Fritna Darmon – Ouh alia el hachmia [Sides 1-2], Columbia, c. 1930

The Tunisian Jewish vocalist Fritna Darmon was a force. She was also a pioneer. Born sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century, she was among the first cohort of artists to record in Tunisia. She and her music were integral, for example, to Gramophone’s 1907 sessions, one of the label’s first such recording expeditions in the region. Over the next few decades, in addition to appearing regularly in concert, she would release dozens of records for Gramophone, Pathé, Odeon, Anker-record, Orient Record, and the Tunisia-based Bembarophone. Darmon’s voice carried well beyond the bounds of Tunisia as well. On March 12, 1930, for example, international music critic Irving Schwerke happened upon one of her records at the shop of the Padova brothers in Paris. Writing in the European edition of the Chicago Daily Tribute, he remarked of one of her Odeon releases that it, “consists of ditties from the land of Tunis, interpreted and sung in Arabian, and in conformity with the best vocal traditions of the country.”[1] The following year, her records could likewise be heard at the Tunisian pavilion of the Colonial Exposition of 1931 at Vincennes.

Her staggering output was split three ways between Egyptian song, ma’luf and especially the related ʿarubi genre, and an emerging repertoire of popular song which began to hold sway during the interwar period. Indeed, Jewish female artists like Darmon served as the driving force behind what became known as ughniyya, which while dismissed by contemporary and later critics as “decadent,” served as an important vehicle to challenge a wide variety of social norms, including gender roles and the place of women.[2]

“Ouh alia el hachmia” (اوه علي الحشمية) recorded by Fritna Darmon for Columbia c. 1930, was very much part and parcel of the ever-expanding and ever-popular ughniyya tradition. The song concerns a very modern relationship about a young man and woman who have suddenly laid eyes on each other: “From the moment I saw him (ritu),” Darmon sings around minute 2.10, “he loved me and I loved him (habitu).”[3] Immediately afterward, she proclaims, “He asked for a kiss and I gave him a hundred.” But, of course, her parents find out. And the lover turns out to have been less than sincere. She promises that such a transgression will not happen again and that she will never leave her room, but the listener assumes otherwise. If “Ouh alia el hachmia” is performed by Fritna Darmon with a wink and a smile, the two brief but stirring instrumental solos at beginning and end are rather serious. Just before she sings “Ya layl” (O night), for example, we are introduced to an improvisation by Khailou Esseghir on the violin and one by Messaoud Habib on the harmonium. Both were considered among the greatest instrumentalists of their generation.

By my estimate, this is only the third Fritna Darmon record––out of the dozens released by her over her lifetime––to be made available again to the public. The route it traced to arrive at my doorstep and now on Gharamophone was a circuitous one. Its improbable preservation, carried, as it was, across seas and oceans in hurried circumstances, speaks to the importance such sound objects held for so many and for so long. We are fortunate to listen to it again thanks to Marco Soria of Milan. His mother Suzette (Perez) Soria, first purchased this record, alongside those of Um Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and their French counterparts, from her native Tunis before transporting her collection to Italy. Some two years ago, I was fortunate enough to have had Mr. Soria contact me and well, the rest is history.

As for the final chapters of Fritna Darmon’s life, that story is being pieced together at present. Thanks to an initial conversation with her great grandson Jesse Emsalem, we now know that while she settled in Paris at mid-twentieth century, she also spent some years living in Sydney, Australia.


Label: Columbia

Title: “Ouh alia el hachmia” (اوه علي الحشمية) [Sides 1-2]

Artist: Fritna Darmon

Issue Number: GF 427, W.L.T. 55; V 45.572 B

Matrix Number: 57418; 5254 BK

Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] Irving Schwerke, “Notes of the Music World,” Chicago Daily Tribute (European edition), March 12, 1930, p. 4.

[2] For more on Tunisian Jewish women and ughniyya, see Christopher Silver, Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2022), Chap. 2; and Ruth F. Davis, “Jews, Women and the Power to be Heard: Charting the Early Tunisian Ughniyya to the Present Day,” in Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, ed. Laudan Nooshin (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 187-206.

[3] This translation is indebted to the careful listening of Leila Ben-Gacem and the extended Ben-Gacem family.

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.


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.

Khailou Esseghir et Sion – Gheita – Columbia, c. 1930

According to Prosper Ricard, the interwar head of the Department of Native Arts in Morocco, Columbia entered the Moroccan market in 1929 at his direction. By 1931, Columbia’s record catalogues in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia each boasted hundreds of individual records on offer. Their recordings were professional, polished, and wide-ranging. In Tunisia, for example Columbia was among the earliest labels to record the mizwid genre, whose principal instrument, of course, was the mizwid or the Tunisian bagpipes. Among those who would record mizwid for Columbia in the company’s earliest years of operation was its greatest exponent: the Tunisian Jewish artist by the name of Khailou Esseghir.

Little is known about Khailou Esseghir but here is what can be pieced together. By the early 1920s, he was very much a known entity in Tunisia as both a mizwid player and violinist. During that time, he recorded for Pathé, and slightly later, he would record for Columbia and then Odéon. Throughout the 1920s, he performed alongside Habiba Messika and recorded frequently with the pianist Messaoud Habib and the percussionist Sion Bissana (who appears on this recording) into the 1930s. He was also one of the few Jewish members of La Rachidia, Tunisia’s first modern Andalusian orchestra, formed in 1934.

Intriguingly, this recording of the 6/8 ghīta (ghayta) rhythm by Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana, features neither the mizwid nor the bendir, the Tunisian frame-drum, which serves as percussive counterpart to the bagpipes. Instead, as Richard Jankowsky, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Department of Music at Tufts University, discussed by personal correspondence, Khailou Esseghir here mimics the sound of the mizwid on the violin. He explained, “that it was probably not uncommon for Tunisian musicians to play mizwid at popular celebrations but then also work in radio orchestras or at the Rachidia, where the more formal scene would lend itself to the violin.” In similar fashion, Sion Bissana has swapped the bendir for the darbuka on this record, although here the change is far less subtle but certainly still expert. Indeed, far from staid, this Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana recording of mizwid for Columbia, stays true to what Jankowsky has described as the mizwid’s “piercing, continuous sound,” producing a pulsating triumph of a genre that also happened to once be a staple of Jewish celebrations in Tunisia.

Label: Columbia
Title: Gheita
Artists: Khailou Esseghir and Sion [Bissana]
Issue Number: GF 450 (W.L.T. 101)
Matrix Number: WLT101; 57401
Date of Pressing: c. 1930