Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri – al-Bashraf al-Kabir [Sides 1-2] – Disques Oum-El-Hassen, c. 1930s

Like all of the releases on the independent Tunisian label Oum-El-Hassen (meaning, “nightingale”), this one begins with the chirping of birds. At the time, the canned singing may have been intended to evoke the caged birds that flanked the many cafés in Tunis where ma’luf was performed. Or perhaps it was meant to conjure al-Andalus itself. Either way, the result is the same: the listener quiets and prepares for what follows.

Oum-El-Hassen was founded by the Tunisian Muslim impresario Bachir Rsaissi around 1930. It appeared at about the same time as his iconic Rsaissi label. Using his Oum-El-Hassen imprint, Rsaissi recorded widely. This included ma’luf, the Tunisian variant of the Andalusian repertoire, as well as Tunisian and Egyptian popular music. After recording locally, Oum-El-Hassen masters were then shipped to Paris where they were pressed by the French Cristal label. The records were subsequently shipped back to Tunisia where they were sold for about the half the price of discs on the Baidaphon label, where Rsaissi had previously been an employee.

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This recording of the ma’luf overture of al-bashraf al-kabir features the virtuosic playing of two of the most important Tunisian musicians of the interwar period: Albert Abitbol on violin and Hayyim “Gaston” Bsiri on ʿud. The flawlessness of their execution must owe to the fact that the two were frequent collaborators, recording together on Gramophone throughout the 1920s and apparently on Oum-El-Hassen and other labels in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, little bibliographic information is available for Abitbol but a few points can be made. First, the blind instrumentalist was regarded as among the premier violinists of his day. In addition to collaborating with Bsiri, for example, Abitbol formed an integral part of Cheikh El Afrite’s orchestra. It can also be surmised that the Tunisian Jewish musician performed well into the 1950s, if not later. The Algerian vocalist and composer Kamal Hamadi, husband to the famed Noura and who came of age at mid-century, once stated that, “no one could play the violin like Albert Abitbol.”[1] The statement was based on his own experiences with Abitbol. As for Gaston Bsiri, much more is known.

Gaston Bsiri was born in Tunis in 1888 to Ottoman Jewish parents, who may have originated in the port city of Izmir. He was both a gifted solo artist and accompanist, who recorded for a host of labels in the 1920s and 1930s including Gramophone, Pathé, Perfectaphone, and Oum-El-Hassen. He was likewise a prolific composer, most notably for Baidaphon. Like many musicians of his era, Bsiri earned his livelihood in myriad ways. In addition to making records, for instance, Bsiri also sold them from his store on rue d’Alfa in the Tunisian capital. What’s more, Bsiri also served as a Hebrew and music teacher at the Alliance israélite universelle school on rue Malta Sghira in the Hafsia neighborhood of Tunis, where he counted the great Raoul Journo among his pupils.

At some point in the late 1930s, Bsiri, like other North African Jewish and Muslim musicians, established himself in Paris. As the Nazi occupation set in during summer 1940, Bsiri, like Salim Halali who was also marooned in Paris, would find himself ever more vulnerable.[2] Nonetheless, according to Journo’s autobiography, Bsiri continued to play publically through the first few months of 1942 and did so possibly by passing as Muslim. Then, suddenly and in unclear circumstances, he was denounced to the Gestapo. Tragically, on April 8, 1942, Gaston Bsiri, the Tunisian Jewish ʿudist and composer of wide acclaim, was killed in Auschwitz.

Notes
Label: Oum-El-Hassen
Title: al-bashraf al-kabir
Artist: Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri
Issue Number: 55.120
Matrix Number: O 209 H; O 210 H
Date of Pressing: c. 1930s

[1] https://www.depechedekabylie.com/culture/148138-je-suis-venu-a-la-musique-par-accident/

[2] Halali would begin recording Bsiri’s compositions, likely in homage to him, at war’s end.

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