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Marie Soussan – Alach ya Lsan tadoui [Sides 1-2], Polyphon, 1934

Until 2019, we knew little about Algeria’s first female stage actor Marie Soussan (1895-1977). Then Ouail Labassi, a historian of early twentieth century Algerian music and a friend of Gharamophone, published his groundbreaking research on the comedienne and recording artist here. Much of what follows, then, is mere summary of his work (with permission). Readers should also note that I build on the pioneering scholarship of Hadj Miliani. Where possible, I have added some additional details culled from my own findings.

Soussan was born on January 17, 1895 in the lower Casbah of Algiers. As Labassi has shown, her mother Louna Aboucaya was the maternal aunt of impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil. Like so many artists of her era, she honed her musical skills at family gatherings, where she devoted herself to singing and the darbuka. At some point after World War I, she joined El Moutribia, the orchestra and theater troupe of her famous cousin Yafil. According to Labassi, her stage debut may have occurred in 1925 at the Casino d’Alger. Over the next fifteen years, she maintained a busy career with El Moutribia, acting and touring alongside her comic partner Rachid Ksentini. Together, the Jewish-Muslim duo took center stage. Many of those acts were then recorded to disc. Soussan, of course, was also a talented solo artist, recording an array of genres––classical and popular––first with Gramophone and then with Polyphon. All of this earned her early membership in the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM).

This record, “Alach ya Lsan tadoui,” an original composition by a yet identified musician, was made for Polyphon in 1934, a rather productive year for the label in North Africa. As can be heard, there is a strength and a sultriness to her voice. Perhaps that is why, in part, the French press of the time referred to Marie Soussan as “the Sophie Tucker of North Africa.”

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Alach ya Lsan tadoui [علاش يا لسان تدوي]
Artist: Marie Soussan
Issue Number: 45.803
Matrix Number: 237 HRP; 238 HRP
Date of Pressing: 1934

Zohra El Fassia – Ayli Ayli Hbibi Diali [Sides 1-2], Philips, c. end of 1954-1955

Within moments of Albert Suissa’s end of 1954 release of the politically charged “Ayli Ayli” on the Olympia label, Zohra El Fassia did much the same with “Ayli Ayli Hbibi Diali” on the Philips label. Indeed, El Fassia, a favorite of the Moroccan palace, was almost certainly motivated to record the song at the time for the same reasons as Suissa: she, like so many others Moroccan Jews and Muslims, longed for the exiled Sultan Mohamed Ben Youssef.

One final note on what else can be heard on this recording. At minute 5:41, El Fassia excitedly recognizes her violinist, the famed Moroccan Jewish musician known as Shulamit.

Notes
Label: Philips
Titles: Ayli Ayli Hbibi Diali / ايلي ايلي حبيبي ديالي [Sides 1-2]
Artist: Zohra El Fassia
Issue Number: 78.120 H
Matrix Number: 207-A [Side 1] and 208-B [Side 2]
Date of Pressing: c. 1954-1955

Albert Suissa – Ayli Ayli (ايلي ايلي) [Sides 1-2] – Olympia, c. end of 1954

On January 14, 1954, a confidential letter was passed on to the French Civil Controller of Morocco’s southern Chaouia region by a subordinate. It noted that a certain qaʾid (tribal governor) by the name of “Saghir” had brought it to his attention that a number of records recently played on Radio Maroc had “made allusion to the exile of the ex-sultan.”[1] Given the political climate, this was a particularly grave problem. Months earlier, in a dramatic showdown, the French Residency, in cooperation with the Glaoui Pasha, had removed Sultan Mohamed ben Youssef from the throne and cast him into exile. The shortsighted move had once again brought Moroccans together. Tensions across the country ran high. The march to independence was gathering steam.

