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.”

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.

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

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 Gharamophone.com –– 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.”

Notes
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