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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

Label: Pathé

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

Artist: Laho Seror

Issue Number: 10.409

Transfer number?: 428

Date of Pressing: c. 1907-1912


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

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

Sam Fhimat – Hobini ya bneia [Sides 1 – 2] – Olympia, c. 1950s

Presented here is yet another early- to mid-1950s release by the Moroccan independent label Olympia. As becomes clear through the act of gathering records, their catalog was vast––numbering more than eighty releases, among which included Hebrew liturgy (piyyut) and popular music (shaʿbi). Providing some of their output at the time was Sam Fhima (al-Bidawi), one of a handful of rising stars within the Jewish community during the years surrounding Moroccan independence. The exact number of records he made with Olympia is not yet clear but “Hobini ya bneia” (Love me, girl), featured below, was typical of his playful, up-tempo sound. That he was popular is perhaps evidenced by the fact that his 78s traveled beyond Morocco and were re-pressed in Israel as 45 rpm records by the Ron-Ly label, one of the many imprints of the Azoulay family out of Jaffa.

At present, a fuller biography for Fhima is still being pieced together. As more information comes to light, this post will be expanded.

Label: Olympia

Title: Hobini ya bneia [Sides 1-2]

Artist: Sam Fhimat

Issue Number: 1011/1012

Matrix Number: LSP 5339/5340

Date of Pressing: c. mid-1950s

Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana – Hattab El Hattab – Pathé, c. 1930

The mizwid, the Tunisian bagpipe, has long had a vexed history.[1] For hundreds of years, Tunisian Jewish and Muslim communal authorities have objected to the goatskin instrument given the central role it has played in trance-inducing ceremonies––including those mixed in gender and confession and performed in private homes and at the tombs of sainted figures. But for a great many Jews and Muslims, the mizwid, a staple of the rebaybiyya tradition, was embraced with the gusto it deserved. Indeed, although it is most closely associated with a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, owing, in part, to the release of a number of LPs and EPs produced in France, it is important to recall that the mizwid featured among the earliest and most popular Tunisian recordings of the turn of the twentieth century and just afterward. Among the greatest interwar exponents of rebaybiyya, with its signature mizwid and bendir, were the Tunisian Jewish duo of Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana. In listening to their pulsating c. 1930 version of “Hattab El Hattab,” dedicated to the Muslim saint Sidi Ali El Hattab (the namesake of the Hattabiyya Sufi order), their renown, as well as the power of the mizwid to send its listeners into a state of exaltation, hopefully becomes clear.

Notes

Label: Pathé

Title: Hattab El Hattab (Bnaders & Mezoued)

Artists: Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana

Issue Number: X 65070

Matrix Number: N 57273

Date of Pressing: c. 1930


[1] For expert treatment of the mizwid and rebaybiyya, see Richard C. Jankowsky, Ambient Sufism: Ritual Niches and the Social Work of Musical Form (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Much of the above derives from Jankowsky’s work.

Albert Suissa – Ughniyya Sayyid Muhammad al-Khamis [Sides 1-2], Éditions N. Sabbah, c. 1955-1956

Éditions N. Sabbah label was one of a dozen or so postwar record labels that emerged in Morocco in the final years of the 78 rpm era. While the Casablanca-based outfit was closely associated with the young Jewish musician Albert Suissa, whose initials can be seen at the top of this particular record, it also carried a diverse range of other voices. Among the many Jewish artists who recorded for N. Sabbah before the switch to vinyl were Braham Souiri and David Abikzer. Muslims who lent their talents to the label included aita artist Hamid Ould Elhaja. It should also be noted that N. Sabbah, like its competitor Olympia, also released a number of Hebrew records.

This record, “Ughniyya Sayyid Muhammad al-Khamis” (The Song of Sayyid Muhammad the Fifth), likely released in 1955-1956, was one of a number of nationalist songs performed by Suissa which heaped praise on the Moroccan sultan. Among other things, the song narrates the sultan’s exile at the hands of the French and celebrates his return to the throne and Morocco itself at the end of 1955––an event which all but guaranteed Moroccan independence in 1956.

