s death. That grief, palpable and excruciating on Flifla’s recording, in which she exhorts people “to listen” to the strange (ghriba) and unprecedented (ʿajiba) set of circumstances that were visited upon (Habiba), still resonates some ninety years later.

Update: Upon further listening, two details emerge that need be mentioned. First, Flifla’s song is narrated from the perspective of Habiba Messika herself. So, for example, in her third line, Flifla sings, “Elli jara li ana Habiba (“What has befallen me—Habiba”)—making this recording all the more heart-wrenching. Second, it appears that Flifla is drawing directly on a lament (qina) written (and likely recorded) by the Palestine-born, Tunisian recording artist and hazzan (cantor) Acher Mizrahi. Those words are reproduced below. The sources for this text are Mizrahi’s grandchildren Yaacov Assal and Acher Mizrahi. More information on Acher Mizrahi, recording artist and hazzan, explore here.

Quina ala Hbiba Msika by Acher Mizrahi

“Ya ness essmeou el ghriba
Eli gara li ana Hbiba
Zit men el khedma farhana
Tkhelt el farchi nassanna
Tkel aliya ouahad rhadar
Rma aliya el nar
Ma tkelouch el denia nassiana
Tkel aliya ouahad rhadar
Rma aliya el nar
Ma tkhelouch el denia nassiana
Eli ameli ma khalitouch
I kamel el shar”

Notes
Label: Gramophone
Title: Moute Habiba Messika
Artist: Flifla (Flifla Chamia)
Issue Number: K-4355
Face Number: 25-213161
Matrix Number: BG1228
Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] Le Fou de Kairouan was lost after 1939 and recovered in 1989 thanks to the work of Tunisian researcher Hichem Ben Ammar.

Albert Suissa – Ghoniet Lefrak – Olympia, c. 1950s

This entry on Albert Suissa was born of a misunderstanding. Or perhaps, better yet, serendipity deserves the credit for what follows. Either way, consider this an attempt (or two) at the biography of a prolific Moroccan musician who lived in-between and who embodied “lefrak” (in Arabic, “separation”).[1] I will explain more below.

Born in interwar Casablanca, Morocco, likely in the early 1930s, Suissa became a known musician in his hometown by mid-century. His base––in almost all senses––was the mellah, the Jewish quarter. Not only did Suissa call that area home, specifically, the Rue Bab Marrakech, one of two contact addresses he provided in a c. 1950s songbook, but he also performed at venues there like Salim Halali’s Le Coq d’Or as the scant photographic evidence makes clear. In addition, his fan base was certainly drawn from the popular Jewish quarter but that he had Muslim admirers as well is without doubt. In fact, as I have discovered in various archives, his music was already broadcast on Radio Maroc in the mid-1950s and at least one of his records even raised the ire of the civil controller for its popularity and potentially subversive message (more on this in a future post).

Albert Suissa, who played ‘ud and sang, was a talented lyricist and composer. While it was not his own composition that would enrage the French just before the end of their protectorate there, his other works certainly raised eyebrows. During the tail-end of the 78 rpm record era, for example, Suissa recorded at least one double-sided disc in honor of Sultan Muhammad V. Later, as he sang of matters topical and in styles popular (chaabi or shaʿbi) on records pressed to vinyl, he would gain the attention of both his devotés and his detractors. In the broadest of brushstrokes, then, we have moved toward one history of Albert Suissa’s early career.

In June 2017, the affable and indefatigable Simon Skira, Secretary-General of the Federation of Moroccan Jews in France, reached out to me with a simple and reasonable request. Skira asked me if I could supply him with a transfer of Albert Suissa’s version of “El Frak” (“Separation”), a classic of Moroccan song performed by many who recorded to shellac. But it was Suissa’s version that was particularly meaningful to Skira. Indeed, the most well-known of the few photos of Albert Suissa on the web comes from Skira’s personal archive. In 1957, in honor of Skira’s fifth birthday, his parents hired Suissa and his orchestra to perform for a full week at their Fez home. At some point during those seven days in 1957, someone snapped a photo and captured Suissa performing with a very young Skira by his side. That photo is now posted to nearly every Moroccan Jewish message board across the internet.

Here is where the confusion began. Albert Suissa, of course, did record “El Frak” on 78 rpm (I will eventually add to Gharamophone) but he also recorded a song entitled, “Ghoniet Lefrak” (“The Song of Lefrak”).[2] By elision, I had grabbed the latter, transferred both sides, and sent his way. In some ways, this mistake points us toward two phenomena. The first is how confusing writing about historical recordings can sometimes be––especially when song titles employ a number of words in heavy rotation (“Lefrak”/“El Frak” is but one example). But the second phenomenon made evident by my error revealed once again the prodigious nature of Suissa’s output. Because Suissa had literally recorded dozens of records on a number of different labels while in Morocco, it took some time to find what I thought was “El Frak” on my shelf. And in the end, I was seduced by the wrong “separation.”