While at least three offending discs making “allusion to the exile of the ex-sultan” had made their way onto Moroccan radio, one seemed to merit special attention. Perhaps it was because it was so catchy. At some point, the qaʾid must have hummed a line to a bureaucrat in the Civil Controller’s office. It was transcribed as “El habib diali fain houa” (my friend where is he). The song in question was known variously at the time as “Ayli Ayli,” “Hbibi diyali,” and “Sidi Hbibi.” Today, it has been covered by just about everyone: from Moroccan R&B and funk artist Vigon to French-Spanish singer Manu Chao.

By February 1955, Saghir’s intelligence tip had worked its way up the ladder. Political Affairs, for example, now possessed a summary of the original letter, as well as new information gleaned along the way. On February 15, 1955, it was concluded that at least three versions of “Hbibi diyali” by three different artists were being distributed in Morocco. The record censor’s office determined the following: “that of Albert Suissa contains political allusions.” On February 23 1955, the Moroccan Jewish artist was brought to the attention of Captain Levaique, Director of General Information Services. He was informed that if he wanted to intercede with Suissa’s “Ayli Ayli,” released on the Olympia label and bearing issue numbers 1005 and 1006, he would need to act quickly. Indeed, Mr. Azoulay-Elmaleh, who ran the Olympia label out of his brick and mortar store on Rue de Mazagan in Casablanca, wrote to Captain Levaique that he had official authorization to distribute the Suissa records. Furthermore, he added that 935 copies of “Ayli Ayli,” pressed by the Radium label in Paris, were to arrive at port in the coming days. As for what happened next, the archives go completely silent.

Whatever the fate of those discs was in February 1955, we can presume that Suissa’s record traveled widely and was widely popular (despite what seems like a slight tape problem on the recording). Originally released at the end of 1954, Azoulay-Elmaleh, operator of a small, independent Moroccan record label, had ordered another thousand copies of “Ayli Ayli” just months after it first hit the market. We have heard from Suissa before on this site but have not yet thought of him in nationalist terms. On “Ayli Ayli,” we hear him asking “my love, where is he?” in the shadow of the disappearance of the beloved Sultan Mohamed ben Youssef. Over the next two years, Suissa’s support for the monarch would grow more strident.[2] The same was true for any number of Jewish musicians who remained in Morocco through the earliest years of decolonization.

Notes
Label: Olympia
Title: Ayli Ayli / ايلي ايلي [Sides 1-2]
Artist: Albert Suissa
Issue Number: 1005/1006
Matrix Number: LSP 5257/5258
Date of Pressing: end of 1954

[1] Christopher Silver, “Listening to the Past: Music as a Source for the Study of North African Jews,” solicited contribution to “Jews of Morocco and the Maghreb: History and Historiography,” ed., Aomar Boum, Jessica Marglin, Khalid Ben-Srhir, and Mohammed Kenbib, special issue of Hespéris-Tamuda, vol. L1, 2016, 244. (https://www.academia.edu/36013037/Listening_to_the_Past_Music_as_a_Source_for_the_Study_of_North_African_Jews).

[2] On the nationalism and nationalist music of Moroccan Jewish superstar Samy Elmaghribi, see Christopher Silver, THE SOUNDS OF NATIONALISM: MUSIC, MOROCCANISM, AND THE MAKING OF SAMY ELMAGHRIBI, International Journal of Middle East Studies (2020), 1-25, doi:10.1017/S0020743819000941. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies/article/sounds-of-nationalism-music-moroccanism-and-the-making-of-samy-elmaghribi/DEA0FA05DCEE3C8474753BF75F969B11).