Notes
Label: N. Sabbah
Title: Ughniyya Sayyid Muhammad al-Khamis / اغنية السيد محمد الخامس
Artist: Albert Suissa
Issue Number: 45
Matrix Number: PIGN 45 1G; PIGN 46 1G
Date of Pressing: c. 1955-56

Zohra El Fassia – Kif Youassi [Sides 1-2] – Polyphon, 1938

As we begin to fill out the biography for the Moroccan Jewish musician Zohra El Fassia––thanks in no small part to the scholarship of Tamar Sella––it is important that we consider the contours of her recording career as well. El Fassia (née Hamou) was born in 1905 in the city of Sefrou. As Sella has gleaned from her oral history interviews, El Fassia settled in Casablanca (via Fez) sometime in the mid-1920s and there she began performing. If some of her best known recording sessions are associated with her Philips releases of the late 1940s and 1950s and Pathé in the 1950s, her earliest entrance to the studio––that we know of––took place in 1938 with Polyphon. In a cavernous space at the end of the interwar period, Zohra El Fassia made at least six records for the label directed locally by Jules Toledano. “Kif Youassi,” a song-poem from the hawzi tradition in which the narrator seeks consolation for a lost love, was among those half-dozen 78s made by the thirty-three year old artist in the course of a morning or more likely an afternoon.

But one has to wonder if she did not record earlier. Indeed, in his memoirs, Mahieddine Bachetarzi, the Algerian vocalist, impresario, and artistic director for Gramophone, mentions El Fassia as one of the musicians he recorded during a 1929 session in Morocco. While I have never seen mention of the records in question in any catalogue, it does not mean that they do not exist. And of course, should those purported 1929 sessions be found, you will be the first to know (and hear them).

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Kif Youassi
Artist: Zohra El Fassia
Issue Number: 47008
Matrix Number: 5740 HPP
Date of Pressing: 1938

Ensemble Paul Godwin – Touchiat Dil – Suite Arabe – Polydor, 1929 

Paul Godwin (né Pinchas Goldfein) and Saoud l’Oranais (né Médioni) are not names you might expect to find together on a record. But once again a disc made almost a century ago has managed to surprise and delight. Let us start with a bit of biography. The Polish Jewish violinist and composer Pinchas Goldfein was born in 1902 in Sosnowiec in Congress Poland.[1] His talent for music was recognized while he was still a boy and brought him to study in Vienna, Budapest, and eventually in Berlin, where he settled in the 1920s. In Berlin, he established a dance band and made a name for himself as an artist fluent in the various popular styles of the day. While his first dance records were made under his family name––“Tanz-Orchester Goldfein” (the Goldfein Dance Orchestra)––he soon settled on the stage name of Paul Godwin. By 1928, his more than 1500 recordings of foxtrot, tango, and jazz made Godwin perhaps the best selling artist of his time. For a sense of scale, Lloica Czackis has suggested that the Grammophon label had sold some 9 million of Godwin’s records by 1933.[2]

            How Godwin connected to “Touchiat Dil,” (tushiyyat dil), a metered, instrumental overture in the mode of “dil” and a component of the Algerian Andalusian repertoire, is not entirely clear but the credited names at the center of this record begin to offer some clues. At the end of the 19th century and continuing through the 20th century, European composers in Algeria embarked on a number of projects to transcribe and “modernize” Andalusian music in an attempt to render it, “classical.”[3] While Jules Rouanet was perhaps the most famous of these figures, owing to his partnership with the Algerian Jewish recording pioneer Edmond Nathan Yafil, the Oran-born José Huertas was well known in his time as well. Like Rouanet, Huertas’ compositions were indebted to a celebrated Algerian Jewish musician, in his case, Saoud l’Oranais (né Messaoud Médioni).[4] Owing to Médioni’s labor, Huertas went on to publish and register the copyright for a number of Andalusian pieces or those associated with the tradition, including the famed qasida, “Bensoussan,” which tells the true and tragic story of a Jewish-Catholic romance in late 19th century Algeria. Given that Huertas’ compositions were distributed by the French music publisher Senart and that he was a member of the French rights society SACEM (Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique), the potential for Godwin to be paired with “Touchiat Dil” starts to reveal itself. And while Godwin’s 1929 Polydor recording is a departure from his standard fare at the time and certainty from whatever Saoud l’Oranais must have initially played for Huertas, the Polish Jewish violinist nonetheless gives an evocative performance which manages to capture at least an echo of the original.

Notes
Label: Polydor
Title: Touchiat Dil – Suite Arabe (José Huertas – Saoud Médioni)
Artist: Ensemble Paul Godwin
Issue Number: 22515
Matrix Number: 704 BN
Date of Pressing: 1929


[1] Much of the biographical sketch of Godwin (né Goldfein) is gleaned from Rudolf A. Bruil, “Paul Godwin – Violin / Viola,” Sound Fountain, http://www.soundfountain.com/amb/godwin.html, first published July 2001.

[2] Lloica Czackis, “Tangele: The history of Yiddish tango,” The Jewish Quarterly, Spring 2003, 48-49.