Enter serendipity. “Ghoniet Lefrak” typifies Moroccan popular music at mid-century. With an istikhbar (improvisation) on violin at the outset, it seems to borrow heavily from al-ala (an umbrella term for Moroccan Andalusian music) toward the beginning before transitioning to Suissa’s crisp vocals and an ever-accelerating rhythm. Suissa’s invocation of the word sabar (meaning, “patience”––but also intimating a longing for), conveyed mellismatically at moments, cleaves the listener to a certain emotional ecstasy.

Let us return now to Suissa’s biography––for it is far from complete. To fill in the details, we turn to Shira Ohayan, the Education Director for the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra, and the first to chart Suissa’s path. Melomane and activist, Ohayan has conducted invaluable on-the-ground interviews with North African musicians and their descendents in Israel in recent years in order to reconstruct the lives and preserve the legacies of artists at risk of fading into oblivion. For information on Suissa, Ohayan interviewed his family as well as members of the Karoutchi musical dynasty. Her history of Suissa, then, starts with the Moroccan musician at mid-century but quickly shifts to Israel. According to her research, it seems Suissa may have made his way to Jerusalem sometime in the early 1950s––at the very moment that he would have first began recording in Morocco for the Olympia and N. Sabbah labels. In Israel, as Ohayan has chronicled, Suissa made his living performing at wedding and family celebrations, much as he did in Morocco, while at the same time, recording with the Azoulay brothers through their Koliphone and Zakiphon imprints. As Ohayan makes clear, Suissa never stopped producing music. He continued to compose at an enviable and rapid clip. Nearly the entirety of the generation of Moroccan singers who came of age in Israel in the third quarter of the twentieth century––like Raymonde, for example––employed Suissa’s words and music at some point in their career.

That Albert Suissa’s biography and history have until now escaped is not surprising. In many ways, he lived in-between and embodied the painful essence of “lefrak” (“separation”). To begin with, he moved between Morocco and Israel at the very moment that such a back and forth migration has long been thought of as an impossibility. This constant displacement has meant that his presence in either place has long been difficult to grasp. It should also be recalled that Suissa began his career at the very moment that the shellac era faded into the vinyl age. This has meant that he left a trail of 78s across the Mediterranean just as that medium became obsolete.

And yet thanks to Ohayan and others, we are beginning to pick up the pieces and the discs themselves. As more Albert Suissa records are posted to Gharamophone, I will do my best expand upon his biography.

I thank Tim Abdellah Fuson, Shira Ohayan, and Kawther Bentjdipas for their extraordinary assistance.

Notes
Label: Olympia
Title: Ghoniet Lefrak
Artist: Albert Suissa
Issue Number: 1051
Matrix Number: LSP 5397
Date of Pressing: c. 1950s

[1]Lefrak” or “El Frak” is the French transliteration of the Arabic “al-frāq.”

[2] As Ethnomusicologist Ruth F. Davis has shown in relation to Tunisian music, “Ghoniet,” also spelled, “ughniyya,” “designate[s] a type of song, usually in colloquial Arabic, with a strophic structure” (Davis, “Jews, Women and the Power to be Heard: Charting the Early Tunisian Ughiyya to the Present Day,” p. 188, Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, ed. Laudan Nooshin, Routledge, 2009). That “Ghoniet” / “ughniyya” portends to a popular quality and is true for the Moroccan and Algerian contexts as well.

Reinette l’Oranaise – Ya biadi ya nas – Polyphon, c. 1934

Ya biadi ya nas,” first recorded by the Algerian Jewish artist Reinette l’Oranaise in 1934 for the Polyphon label, represents a case study in sonic transmission. So too does this particular recording of a song (associated with the pre-wedding henna ceremony) demonstrate the power of the record to fix a repertoire at a certain moment in time and then for decades to come. For both of these ideas, I draw on the pioneering work of ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi, who has long demonstrated the intersection of commercial recording and canonization of folk repertoire.

In fact, to give you a sense of the song’s chain of transmission and enduring popularity, consider that Reinette l’Oranaise’s recording of “Ya biadi ya nas” was first released on Polyphon during the interwar period and then re-released more than a decade later on the Philips label. Clearly, audiences were still clamoring for the record years after it first appeared in North African record stores. In similar fashion, Philips again released “Ya biadi ya nas” as a 45 rpm record at mid-century. Thanks to the intrepid collector Farid Hamidi, a recording of that EP has been available on Youtube since 2011.

Let me provide you with a bit of background on Reinette and“Ya biadi ya nas” before we move on to the latest link in the chain of transmission of a song first recorded more than eighty years ago. Reinette l’Oranaise was born Sultana Daoud in Tiaret, just south and east of Oran, in 1915. Blind since childhood, the young Daoud and her family moved from Tiaret to Oran toward the end of or immediately following the First World War. According to Maurice El Medioni, Algerian Jewish pianist and eventual collaborator of the future Reinette l’Oranaise, Daoud was first apprenticed to his uncle Saoud Médioni –– better known by his stage name of Saoud l’Oranais –– at the age of eight (Maurice El Médioni, A Memoir: From Oran to Marseilles, 1938-1962, p. 166). Indeed, it is entirely possible that Saoud was the first to crown her Reine or Reinette, a French play on her name “Sultana” and from whence she derived her stage name Reinette l’Oranaise.

