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

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.

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.

Simon Amiel – Mine Cahlat Landar – Polyphon, c. 1934

Simon Amiel appears suddenly on the Tunisian scene around 1930 although he must have been a known entity before he started recording. Unfortunately, precious few details can be gleaned from formal and informal archives alike. Despite that fact, we can connect a few dots. Amiel, for example, like so many of the musicians of the era, was cosmopolitan in his repertoire. Throughout the 1930s, he recorded Tunisian popular and traditional music, songs mixed in Arabic and French, and Egyptian pieces for labels like Polyphon, Pathé, and Columbia. Mine cahlat landar, recorded for Polyphon c. 1934, which starts with a beautiful vocal improvisation (“ya layl”) and then moves on to piano by Messaoud Habib, was typical of how Amiel could make the music of his preferred composers Maurice Benaïs and Maurice Attoun move. By the late 1940s, Amiel began recording exclusively with Pathé, where he was backed by Salim Halali’s orchestra. In independent Tunisia (post-1956), he seemed to have recorded at least one disc for the En Nour label. While the year of his birth remains a mystery, one estimate puts his death in or around 1966.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Mine Cahlat Landar
Artist: Simon Amiel
Issue Number: 45.681
Matrix Number: 1071 WPP and 1072 WPP
Date of Pressing: c. 1934

Reinette l’Oranaise – Ya biadi ya nas – Polyphon, c. 1934

Ya biadi ya nas,” first recorded by the Algerian Jewish artist Reinette l’Oranaise in 1934 for the Polyphon label, represents a case study in sonic transmission. So too does this particular recording of a song (associated with the pre-wedding henna ceremony) demonstrate the power of the record to fix a repertoire at a certain moment in time and then for decades to come. For both of these ideas, I draw on the pioneering work of ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi, who has long demonstrated the intersection of commercial recording and canonization of folk repertoire.

In fact, to give you a sense of the song’s chain of transmission and enduring popularity, consider that Reinette l’Oranaise’s recording of “Ya biadi ya nas” was first released on Polyphon during the interwar period and then re-released more than a decade later on the Philips label. Clearly, audiences were still clamoring for the record years after it first appeared in North African record stores. In similar fashion, Philips again released “Ya biadi ya nas” as a 45 rpm record at mid-century. Thanks to the intrepid collector Farid Hamidi, a recording of that EP has been available on Youtube since 2011.

Let me provide you with a bit of background on Reinette and“Ya biadi ya nas” before we move on to the latest link in the chain of transmission of a song first recorded more than eighty years ago. Reinette l’Oranaise was born Sultana Daoud in Tiaret, just south and east of Oran, in 1915. Blind since childhood, the young Daoud and her family moved from Tiaret to Oran toward the end of or immediately following the First World War. According to Maurice El Medioni, Algerian Jewish pianist and eventual collaborator of the future Reinette l’Oranaise, Daoud was first apprenticed to his uncle Saoud Médioni –– better known by his stage name of Saoud l’Oranais –– at the age of eight (Maurice El Médioni, A Memoir: From Oran to Marseilles, 1938-1962, p. 166). Indeed, it is entirely possible that Saoud was the first to crown her Reine or Reinette, a French play on her name “Sultana” and from whence she derived her stage name Reinette l’Oranaise.

Saoud l’Oranais was Reinette l’Oranaise’s shaykh (her master teacher). Over more than a decade, he transmitted his musical knowledge, especially that of the colloquial hawzi repertoire, to his taliba, who is referred to at the outset of this recording –– made when she was nineteen –– as his éleve (his apprentice or student). That relationship of shaykh to taliba meant that the two were nearly inseparable in the period between the two wars. Reinette, for example, would first make her debut and then remain a fixture at the café owned by Saoud in the Derb, Oran’s Jewish quarter. As the archives make clear, Algerian troops often listened to the two artists in tandem. And as available newspapers demonstrate, Reinette l’Oranaise and her mentor Saoud l’Oranais frequently appeared together on Radio Alger’s Arab broadcast. Indeed, if you listen carefully to the first thirty-seconds of Reinette’s recording of “Ya biadi ya nas,” Saoud himself is there in the background, lending his vocals to hers as she warms up.

Astutely, Joseph Chetrit, scholar of North African Jewish culture, language, poetry and song, has written that “Ya biadi ya nas,” also rendered as “Abiadi Ana” or “Abyadi Ana,” likely emerged during the birth of the recording era (the turn of the twentieth century) in Western Algeria –– possibly Tlemcen or Oran –– before spreading west to Morocco (See: “ABYADI ANA,” 2015). Given that we now know that Reinette l’Oranaise can be credited with the earliest recorded version of the song (in 1934) and learned it from her Oran-born master Saoud l’Oranais, Chetrit’s assesment seems all the more likely.

As for transmission, Seroussi and co-authors Ofer Ronen and Elia Meron at the Jewish Music Research Centre (See: “ABYADI ANA,” 2015) have shown that perhaps the most famous version of the song, released by Moroccan Jewish artist Zohra El Fassia for the Zakiphon label in the early 1960s, bears some remarkable similarities to the original. “The ending cadences of the sections,” the three point out, “and their divisions are identical.” Was Zohra El Fassia familiar with the Reinette l’Oranaise record in question? It is certainly possible. If so, the Israeli artist Neta Elkayam latest show, “ABIADI,” which pays brilliant homage to the Zohra El Fassia and her version of “Abyadi ana”, not only connects us to the Moroccan star of the mid-twentieth century but so too draws on Reinette l’Oranaise and perhaps on Saoud l’Oranais as well. Thanks to Elkayam and her co-collaborators, then, and her reprisal of “Ya biadi ya nas”, we are connected once again to sounds which first emerged on record some eight decades ago.

Notes
Label: Polyphon
Title: Ya biadi ya nas
Artist: Reinette l’Oranaise
Issue Number: 45.719
Matrix Number: 69 HRP
Date of Pressing: c. 1934