Like all of the releases on the independent Tunisian label Oum-El-Hassen (meaning, “nightingale”), this one begins with the chirping of birds. At the time, the canned singing may have been intended to evoke the caged birds that flanked the many cafés in Tunis where ma’luf was performed. Or perhaps it was meant to conjure al-Andalus itself. Either way, the result is the same: the listener quiets and prepares for what follows.
Oum-El-Hassen was founded by the Tunisian Muslim impresario Bachir Rsaissi around 1930. It appeared at about the same time as his iconic Rsaissi label. Using his Oum-El-Hassen imprint, Rsaissi recorded widely. This included ma’luf, the Tunisian variant of the Andalusian repertoire, as well as Tunisian and Egyptian popular music. After recording locally, Oum-El-Hassen masters were then shipped to Paris where they were pressed by the French Cristal label. The records were subsequently shipped back to Tunisia where they were sold for about the half the price of discs on the Baidaphon label, where Rsaissi had previously been an employee.
This recording of the ma’luf overture of al-bashraf al-kabir features the virtuosic playing of two of the most important Tunisian musicians of the interwar period: Albert Abitbol on violin and Hayyim “Gaston” Bsiri on ʿud. The flawlessness of their execution must owe to the fact that the two were frequent collaborators, recording together on Gramophone throughout the 1920s and apparently on Oum-El-Hassen and other labels in the 1930s.
Unfortunately, little bibliographic information is available for Abitbol but a few points can be made. First, the blind instrumentalist was regarded as among the premier violinists of his day. In addition to collaborating with Bsiri, for example, Abitbol formed an integral part of Cheikh El Afrite’s orchestra. It can also be surmised that the Tunisian Jewish musician performed well into the 1950s, if not later. The Algerian vocalist and composer Kamal Hamadi, husband to the famed Noura and who came of age at mid-century, once stated that, “no one could play the violin like Albert Abitbol.” The statement was based on his own experiences with Abitbol. As for Gaston Bsiri, much more is known.
Gaston Bsiri was born in Tunis in 1888 to Ottoman Jewish parents, who may have originated in the port city of Izmir. He was both a gifted solo artist and accompanist, who recorded for a host of labels in the 1920s and 1930s including Gramophone, Pathé, Perfectaphone, and Oum-El-Hassen. He was likewise a prolific composer, most notably for Baidaphon. Like many musicians of his era, Bsiri earned his livelihood in myriad ways. In addition to making records, for instance, Bsiri also sold them from his store on rue d’Alfa in the Tunisian capital. What’s more, Bsiri also served as a Hebrew and music teacher at the Alliance israélite universelle school on rue Malta Sghira in the Hafsia neighborhood of Tunis, where he counted the great Raoul Journo among his pupils.
At some point in the late 1930s, Bsiri, like other North African Jewish and Muslim musicians, established himself in Paris. As the Nazi occupation set in during summer 1940, Bsiri, like Salim Halali who was also marooned in Paris, would find himself ever more vulnerable. Nonetheless, according to Journo’s autobiography, Bsiri continued to play publically through the first few months of 1942 and did so possibly by passing as Muslim. Then, suddenly and in unclear circumstances, he was denounced to the Gestapo. Tragically, on April 8, 1942, Gaston Bsiri, the Tunisian Jewish ʿudist and composer of wide acclaim, was killed in Auschwitz.
Title: al-bashraf al-kabir
Artist: Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri
Issue Number: 55.120
Matrix Number: O 209 H; O 210 H
Date of Pressing: c. 1930s
 Halali would begin recording Bsiri’s compositions, likely in homage to him, at war’s end.