Saoud l’Oranais was Reinette l’Oranaise’s shaykh (her master teacher). Over more than a decade, he transmitted his musical knowledge, especially that of the colloquial hawzi repertoire, to his taliba, who is referred to at the outset of this recording –– made when she was nineteen –– as his éleve (his apprentice or student). That relationship of shaykh to taliba meant that the two were nearly inseparable in the period between the two wars. Reinette, for example, would first make her debut and then remain a fixture at the café owned by Saoud in the Derb, Oran’s Jewish quarter. As the archives make clear, Algerian troops often listened to the two artists in tandem. And as available newspapers demonstrate, Reinette l’Oranaise and her mentor Saoud l’Oranais frequently appeared together on Radio Alger’s Arab broadcast. Indeed, if you listen carefully to the first thirty-seconds of Reinette’s recording of “Ya biadi ya nas,” Saoud himself is there in the background, lending his vocals to hers as she warms up.

Astutely, Joseph Chetrit, scholar of North African Jewish culture, language, poetry and song, has written that “Ya biadi ya nas,” also rendered as “Abiadi Ana” or “Abyadi Ana,” likely emerged during the birth of the recording era (the turn of the twentieth century) in Western Algeria –– possibly Tlemcen or Oran –– before spreading west to Morocco (See: “ABYADI ANA,” 2015). Given that we now know that Reinette l’Oranaise can be credited with the earliest recorded version of the song (in 1934) and learned it from her Oran-born master Saoud l’Oranais, Chetrit’s assesment seems all the more likely.

As for transmission, Seroussi and co-authors Ofer Ronen and Elia Meron at the Jewish Music Research Centre (See: “ABYADI ANA,” 2015) have shown that perhaps the most famous version of the song, released by Moroccan Jewish artist Zohra El Fassia for the Zakiphon label in the early 1960s, bears some remarkable similarities to the original. “The ending cadences of the sections,” the three point out, “and their divisions are identical.” Was Zohra El Fassia familiar with the Reinette l’Oranaise record in question? It is certainly possible. If so, the Israeli artist Neta Elkayam latest show, “ABIADI,” which pays brilliant homage to the Zohra El Fassia and her version of “Abyadi ana”, not only connects us to the Moroccan star of the mid-twentieth century but so too draws on Reinette l’Oranaise and perhaps on Saoud l’Oranais as well. Thanks to Elkayam and her co-collaborators, then, and her reprisal of “Ya biadi ya nas”, we are connected once again to sounds which first emerged on record some eight decades ago.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Ya biadi ya nas
Artist: Reinette l’Oranaise
Issue Number: 45.719
Matrix Number: 69 HRP
Date of Pressing: c. 1934

Slomo Souiri – Kssidat Farha – Olympia, c. 1950s

Salomon Souiri was born in Morocco (possibly Essaouira, as his family name indicates) in the early part of the twentieth century. Like other Moroccan musicians, including Samy Elmaghribi and Salim Azra, he would eventually find himself in Montreal.

Souiri was a prolific recording artist and one of the great countertenors (if not, in fact, a vocalist of an even higher range). By the 1920s, he was already recording for the Pathé label under the names “Chloumou” and “Cheloumou” Souiri. In the 1930s, he added Baidaphon and Columbia to his roster. As for the latter, the label claimed that the public “could not remain indifferent” to Souiri’s popular repertoire, to which they may have been referring to malhun ––  an Andalusian-related genre whose song texts are of a slightly later vintage and written in Arabic dialect.

By the 1950s, when he recorded “Kssidat Farha” –– part of the malhun repertoire –– Souiri had relocated to Casablanca. The latest spelling of his name –– “Slomo” –– reflects a certain fidelity to the Jewish variant of Moroccan Arabic. Backed by a small orchestra of violin and percussion, a chorus joins Souiri throughout “Kssidat Farha,” the lyrics of which are based on an eighteenth century poem originally written by the Moroccan Cheikh Elmaghraoui. Where exactly this recording was made is unknown but something makes me think it may have been in a synagogue. Whatever the case, Souiri’s version of “Kssidat Farha” is among the most moving records in my collection.

The Olympia label, run by a certain Mr. Azoulay-Elmaleh, was one of a number of small, Jewish-owned recording outfits that appeared in mid-century Morocco. It may be the case that Olympia’s records were pressed by the Philips company, although I cannot be for certain. As for the history of the label, I can only gesture. To be sure, Olympia had a short lifespan –– emerging in the final years of the 78 rpm era, only to disappear soon after. Nonetheless, Olympia recorded an impressive range of Casablanca-based Jewish artists, including those who not only sang in Arabic but so too Hebrew from the paraliturgical tradition.

Thank you to Ouail Labassi and Kawther Bentdjipas for their assistance in researching the provenance of “Kssidat Farha.”

Notes
Label: Olympia
Title: Kassidat Farha
Artist: Slomo Souiri (Cheloumou Souiri)
Issue Number: 1025
Matrix Number: LSP 5357
Date of Pressing: c. 1950s