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