[3] On European transcription projects in Algeria, see, for example, Jonathan Glasser (2016), Malcolm Théoleyre (2016), and Hadj Miliani (2000).

[4] Hadj Miliani, “Fabrication patrimoniale et imaginaires identitaires. Autour des chants et musiques en Algérie,” Insaniyat, 2000, 53-63.

Sariza – Épreuve – “Mihna” – Polydor, 1938

In May 2020, I posted Sariza Cohen’s stunning recording of “أَشْكُوا الْغَـرَامَ”(Ashku al-gharam), released on Polydor in 1938. This is the other side of that record. It is no less remarkable. Here the pianist and vocalist from Oran performs a composition by Algerian Jewish impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil. The title of the piece is given simply as “Mihna” and “Épreuve,” both of which mean “hardship” (in Arabic and French, respectively). Her voice and piano-playing are exquisite. So is the ʿud which adorns the three minute recording.

For many years, the memory of Sariza was kept alive by someone who shared her city and her passion for Algerian music and culture: the late scholar Hadj Miliani (1951-2021). Indeed, it is largely thanks to the intrepid and inimitable Miliani that we know what we know of Sariza in the first place––from her frequent appearances on radio to her close relationship with the revolutionary Francophone Algerian poet Jean Sénac. Deservedly, there have been many tributes to Miliani since his unexpected passing in July 2021. You can read one such homage by Omar Carlier here and here. This post, dedicated to Miliani, is but a small contribution to that effort. He was and remains an inspiration.

Notes
Label: Polydor
Title: Épreuve – Mihna (Yafil)
Artist: Sariza
Catalogue Number: 524 448
Matrix Number: 4022 HPP
Date of Pressing: 1938

Judah Sebag – Elmella and Adon Olam [Sides 1-2], Disques Tam Tam, c. 1955

Yehuda “Judah” Sebag was born in 1925 in Safi as the eldest son of Shimon and Saada Sebag.[1] Six years later, Shimon moved the family to Marrakesh. There, Judah began attending the Alliance israélite universelle school. When he was not in class, he also learned how to cut hair in his uncle’s barbershop in the mellah (Jewish quarter), across from which sat the office of a musician and music promoter named David Zrihan. The regular rehearsals in Zrihan’s space entranced Judah. In exchange for a daily pot of tea, the local impresario offered to teach Judah the ud. The young apprentice quickly obliged.

By the mid- to late-1940s, Judah had made a name for himself as a musician and regularly performed in and around Marrakesh for both the Jewish community and mixed Jewish-Muslim audiences. He apparently was so well regarded that he served as music teacher to one of the daughters of Thami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakesh. In 1950, however, Judah made the difficult decision to leave Morocco for Israel. He joined a growing number of Moroccan Jews who would do the same. But after two years there, he returned to Marrakesh. Roughly 2,500 of his compatriots, in fact, made the reverse journey from Israel to Morocco around this time.[2]

In 1955, Judah departed for Israel once more. While transiting in Marseille, he headed to Jacques Derderian’s Disques Tam Tam store and recording studio on 9 rue des Dominicains. He would be among the many North and West African artists who passed through its doors, including fellow Moroccans Jo Amar and Zohra El Fassia. In the course of a morning or possibly an afternoon, Judah recorded four songs over two records for Derderian’s label (whose discs were pressed by Philips). The first record, presented here, features Elmella, a piyyut (Hebrew paraliturgical poetry) for the circumcision ceremony (Brit Milah), and Adon Olam, the Hebrew prayer which closes the Sabbath morning service. As for Adon Olam, the ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi has identified the tune invoked by Judah and his small orchestra, which included accompaniment on the spoons in lieu of the tar (frame drum), as that of Qaduk almayas, a qudud from Aleppo which became quite popular among the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire (and even made its way into klezmer music in Palestine).[3] How and when the qudud first made its way to Morocco is not clear.

Judah Sebag - Adon Olam 2

Over the next four decades, Judah continued to delight Moroccan audiences in Israel with his music. While by day he served as a barber, at night he performed in concert alongside his compatriots David Nidam (ud), Yehoshua Azoulay (kamanja), Haim Dayan (tar), Emil Dayan (darbuka), and Shlomo Nissim (qanun). He would make one last trip to Morocco in 1995, which left a strong impression on him and his son. After a difficult illness, Yehuda “Judah” Sebag died on August 31, 2004 in Jerusalem.

Notes
Label: Disques Tam Tam
Title: Elmella; Adon Olam
Artist: Judah Sebag
Issue Number: TAM 155-1; TAM 155-2
Matrix Number: ACP 3876; ACP 3877
Date of Pressing: c. 1955

[1] My sincerest thanks to Avi Sabbag for his invaluable assistance in filling out his father’s biography.

