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

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.

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.

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.”

Saoud l’Oranais – Gheniet U.S.M.O. – Polyphon, 1934

Sports, like music, matters. In many ways, historians, like other scholars, are still playing catch-up to “the people,” who have long understood this. And as with music, sports has a deep history. Still, it sometimes takes the present to remind us of that past. For those following the 2019 protests in Algeria, music and sports have come together in a manner that is difficult to ignore. Indeed, the ubiquity of the soccer chant in marches across the country and the mobilization efforts led by ultra fans demand attention. So too do their antecedents across the Maghrib.

As journalist Aida Alami noted in a May 2018 article for the New York Review of Books on Algeria’s neighbor to the west: “soccer protest is not a new phenomenon in Morocco.”[1] Drawing upon the work of Moroccan sociologist Abderrahim Bourkia, she writes “as far back as the 1920s, when the country was under the rule of the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, soccer stadiums offered a place to display resistance to the colonial power—and this tradition has persisted since independence.” As historian Omar Carlier has demonstrated, the same was true in Algeria.[2] In the aftermath of the reform-minded Jonnart Law of 1919, indigenous associations in Algeria, including soccer clubs, proliferated. As Carlier notes, most of these sports associations invoked Islamic symbols or holidays in their names, flags, and bylaws as forms of both national identification and anti-colonial resistance. Much like in Morocco, Algerian soccer matches provided a rare interwar outlet for large numbers of young men to gather, spectate, cheer, and chant.

Presented here is what is almost certainly the first soccer chant ever captured on 78 rpm record in North Africa. It dates to 1934. That it was written, performed, and recorded by Saoud l’Oranais, with accompaniment by the violinist Doudane, intrigues. In part, this is because Saoud l’Oranais, the Algerian Jewish musician born Messaoud Medioni in 1886, was among the most important twentieth century practitioners of the high art repertoire of Andalusian music and someone not immediately identified as having sung of topics beyond the poetic song-texts of al-Andalus and its related traditions.[3] But here it is: Saoud l’Oranais with a rollicking ode to his hometown team l’Union Sportive Musulmane d’Oran (or U.S.M.O. for short).

On Gheniet U.S.M.O (the Song of U.S.M.O.), Saoud l’Oranais invites the listener to celebrate the soccer club’s triumph in the Oran Cup of 1933. As the “Champion d’Oranie”––the phrase l’Oranais invokes again and again on the 1934 recording––the U.S.M.O was catapulted into the North African championship, where it would face and ultimately lose to the rather fierce l’Union Sportive Marocaine de Casablanca. Nonetheless, traces in the archives and in popular memory make clear that Saoud l’Oranais Arabic-language panegyric to U.S.M.O hardly disappeared­­––being sung or hummed for years to come. The six minute song also serves as sonic reminder that in the years between the First and Second World War and more than half a century after the 1870 Crémieux Decree, which bequeathed French citizenship to most Algerian Jews and often cleaved them from their indigenous milieu, prominent members of the Jewish community––like Saoud l’Oranais––expressed their deepest joys in Arabic and continued to root for the local Muslim team.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Gheniet U.S.M.O.
Artist: Saoud l’Oranais with Doudane
Issue Number: 45.729
Date of Pressing: 1934

[1] Aida Alami, “The Soccer Politics of Morocco,” the New York Review of Books, December 20, 2018. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/12/20/the-soccer-politics-of-morocco/.

[2] Omar Carlier, “Medina and Modernity: the Emergence of Muslim Civil Society in Algiers between the Two World Wars,” in Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City through Text and Image, ed. Zeynep Çelik, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Frances Terpak, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles in association with the University of Washington Press, 2009.

[3] Presciently, Hadj Miliani made reference to Saoud l’Oranais’ Gheniet U.S.M.O. in “Crosscurrents: Trajectories of Algerian Jewish Artists and Men of Culture since the End of the Nineteenth Century,” in Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter, Indiana University Press, 2011.

Line Monty – Ouine houa? – Pathé, c. 1952

Algerian Paris in 1952 must have been quite the scene. In and out of the Pathé recording studio that year, for example, was a who’s who of Algerian artists including the rising star Line Monty. In Paris that year, the twenty-six year old Line Monty, born Eliane Serfaty and sometimes dubbed “the Algerian Edith Piaf,” recorded six sides in Arabic. On all of those sides, she was backed by Youcef Hedjaj, the Tunisian Jewish orchestral and bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist who was so adept at setting the mood. While four of those sides would be re-released on a single Pathé EP by the end of the decade––including her iconic rendition of l’Orientale––two were never re-released. Now, for the first time in over six decades, Ouine houa? (Where is he?) is available again in all of its mid-century sultry splendor.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Ouine houa?
Artist: Line Monty
Issue Number: PA 2834
Matrix Number: CPT 8691 / M3-135633
Date of Pressing: c. 1952

 

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.