Albert Abitbol and Gaston Bsiri – al-Bashraf al-Kabir [Sides 1-2] – Disques Oum-El-Hassen, c. 1930s

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.

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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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.

Notes
Label: Oum-El-Hassen
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

[1] https://www.depechedekabylie.com/culture/148138-je-suis-venu-a-la-musique-par-accident/

[2] Halali would begin recording Bsiri’s compositions, likely in homage to him, at war’s end.

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

Cheikh El Afrite – Lamodate Lamodate – Gramophone, c. 1932

On a great number of his records, the Tunisian Jewish artist known as Cheikh El Afrite (1897-1939) narrated a changing world around him. Indeed, the musician born Israel Rozio (and who was sometimes referred to as Isserine El-Âafrite, as on this disc) was the popular bard par excellence of the interwar Maghrib. To be sure, his music captured a moment. It did so with biting satire and salaciousness. Thus derived his stage name, meaning something like “the shaykh of the devilish,” which (almost certainly) owed to the mischievous manner in which he narrated subject matters that dealt with unhappy marriages and disappointed parents. In other words, Cheikh El Afrite sang about the Tunisian modern experience and its attendant pitfalls. And he did so prolifically for a host of labels until his untimely death in 1939 at the age of forty-two.

On Lamodate Lamodate (the Arabic plural for the French “la mode”), recorded for the Gramophone Company c. 1932, Cheikh El Afrite addresses his daughter (binti), a comely beauty with black eyes (ʿayunik sawda) who he fears is being seduced by “la mode”––that which is current and fashionable. Backed by Messaoud Habib on the piano, Albert Abitbol on the violin, and El Malih on the darbuka, El Afrite implores her to listen to her father and mother lest she think of doing the unthinkable: cutting her hair short, for example, or donning make-up. Of course, the unthinkable was what many young Tunisian women were already doing. It is in this way––in inveighing against the bob and lipstick––that Cheikh El Afrite and his music provide us with Arabic-language insight into the potency, power, and pull of what we might think of as the age of the modern girl in the Maghrib.

I wish to thank Rim Temimi for taking an early listen to the record in question and offering assistance in translation.

Notes
Label: Gramophone
Title: Lamodate Lamodate
Artist: Isserine El-Aafrite (Cheikh El Afrite)
Issue Number: K-4625
Face Number: 50-2102
Matrix Numbers: OW 895-1 [Side 1] and OW 896-1 [Side 2]
Date of Pressing: c. 1932

Khailou Esseghir et Sion – Gheita – Columbia, c. 1930

According to Prosper Ricard, the interwar head of the Department of Native Arts in Morocco, Columbia entered the Moroccan market in 1929 at his direction. By 1931, Columbia’s record catalogues in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia each boasted hundreds of individual records on offer. Their recordings were professional, polished, and wide-ranging. In Tunisia, for example Columbia was among the earliest labels to record the mizwid genre, whose principal instrument, of course, was the mizwid or the Tunisian bagpipes. Among those who would record mizwid for Columbia in the company’s earliest years of operation was its greatest exponent: the Tunisian Jewish artist by the name of Khailou Esseghir.

Little is known about Khailou Esseghir but here is what can be pieced together. By the early 1920s, he was very much a known entity in Tunisia as both a mizwid player and violinist. During that time, he recorded for Pathé, and slightly later, he would record for Columbia and then Odéon. Throughout the 1920s, he performed alongside Habiba Messika and recorded frequently with the pianist Messaoud Habib and the percussionist Sion Bissana (who appears on this recording) into the 1930s. He was also one of the few Jewish members of La Rachidia, Tunisia’s first modern Andalusian orchestra, formed in 1934.

Intriguingly, this recording of the 6/8 ghīta (ghayta) rhythm by Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana, features neither the mizwid nor the bendir, the Tunisian frame-drum, which serves as percussive counterpart to the bagpipes. Instead, as Richard Jankowsky, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Department of Music at Tufts University, discussed by personal correspondence, Khailou Esseghir here mimics the sound of the mizwid on the violin. He explained, “that it was probably not uncommon for Tunisian musicians to play mizwid at popular celebrations but then also work in radio orchestras or at the Rachidia, where the more formal scene would lend itself to the violin.” In similar fashion, Sion Bissana has swapped the bendir for the darbuka on this record, although here the change is far less subtle but certainly still expert. Indeed, far from staid, this Khailou Esseghir and Sion Bissana recording of mizwid for Columbia, stays true to what Jankowsky has described as the mizwid’s “piercing, continuous sound,” producing a pulsating triumph of a genre that also happened to once be a staple of Jewish celebrations in Tunisia.

Notes
Label: Columbia
Title: Gheita
Artists: Khailou Esseghir and Sion [Bissana]
Issue Number: GF 450 (W.L.T. 101)
Matrix Number: WLT101; 57401
Date of Pressing: c. 1930

Habiba Messika – Anti Souria Biladi & Ya man yahounnou – Baidaphon, c. 1928

By mid-1927, after two years of fighting, the Great Syrian Revolt had finally been suppressed by French forces––and at considerable cost. But despite the Syrian loss––either in terms of the devastating human toll incurred or the actual end of the cross-confessional uprising aimed at dislodging the French mandatory regime––the Great Syrian Revolt inspired generations in country, across the Middle East, and in North Africa. Among them was Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika.