Lili Boniche – Pourquoi Tu Ne M’aimes Pas (علاش ما تحبنيش) – Pacific, c. 1950

Algerian Jewish recording artist Lili Boniche (1922-2008) was born to a family of humble origins in the lower Casbah of Algiers. Raised in a musical family, the young Boniche picked up his father’s mandole early and soon developed a talent for the instrument. By the early 1930s, Saoud l’Oranais recognized that talent and brought Boniche under his wing alongside Reinette l’Oranaise. Just a few years later, Boniche joined El Moutribia, the Andalusian association and orchestra first established by Edmond Nathan Yafil and long presided over by Mahieddine Bachetarzi, where he was quickly promoted as their “new star”––including at the troupe’s many Ramadan galas. It was at this time that the Jewish musician also became a fixture on Radio Alger, backed on piano by his contemporary Mustapha Skandrani. During World War II, Boniche, like all Algerian Jews, was denaturalized by the Vichy regime. His own website suggests that he participated in the Resistance. To be sure, the archives make clear that he certainly sang of the war and of Allied victory. Just a few years later, he recorded a song for the French Pacific label’s Collection musique orientale series entitled, “Marché Noir” (Black Market).

Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the early 1950s, Boniche recorded exclusively for Pacific. Released circa 1950, “علاش ما تحبنيش/Pourquoi tu ne m’aimes pas” (Why don’t you love me), a tango which blended French with Arabic, is emblematic of his signature Franco-Arabe sound, which won him fans from Algeria to Morocco (where he toured regularly) and from Morocco to metropolitan France. While a much later version of this song was recorded in the 1990s and released on Boniche’s “Alger Alger,” on the A.P.C. label, this is the first time that the original has been reissued after more than seventy years.

It is perhaps telling that Boniche and other Algerian Jewish artists, French citizens again since 1943, were still assigned to the label’s “oriental” imprint even at mid-century and even as they recorded some songs that were mostly in French. While scholars assume that the Frenchness of Algerian Jews was a settled mattered in the postwar period, if not earlier, it seems that questions still remained given the steadfastness of those like Boniche to indigenous culture and language.

Notes
Label: Pacific
Title: Pourquoi Tu Ne M’aimes Pas / علاش ما تحبنيش
Artist: Lili Boniche
Issue Number: CO 7012
Matrix Number: ST-1482-2
Date of Pressing: c. 1950

Blond Blond – Ghnaït Robert Cohen [Sides 1-2] – Pathé, 1954

In Algerian historiography, the year 1954 looms especially large. Most notably, the date marks the formal start of the Algerian war of independence. That year, it should be mentioned, Algerians had other causes to celebrate and occasions to mark, even if now forgotten. Indeed, two months before fighting broke out in November 1954, a boxer from Annaba in eastern Algeria fought halfway across the globe to become the bantamweight champion of the world and a national hero back home. His name was Robert Cohen.

On September 19, 1954, Cohen, twenty-four years old and standing at 5 feet, 2.5 inches (1.59 m), faced off against a slightly older and slightly taller Thai boxer by the name of Chamroen Songkitrat in Bangkok. The fierce title fight was held before a crowd of some 60,000 and lasted the maximum fifteen rounds. Despite Songkitrat’s homecourt advantage, Cohen would win on decision.[1] In emerging victorious, the young Jew electrified the boxing world, Algeria, and seemingly all of North Africa.

Less than three months after Cohen’s victory, the celebrated Algerian Jewish artist Albert Rouimi, better known by his stage name of Blond Blond, composed and then recorded the celebratory “Ghnaït Robert Cohen” (the Song of Robert Cohen) for Pathé. On what was likely the first boxing record of its kind in the Maghrib, he was accompanied by multi-talented Tunisian Jewish musician Youcef Hedjaj, a vocalist, instrumentalist, and composer who was also a favorite of Louisa Tounsia, Line Monty, and many others.

