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”

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.

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.

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.”

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

Salim Halali – Je t’appartiens (tango) – Pathe, c. 1945

Istwanat Pathé, Salim Halali.” These were the words the Algerian Jewish musician Salim Halali spoke in the summer of 1945 as he recorded at the Pathé studio in Paris. Those 1945 recording sessions occurred about a year after Paris’ liberation from Nazi German control. For many, this recording –– “Je t’appartiens” (“I belong to you”) –– and others from his 1945 sessions signaled that Halali had survived in Paris. It was a question that many Algerians had wondered at war’s end. With this tango, then, Salim Halali not only boldly announced his return to the stage and studio but also made it clear that, once again, he belonged to his public.

Salim Halali is a fitting candidate to launch –– the online archive dedicated to preserving North Africa’s Jewish musical past, one record at a time. Halali is a figure who is known in the broadest of brush strokes, and at the same time, a personality for whom almost all of the details still escape. We know, for example, that Halali was born in 1920 in Bône (Annaba), Algeria, that he made his way to Paris as a teenager in the mid-1930s, that he survived the war years in Paris, and that he eventually established the famed Le Coq d’Or cabaret in Casablanca. And yet, all of the rest still needs filling in. Similarly, some of his music catalogue is readily available –– instantly conjured by generations of fans from the Maghrib –– and still, so much of his music has remained unreleased until the present. With the addition of Halalil’s “Je t’appartiens” to the archive, I aim to change some of the above.

Beyond constituting a long forgotten component of Halali’s repertoire, this record also provides a rather remarkable glimpse into his immediate postwar life. Indeed, if before the war, Halali had made a name for himself alongside Algerian orchestral leader Mohammed El Kamal and Algerian composer Mohamed Iguerbouchène (whose names were featured on all of his early recordings), by the outbreak of war, the three had more than parted ways. As Halali went into hiding ­­­­–– possibly at the Grand Mosque of Paris –– El Kamal and Iguerbouchène went to work for Nazi German-controlled radio in Paris. In fact, at the very moment that Halali himself went silent in occupied Paris, El Kamal pressed ahead, continuing to record throughout the war alongside French jazz musicians in the capital.

While Halali survived the war, other North African Jewish musicians stranded in the metropole did not. Gaston Bsiri, for example, giant of Tunisian song –– a recording artist and composer –– was deported from Paris and then murdered in Auschwitz in April 1942.

What is intriguing about this Salim Halali recording – beyond the music itself –– is that the words for “Je t’appartiens,” are credited to none other than the Gaston Bsiri. In fact, this was the case for almost all of Halali’s immediate postwar recordings, which are attributed not to his former Algerian collaborators (turned collaborators of a different sort) but to the Tunisian Jewish Bsiri. Did Halali and Bsiri encounter each other in Paris? It is almost certain they did. And yet, whether the writing credit and its timing constitutes mere coincidence or an act of homage on Halali’s part is unclear. What is clear is that this record begins to give voice to the wartime fate of some North African Jewish musicians and so too to their long silenced output in the days following the war. Given the Bsiri credit and his tragic fate, so too might there be another layer of meaning to the lyric, “I belong to you.”

Label: Pathé
Title: Je t’appartiens (tango)
Artist: Salim Halali
Composer: Gaston Bsiri
Issue Number: PV 5
Matrix Number: CPT 5975 (M3-107233)
Date of Pressing: c. summer 1945