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.”

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.