The rousing song about the Algerian Jewish boxer Cohen––curiously listed as a “chant Marocain” (a Moroccan song) on the label––is reminiscent of Saoud l’Oranais’ 1934 football chant “Gheniet U.S.M.O” in structure, melody, and lyrics. The phrase “khalouni nghani” (let me sing), for example, is repeated in both throughout, as is the French word “champion.” At the same time, there are notable differences. Blond Blond, for instance, sang of Cohen’s victory not just as the pride of a certain city, as Saoud l’Oranais did, but as “honoring” all of Algeria and North Africa as well. Of course, the context was also much changed. 1954, the start of the Algerian revolution, was a far cry from 1934 or any other moment in the interwar period. Nonetheless, this record captures certain continuities that existed in parallel to the rapid changes on Algeria’s path to decolonization. In 1954, Algerian Jews––legal French citizens since the end of the nineteenth century––still sang in Arabic and could still be considered part of the national community and even national heroes. In fact, it is noteworthy that Blond Blond recorded “the Song of Robert Cohen” in Arabic. This was a choice. He could have easily done so in French. But in making that choice, Blond Blond made clear his audience: Arabophone Algerian Muslims and the not insignificant number of Algerian Jews who still spoke Arabic. It was for them, it seems, that Cohen’s triumph was especially meaningful.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Ghnaït Robert Cohen (اغنية روبر كوهين)
Artist: Blond Blond
Issue Number: PA 3120
Matrix Number: CPT 11.296; CPT 11.297 / M3-160363; M3-160364
Date of Pressing: end of 1954

[1] Cohen held the title until 1956. He lost to Italian Mario D’Agata on June 29, 1956 in a fight that was recognized as a title match by some institutional bodies but not others. In 1957, Alphonse Halimi, another Algerian Jew, took the title from D’Agata to become bantamweight world champion. It is of interest to note that Cohen and Halimi shared many similarities, in addition to both being Jews. Both were from eastern Algerian (Halimi was from Constantine). Both got their start in swimming. And class was a significant factor for both. Cohen and Halimi, for example, were each one of fourteen children.

Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri – al-Bashraf al-Kabir [Sides 1-2] – Disques Oum-El-Hassen, c. 1930s

Like all of the releases on the independent Tunisian label Oum-El-Hassen (meaning, “nightingale”), this one begins with the chirping of birds. At the time, the canned singing may have been intended to evoke the caged birds that flanked the many cafés in Tunis where ma’luf was performed. Or perhaps it was meant to conjure al-Andalus itself. Either way, the result is the same: the listener quiets and prepares for what follows.

Oum-El-Hassen was founded by the Tunisian Muslim impresario Bachir Rsaissi around 1930. It appeared at about the same time as his iconic Rsaissi label. Using his Oum-El-Hassen imprint, Rsaissi recorded widely. This included ma’luf, the Tunisian variant of the Andalusian repertoire, as well as Tunisian and Egyptian popular music. After recording locally, Oum-El-Hassen masters were then shipped to Paris where they were pressed by the French Cristal label. The records were subsequently shipped back to Tunisia where they were sold for about the half the price of discs on the Baidaphon label, where Rsaissi had previously been an employee.

IMG_0001 - SIde 2

This recording of the ma’luf overture of al-bashraf al-kabir features the virtuosic playing of two of the most important Tunisian musicians of the interwar period: Albert Abitbol on violin and Hayyim “Gaston” Bsiri on ʿud. The flawlessness of their execution must owe to the fact that the two were frequent collaborators, recording together on Gramophone throughout the 1920s and apparently on Oum-El-Hassen and other labels in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, little bibliographic information is available for Abitbol but a few points can be made. First, the blind instrumentalist was regarded as among the premier violinists of his day. In addition to collaborating with Bsiri, for example, Abitbol formed an integral part of Cheikh El Afrite’s orchestra. It can also be surmised that the Tunisian Jewish musician performed well into the 1950s, if not later. The Algerian vocalist and composer Kamal Hamadi, husband to the famed Noura and who came of age at mid-century, once stated that, “no one could play the violin like Albert Abitbol.”[1] The statement was based on his own experiences with Abitbol. As for Gaston Bsiri, much more is known.