[2] Michael Laskier, North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century: The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 126.

[3] Written correspondence with Professor Edwin Seroussi, June 2016.

Aroun Haouzi El Baidi – Koumtarra Barahim, Polyphon, 1932

This entry will no doubt change as more information comes to light. In the meantime, here are the few details we can begin to piece together on the life and career of the Algerian artist Aroun Haouzi, more commonly known as Aroun Haouzi El Baidi. Haouzi was born in eastern Algeria around the beginning of the twentieth century. As his recording name suggests, El Baidi could trace his origins to Aïn Beïda although it seems that he may have spent his earliest years in the larger entrepôt of Constantine as so many from the region did. It is also possible that Haouzi was the child of a certain Chaloum Haouzi and Rina bent Fredj Zerbib, married in Aïn Beïda in 1886, although at present that is impossible to determine.

The relatively small town of Aïn Beïda, south of Constantine and west of Tunisia, supplied a number of prominent practitioners of maluf, the Andalusian tradition straddling the Algerian-Tunisian border. In addition to our El Baidi, there was also Eliaou Assoun “El Baidi”, who recorded extensively for Pathé and Gramophone. Both El Baidis recorded at the same time in the 1920s and 1930s.

Aroun Haouzi El Baidi made a number of discs with the Pathé and Polyphon labels in the early 1930s. Among them, El Baidi recorded the classic “Qum Tara” (Arise, see the almond blossoms) for Polyphon in 1932.

El Baidi’s strong vocals, which begin with the repetition of “ya layl,” are punctuated by the early introduction of the zurna, a woodwind instrument found not only in Algeria but in the Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia as well. As you will hear, there is also a shoutout to the violinist Youssef on side 1. Could this have been Youssef Benzarti, who also recorded for Polyphon at the time? If so, does this mean that his relative (brother?) Haroun Benzarti, a famed zurna player (zurnaji), was also captured here? Hopefully those with more knowledge will weigh in soon.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Koumtarra Barahim (قوم ترا براهيم) [Sides 1-2]
Artist: Aroun Haouzi el Baidi
Issue Number: V 45.564 A; V 45.564 B
Matrix Number: 5237 BK; 5238 BK
Date of Pressing: 1932

Raoul Journo – Habbit ana habbit [Sides 1-2] – Philips (Polyphon), 1937

This is not a complete history of Raoul Journo, one of the great Tunisian vocalists of the interwar period and mid-twentieth century, but it should give us at least a sense of his earliest years and recordings. Raoul was born in 1911 to Joseph Journo and Zouïaza Journo (née Chiche) in a working-class neighborhood in Tunis (on rue Tronja to be exact). The Journos, including their five children, lived in a home shared with six other families. The courtyard was to be Raoul’s first stage.

The young Journo began singing at an early age. He learned much from his mother. The same was true of the phonograph, employed at nearby cafés, which attracted him and other customers. We need add that his passion for music and his adroitness for it was also incubated in the traditional Jewish school he attended (kutab) and the synagogues he frequented, where some of the standout musicians and recording artists of his era gathered to chant. Perhaps more surprisingly, it was at the Alliance israélite universelle where he began to develop and then expand a repertoire. His music teacher there was none other than Gaston Bsiri, who twice weekly taught him Tunisian, Egyptian, and Tripolitanian songs. Bsiri soon gave the promising upstart private lessons at his home.

By the age of fifteen, when he left school, Journo had launched an amateur career with a small ensemble. Within a couple of years, he also began acting and did so alongside the likes of Habiba Messika and Dalila Taliana.

His big break occurred in the early 1930s when the pianist Messaoud Habib, who was also Pathé’s artistic director in country, arranged for a recording session at the Hotel Moderne on rue de Constantine. What happened to that first record is unclear. But that he had talent was obvious. Around 1932, he headed to Paris where he began recording for Polyphon. He would record for the label regularly until the outbreak of the Second World War. In the meantime, his discs were played with stunning frequency on Radio Tunis and Radio Alger and were sold from Tunisia to Morocco in the thousands. He had become a star.

“Habbit ana habbit” (I loved, I loved) comes from a 1937 recording session with Polyphon (re-released from the masters postwar by Philips). If nothing else, his powerful and yet supple voice stands out here. So does a considerable influence from Egypt.

Notes
Label: Philips (originally released on Polyphon)
Title: Habbit ana habbit [حبيت انا حبيت]
Artist: Raoul Journo
Issue Number: 46.016
Matrix Number: 3269 HPP; 3270 HPP
Date of Pressing: 1937