Lili Boniche – Marché Noir [Sides 1-2], Pacific, c. 1947

The following was originally published under the title, “A Forgotten Song Surfaces About World War II in North Africa,” Reboot, November 30, 2022.

As far as historians go, I look at the past in a very particular way: I listen for its sounds. And as a collector of music, I have long believed that every song tells a story. Such is certainly the case with this phonograph record by the Algerian Jewish recording artist Lili Boniche – drawn from my personal collection – which reminds that the history of World War II encompassed a far wider geography than is often remembered.

Eighty years ago this November, in the midst of World War II, over one hundred thousand American and British troops splashed down on the beaches of Morocco and Algeria to launch Operation Torch. It was a stunning success. Within a few short days, the largest amphibian landing in human history led to the surrender of the authoritarian, accommodationist, and antisemitic Vichy regime in North Africa. It also laid the groundwork for the Allied invasion of Europe. But there were dire consequences, too. Eighty years ago this month, Nazi Germany began its six-month occupation of Tunisia.

The roughly half a million Jews of North Africa who found themselves under fascist rule during the Second World War were subject to a number of mechanisms intended to silence and subjugate. Perhaps that is why their story has taken so long to surface. As with their coreligionists in Europe, Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian Jews were confronted with antisemitic legislation, quotas, Aryanization, ghettoization, and the specter of a sprawling camp system. To reconstruct this forgotten wartime history, historians have been laboring with great clarity of purpose for more than a decade to produce accounts both new and definitive. But for me the question still remains: what does music remember that history might not? In other words, whose voices could be raised during the war? And how might we attend for the silences? For the many Jewish musicians of North Africa, who since the rise of the recording industry at the turn of the twentieth century had played an outsized role in crafting the region’s popular sounds, that silencing took on a quite literal form. Pushed off of radio and off the stage, some of the most important cultural figures of their time could no longer be heard at a particularly dire moment in history. Such was the case with the Algerian Jewish recording artist Lili Boniche, whose rising star was forced into retreat as the World War II reached his side of the Mediterranean with the fall of France in summer 1940.

Born in 1922 to a family of humble origins in the Casbah of Algiers, the young Boniche learned music from his father and from his milieu. As a teenager, he apprenticed to some of the other legendary Arabophone Jewish musicians of the years between the two World Wars. By the end of the 1930s, he was welcomed into the pantheon of virtuosos that was El Moutribia, Algeria’s premier orchestra, where he was quickly promoted as their “new star”––including at the troupe’s annual Ramadan spectacles. Just before the outbreak of war, he became a staple of Radio Alger’s “Arab broadcast,” sharing its sound stage alongside Muslim performers emerging and established. But with the installation of the French State’s Marshal Philippe Pétain and the promulgation of anti-Jewish legislation in metropolitan France and in North Africa, Boniche was prohibited from public performance. He was also removed from the French citizenship that he and the vast majority of Algerian Jews had held since the Crémieux Decree of 1870.

But with Operation Torch, Boniche made sure his voice was heard once again. He intimates that he may have even participated directly in the resistance that allowed for the Allied landing in the first place. As soon as was possible, he resumed touring. He also headed to the recording studio. Among his initial postwar releases was “Marché Noir” (Black Market), a song that spoke directly to the experiences of Jews and Muslims in wartime North Africa. Released in 1947, it is now being made available here for the first time in more than seventy years.

As you will hear, piano and violin set the mood as Boniche arrives at his prolonged lament.

“Oh, the good old days, I wonder if they will return

Their lightness became darkness

Time lost its meaning.”

The twenty-five year old, quieted under Vichy, was invoking the prewar moment at full volume. For much of the rest of the six minute dirge, split on two sides of a 78 rpm record, he narrates the deprivations of the Vichy years, of survival despite all odds, of food rations, and of the emergence of a notorious and devastating black market.

With Operation Torch, the tide had turned. With this record, Boniche made clear that this history need by passed on to subsequent generations.

“Now that goods are available,                       

The situation is settled, thank God.               

We can tell our sons and daughters             

this story of the Black Market.”

Despite the real-time testimony of Boniche and others, the silence surrounding World War II and North Africa has endured for decades. To begin to remedy that, we need to listen for and amplify a range of voices, including those etched between the aging grooves of records. Music indeed remembers what history so often forgets.

Label: Pacific
Title: Marché Noir
Artist: Lili Boniche
Issue Number: CO 7010
Matrix Number: ST-1480
Date of Pressing: c. 1947

Lili Boniche – Carmelita – Pacific, c. 1950

You can read more about Lili Boniche and listen to his mid-twentieth century song “Pourquoi Tu Ne M’aimes Pas”/“علاش ما تحبنيش” here. Meanwhile, here is another side from his postwar sessions with the Pacific label on its “Musique orientale” series. Written and composed by Boniche, “Carmelita,” a paso-doble about a Spanish woman who drives him wild, was a major hit across North Africa when it was released c. 1950 (and possibly as early as 1947). It was later covered by Blond Blond and a young Moroccan Jewish musician by the name of Haim Botbol, both of whom found much success with the song. Listening to the original, it is not difficult to understand why.

Label: Pacific
Title: Carmelita
Artist: Lili Boniche
Issue Number: CO 7013
Matrix Number: ST-1485-1
Date of Pressing: c. 1950

Lili Boniche – Pourquoi Tu Ne M’aimes Pas (علاش ما تحبنيش) – Pacific, c. 1950

Algerian Jewish recording artist Lili Boniche (1922-2008) was born to a family of humble origins in the lower Casbah of Algiers. Raised in a musical family, the young Boniche picked up his father’s mandole early and soon developed a talent for the instrument. By the early 1930s, Saoud l’Oranais recognized that talent and brought Boniche under his wing alongside Reinette l’Oranaise. Just a few years later, Boniche joined El Moutribia, the Andalusian association and orchestra first established by Edmond Nathan Yafil and long presided over by Mahieddine Bachetarzi, where he was quickly promoted as their “new star”––including at the troupe’s many Ramadan galas. It was at this time that the Jewish musician also became a fixture on Radio Alger, backed on piano by his contemporary Mustapha Skandrani. During World War II, Boniche, like all Algerian Jews, was denaturalized by the Vichy regime. His own website suggests that he participated in the Resistance. To be sure, the archives make clear that he certainly sang of the war and of Allied victory. Just a few years later, he recorded a song for the French Pacific label’s Collection musique orientale series entitled, “Marché Noir” (Black Market).

Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the early 1950s, Boniche recorded exclusively for Pacific. Released circa 1950, “علاش ما تحبنيش/Pourquoi tu ne m’aimes pas” (Why don’t you love me), a tango which blended French with Arabic, is emblematic of his signature Franco-Arabe sound, which won him fans from Algeria to Morocco (where he toured regularly) and from Morocco to metropolitan France. While a much later version of this song was recorded in the 1990s and released on Boniche’s “Alger Alger,” on the A.P.C. label, this is the first time that the original has been reissued after more than seventy years.

It is perhaps telling that Boniche and other Algerian Jewish artists, French citizens again since 1943, were still assigned to the label’s “oriental” imprint even at mid-century and even as they recorded some songs that were mostly in French. While scholars assume that the Frenchness of Algerian Jews was a settled mattered in the postwar period, if not earlier, it seems that questions still remained given the steadfastness of those like Boniche to indigenous culture and language.

Label: Pacific
Title: Pourquoi Tu Ne M’aimes Pas / علاش ما تحبنيش
Artist: Lili Boniche
Issue Number: CO 7012
Matrix Number: ST-1482-2
Date of Pressing: c. 1950

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.

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.”