Gaston Bsiri was born in Tunis in 1888 to Ottoman Jewish parents, who may have originated in the port city of Izmir. He was both a gifted solo artist and accompanist, who recorded for a host of labels in the 1920s and 1930s including Gramophone, Pathé, Perfectaphone, and Oum-El-Hassen. He was likewise a prolific composer, most notably for Baidaphon. Like many musicians of his era, Bsiri earned his livelihood in myriad ways. In addition to making records, for instance, Bsiri also sold them from his store on rue d’Alfa in the Tunisian capital. What’s more, Bsiri also served as a Hebrew and music teacher at the Alliance israélite universelle school on rue Malta Sghira in the Hafsia neighborhood of Tunis, where he counted the great Raoul Journo among his pupils.

At some point in the late 1930s, Bsiri, like other North African Jewish and Muslim musicians, established himself in Paris. As the Nazi occupation set in during summer 1940, Bsiri, like Salim Halali who was also marooned in Paris, would find himself ever more vulnerable.[2] Nonetheless, according to Journo’s autobiography, Bsiri continued to play publically through the first few months of 1942 and did so possibly by passing as Muslim. Then, suddenly and in unclear circumstances, he was denounced to the Gestapo. Tragically, on April 8, 1942, Gaston Bsiri, the Tunisian Jewish ʿudist and composer of wide acclaim, was killed in Auschwitz.

Notes
Label: Oum-El-Hassen
Title: al-bashraf al-kabir
Artist: Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri
Issue Number: 55.120
Matrix Number: O 209 H; O 210 H
Date of Pressing: c. 1930s

[1] https://www.depechedekabylie.com/culture/148138-je-suis-venu-a-la-musique-par-accident/

[2] Halali would begin recording Bsiri’s compositions, likely in homage to him, at war’s end.

Elie Teboul dit Pinhas El Saidi – Istikhbar Zidane + Ya saki ou s’ki habibi – Columbia – c. 1928

The early-to-mid twentieth century Algerian recording artist Elie Teboul (either 1894 – ? or 1904-1980) and his music illuminate in more ways than one. To begin with, Teboul, who was also known as Pinhas El Saidi[1] and most commonly as Cheikh Pinhas, hailed not from one of the major urban centers that scholars of music and aficionados tend to focus on––but from Mostaganem, a medium-sized city some 100 kilometers east of Oran. In this way, Cheikh Pinhas’s voice serves to remind of the vast and sometimes little-known universe of Algerian music-making that existed outside of Algiers and other principal locales.

What little is known of Cheikh Pinhas has mostly been surfaced by Hadj Miliani in his chapter on Algerian Jewish musicians and stage actors in the volume Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa (ed. Emily Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter, 2011). Miliani, drawing on Rashid Muhammad Ibn Tunis’ critical study of history and culture in Mostaganem (1998), demonstrates that far from elusive, Cheikh Pinhas was among his city’s most celebrated musicians during the interwar years (along with his co-religionists Meyer Reboah and Isaac Benghozi).[2] As devoted as the people of Mostaganem were to Cheikh Pinhas, he was to them. After the city suffered a devastating flood in 1927, the musician composed and then recorded a song on the Columbia label to commemorate the tragedy and honor the victims.[3] The recording of “Ya saki ou s’ki habibi” featured in this post appears to hail from those 1928 sessions. Here, again, Cheikh Pinhas and this particular record of his prove revelatory.

Elie Touboul-1.jpg

“Ya saki ou s’ki habibi,” as Algerian musician and mélomane Ouail Laabassi explained to me in brilliant detail, represents a song-text from the core of the Andalusian nuba and is specifically associated with the modes of raml maya and maya. What makes this recording of “Ya saki ou s’ki habibi” so striking––in addition to the vocals and the exquisite piano––is that it is performed not in raml maya or maya but in the mode of zidane. And while the technique of employing a single song-text across multiple melodies was known in Cheikh Pinhas’ time, it largely fell out of favor after the Second World War. In other words, for those familiar with “Ya saki ou s’ki habibi,” this 1928 recording by a Mostaganemi musician likely represents the first time they have heard it sound like this. Indeed, Laabassi quickly matched the melody employed by Cheikh Pinhas in his performance of “Ya saki ou s’ki habibi” to that which is usually paired with another Andalusian song-text: “Ya nas djarat li gharayeb.”

