The early twentieth century Algerian Jewish pianist Sariza Cohen is still venerated among Algerian musicians and music-lovers but is unfortunately little known beyond those circles. While the biography that follows will necessarily be a partial one given the scant source material available at the time of writing, it will nonetheless hopefully serve to increase her profile.
Unfortunately, much of our limited knowledge of Sariza comes from a single source: a report written at the height of Vichy rule by an employee of the Centre de Hautes Études d’Administration Musulmane (CHEAM) named M. Delahaye. In order to begin to sketch out her career, then, one must start by reading against the grain of a very problematic document.
The woman who would record and broadcast under the name of Mme. Sariza or simply Sariza was born as Zahra Saïac to Isaac Saïac and Hana Aobadia in Oran in 1889. Her mother’s family was originally from Tlemcen. In 1913, she married Abraham Cohen and thus became Zahra (Sariza) Cohen
Sariza was trained as a classical pianist, most likely at the Conservatory of Oran. At some point in the early 1930s, she became transfixed by the Andalusian repertoire, with particular interest in marrying the musical traditions of western Algerian with Western art music. As Hadj Miliani recently unearthed, Sariza’s brothers were also musically-inclined. Her brother Edmond Sayag (Saiac) served as the manager of a number of music-halls and cabarets in Paris, including the famed Les Ambassadeurs. Her brother Max Sayag (Saiac), also based in Paris, was the founder of Maxsa, one of the first French labels to deal exclusively in jazz.
Around 1936, Sariza made her first records for the Polydor label in Paris. On some of those recordings, she was apparently accompanied by the orchestra of the Great Mosque in the 5th arrondisement. In 1937, J. Bouyer of L’Echo d’Alger praised one of her Polydor releases, which featured “Ana louleïa” on the A side and “Y a smer eloun” on the B side, as a “truly original record.” The French journalist was as taken by her voice as with her piano playing. He did make one suggestion, though. Given his “total incompetence in Oriental music,” he proposed that Sariza’s records moving forward, “include spoken preamble, in French, specifying the origin of the Arab melody and its literary meaning.”
This Polydor side, “Plainte” (“Chekoua”), which might be best translated as “lamentation,” ornamented simply but stunningly with Sariza’s voice, her own accompaniment on piano, and strings, may have hailed from those 1936 sessions although the record itself indicates it was pressed in 1938. Nonetheless, the result is breathtaking. And now thanks to Kawther Bentjdipas (a friend of this site and much more), this piece has been further identified as the istikhbar,
“أَشْكُوا الْغَـرَامَ”(Ashku al-gharam), performed here in the mode of araq.
By 1939, Sariza and her records were featured on the “Muslim broadcasts” of Radio Alger. She often came on the air right after Quranic recitation. She also gave a number of high-profile concerts in Paris at this time.
In late 1940, she was forced off of Radio Alger by Vichy’s anti-Jewish statutes. In his report written a year later, M. Delahaye of CHEAM noted that the “Oranaise Jewess” was being compared to two figures just before the outbreak of the war: Mohamed Iguerbouchène, who among other activities, had acted as the composer on Salim Halali’s earliest records, and the Radio Alger violinist Jacqueline Maire, who was experimenting with Andalusian music herself.
After the war, Sariza appeared once again on Radio Alger and on a number of stations in Paris. By 1962, Cohen, like the vast majority of Algerian Jews, had left Algeria. But like a minority of others, she returned to independent Algeria by the end of the year. In Oran, she resumed her position at the conservatory. Alongside Abderrahmane Sekkal, she also served as the co-president of the music association Ennahda (La Renaissance). She finally departed Algeria for France in 1977.
Title: Chekoua (Plainte)
Catalogue Number: 524 448
Matrix Number: 4021 HPP
Date of Pressing: c. 1938
 Hadj 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, 184.
 J. Bouyer, “Un beau disque nord-africain,” L’Écho d’Alger, April 11, 1937.