In order to begin to fill out his biography, it need be noted that Cheikh Pinhas continued to record in the postwar period. In addition to his own sides made for Odéon, he also recorded in duet on the label with the famed Tlemcani musician Elie Bensaid (1880-1972).

Notes
Label: Columbia
Titles: Istikhbar Zidane [استخبار زيدان] and Ya saki ou s’ki habibi [يا ساقي واسقي حبيبي]
Artist: Elie Teboul dit Pinhas El Saidi
Issue numbers: 17083 [both sides]
Matrix numbers: W-N 38287 and W-N 38288; 39297 and 39298
Date of Pressing: c. 1928

[1] The name Saidi might point to his family’s origins in Saida, Algeria.
[2] Miliani, “Crosscurrents: Trajectories of Algerian Jewish Artists and Men of Culture since the End of the Nineteenth Century,” in Jewish Society and Culture in North Africa, Indiana University Press, 183.
[3] Ibid.

Abraham Arzouane – Midam Bessari (מדם בשרי) – Olympia – c. 1950s

Little is known of the Moroccan Jewish musician Abraham Arzouane other than the fact that he recorded for the Casablanca-based Olympia label in the 1950s. Part of the difficulty in properly identifying him is that his name was once so common in Morocco. Despite the scant archival material, there is just enough to work with in order to erect a historical scaffolding of Arzouane, the label, and the recording itself.

Olympia was one of a half-dozen independent 78 rpm record labels established in Morocco just before independence in 1956. The label was run out of Olympia-Radio, a radio distributor and recording outfit located in Casablanca at 66 Rue de Mazagan and run by a Mr. Azoulay-Elmaleh. While Olympia discs were recorded locally (likely on reel-to-reel tape), they were pressed in Paris by the Radium label. As can be seen on the printed label and on the dead wax at the center of their records, Olympia carried the same matrix number prefix––LSP––that Radium did.

Abraham Arzouane - Midam Bessari - 2

Olympia seemed to serve as a hub for Moroccan Jewish artists specializing in the popular repertoire. Their catalogue included a great number of records by Albert Suissa and so too, Sam Fhima (sometimes spelled Fhimat). It is very likely that Arzouane also recorded popular music for the label. Given the label’s profile, Arzouane’s recording of religious music––of a Hebrew-language piyyut (liturgical poetry) on the subject of circumcision––feels like a departure. Of course, that Olympia and its artists were keen to cater to diverse audiences tempers any such confusion.

To get a better understanding of what exactly was happening on this recording, I turned to the master Andalusian violinist Elad Levi for help. He had much to say. For example, Levi quickly identified Arzouane’s mawwal (vocal improvisation) at the outset as belonging to the Moroccan Andalusian mode of hijaz al-kbir. He also recognized the song-text on the first side of the disc (which lasts until 2:51) as part of the Yom Kippur service while noting that it was usually sung to a different melody. In addition, he pointed to a certain warmth in the quality of both the vocalist and the instrumentalists, even if some faults of accuracy can be detected in their performance. That warmth is especially apparent on Midam Bessari (מדם בשרי ארים תרומה, on the second side of the recording), which picks up just after 2:51.

To be sure, Mr. Arzouane is deserving of a much fuller biography than the one provided. But while we await more information, his only known recording will no doubt help us pass the time.

Thank you again to Elad Levi for all of his brilliant insight. Thank you as well to Yossi Ohana who provided early and invaluable insight.

Notes
Label: Olympia
Title: Midam Bessari (מדם בשרי)
Artist: Abraham Arzouane
Issue Number(s): 1083 and 1084
Matrix Number: LSP 5456 and LSP 5457
Date of Pressing: c. 1950s

Alice Fitoussi – Ya msalmin kalbi – Polyphon – 1933

Alice Fitoussi (1916-1978?) was one of a handful of Algerian Jewish musicians to remain in Algeria after independence in 1962. In many ways, the continued presence of a highly visible and audible Algerian Jew in independent Algeria reminds that music can complicate periodization schemes. At the same time, Fitoussi serves as yet another potent symbol of the ways in which Algerian Jews remained deeply attached to their Arabic-language musical heritage––one shared with their Muslim compatriots––after more than a century of French colonization.

Of course, Fitoussi was much more than an emblem. She was a gifted vocalist and masterful ʿud player. She served as a prominent member of the Radio Alger orchestra and was among the first musicians to appear on Algerian television. And like her father Maʿallim Rahmim Fitoussi, she was also a respected recording artist.

Alice Fitoussi first started recording as a teenager: initially for Gramophone and then for Polyphon. Even at that early juncture, she was already crowned a maʿallima (master musician) by her peers. She earned that honorific, in part, thanks to her skillful interpretation of the hawzi repertoire. On this Polyphon recording from 1933, for example, a 17-year-old Fitoussi deftly performs “Ya msalmin qalbi,” an eighteenth-century poem written by the famed Tlemcani shaykh Bensahla.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Ya msalmin kalbi[1]
Artist: El Malma Alice Fitouci [Alice Fitoussi]
Issue Number: B 45.972 V
Matrix Number: 281 WPA
Date of Pressing: 1933

[1] Correct transliteration into English should render “kalbi” as “qalbi” (of my heart) but I am following the French orthography printed on the label here. In future posts, I will add titles in Arabic to avoid confusion.

Unknown – Bar Yohaï – Pacific, c. mid-1950s

Until well into the twentieth century, Tlemcen, Algeria was known as “the Jerusalem of the West.”[1] That appellation derived from the robustness of the city’s Jewish community––both in terms of its size and piety––and so too from the fact that Tlemcen was home to the sainted tomb of Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua (al-Naqawa), also known as the Rabb.

Enkaoua, born in Toledo in 1359 and who fled Spanish persecution there in 1391, is considered a foundational figure in Algerian Jewish history. He is not only credited with re-establishing the Jewish presence in Tlemcen in the 1400s following his settlement there but so too, with performing all manner of miracle in the process (including riding into town seated on a lion and soon thereafter healing the ailing daughter of Sultan Abu Tashfin). All of that miracle-making earned him moniker of the Rabb, which translates to something akin to “master.”

Since at least the nineteenth century and through the twentieth, reverence for the Rabb culminated in the annual pilgrimage (known as both a ziyara and hillula) to his burial site in Tlemcen. For centuries, thousands of Jewish pilgrims ascended to the Rabb’s tomb on the holiday of Lag BaOmer, a date which corresponds to the thirty-third day after Passover and which marks the death of the second century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. In this way, the ziyara or hillula to the grave of the Rabb has long been imbued with an intense mystical quality. That mysticism is palpable in the kabbalistic, Hebrew-language piyyut (hymn) of “Bar Yohai,” written by the sixteenth century Rabbi Shimon Lavi and which was performed to great fanfare at the tomb of the Rabb at least through Algerian independence in 1962 and in more sober fashion in the decades that followed.[2]

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of North African Jewish artists recorded the piyyut to 78 rpm disc. This version of “Bar Yohaï”[3]––of an uncredited singer on the Pacific label––comes from about the mid-1950s and was certainly the last ever recorded in Algeria.

Notes
Label: Pacific
Title: Bar Yohaï
Artist: Unknown and uncredited
Issue Number: CO 9009
Matrix Number: BY 2
Date of Pressing: c. mid-1950s

[1] Susan Slyomovics, “Geographies of Jewish Tlemcen,” Journal of North African Studies, 5:4, 2000, 81.
[2] North African Jews also sing “Bar Yohai” on Sabbath evenings before the start of the meal.
[3] “Bar Yohaï” is misspelled in the Arabic on the label as “Dar Yohaï,” which unintentionally means “the House of Yohaï.”