In April 1928, approximately a year after the conclusion of the Great Syrian Revolt––ninety years ago this month––Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika walked into the Berlin studio of the Baidaphon label and recorded, “Syria, you are my country” (“Souria Anti Biladi”). Alongside her was almost certainly the Tunisian Mohamed Kadri, known as “the King of Piano,” who accompanies her on the piece. For Messika (1903-1930), who had released dozens of discs for the Pathé and Gramophone labels over the previous few years, her 1928 Baidaphon sessions represented a notable departure. As I wrote about recently for History Today (The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar), Berlin offered Messika a chance to record at a distance from French authorities, who were increasingly concerned by the trade in Arab discs of both local and foreign manufacture. Indeed, “Syria, you are my country,” was far from the only pan-Arabist or nationalist number she recorded with Baidaphon. The flip side of this record, for example, contains an ode to King Fuad of Egypt, entitled, “Ya man yahounnou al-Bey Fouadi.”

HM-Baidaphon-Ya man yahounnou

While Habiba Messika’s “Syria, you are my country,” was not her own creation (few of the pieces she performed were), the Tunisian Jewish artist’s interpretation was nonetheless among the most sought after records of the era.[1] And just as the popularity of Messika’s pan-Arabist disc served her well and so too garnered considerable profit for the Baidaphon label, the increasing appearance of “Syria, you are my country,” among Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans threw French security services into a frenzy. In the aftermath of her tragic death––she was murdered in particularly brutal fashion by Eliaou Mimouni, a deranged fan, on February 21, 1930)––Messika’s records, much to the chagrin of the French authorities, seemed to be everywhere, including in the hands of nationalists.

The perception that Messika’s Baidaphon discs were everywhere was not without merit. Messika’s records still turn up across the Middle East, in Tunisia and other parts of the Maghrib, and across the Americas. The copy in the Gharamophone archive, for example, was likely first purchased in interwar Syria before being carried in steamer truck to the United States by Syrian immigrant Saleeh Farroh. As he settled into the great Arab American hub of Detroit, Michigan, the turn-of-the-century born Farroh (or Farrah, as his name is spelled in the U.S. Census record of 1940) placed an address sticker on Messika’s record. By doing so, Farroh not only marked its provenance at the time but allowed for the tracking of its movement until the present. Sadly, decades after Farroh last played the record, Habiba Messika’s song for Syria still remains poignant.

Notes
Label: Baidaphon
Title: Anti Souria Biladi
Artist: Habiba Messika
Catalogue / Matrix Numbers: B 086596
Date of Pressing: c. 1928

Label: Baidaphon
Title: Ya man yahounnou
Artist: Habiba Messika
Catalogue / Matrix Numbers: B 086581
Date of Pressing: c. 1928

[1] Egyptian artist Mohamed Abdel Aziz also recorded “Syria, you are my country,” for the Baidaphon label. On the flip side of that record, he performed the Lebanese national anthem.

Louisa Tounsia – Heukm Ennessouane – Pathé, c. 1930-1931

During Louisa Tounsia’s rise to stardom in the mid-to-late 1920s, the Tunis-born Jewish artist played an instrumental role in carving out a modern Tunisian public. Throughout the interwar period, contemporary newspapers accounts, local observers, and so too those passing through the Tunisian capital and the suburb of La Goulette noted that the concerts of the artist born Louisa Saadoun were different than those of a generation just prior. In a departure from that staging of music, in which smaller audiences were often segregated along socio-economic or gender lines, Louisa Tounsia gathered crowds of both the elite and popular classes, of men and women (sporting a melange of Western and local sartorial styles), and of course, Muslims and Jews. As opposed to the café setting – the domain of so many musicians before her – Louisa Tounsia performed in large venues, filled to capacity, where, as one literary figure remarked, she felt at home among her people. Her fans responded in kind.

Between the wars, Louisa Tounsia’s music, often written by her composer of choice Maurice Benaïs, was heralded in the press and in the literature released by the record labels as a modernist triumph. While much of its modern quality derived from its salaciousness and the fact that it veered considerably from Andalusian music – mixing, as she did, French with Arabic – Tounsia’s songs also gave voice to the modern through their stinging critiques of male-dominated society.[1]

Such was the case with “Heukm Ennessouane,” one of her earliest releases for the Pathé label c. 1930-1931.[2] In the six-minute song, whose title might literally be translated as, “Governing Women,” Tounsia implores her Tunisian “sisters” to seize new opportunities afforded by the current moment while remaining vigilant of men and their desire to govern or control. In fact, Houda Mzioudet, the Tunisian journalist, researcher, translator, and musicophile, who labored diligently on a translation of this record, has suggested that the song’s title could also be understood as, “Empowering Women.” That empowerment, promoted by Louisa Tounsia on the record, was reflected in new forms of socialization in interwar Tunis – including “dancing” the “Charleston” (starting at 1:29 on Side 2).

As with many of Louisa Tounsia’s discs, “Heukm Ennessouane” ends with an exquisite piano solo by Tunisian Jewish pianist Messaoud Habib. Over the course of her career, Habib would accompany her often. But what is most remarkable about Louisa Tounsia – in addition to her choice of subject matter – is the staggering number of records she made for a bevy of labels, including Pathé, Columbia, Polyphon, Baidaphon, Perfectaphone, and Pacific, over a multi-decade career. Given her prolific output and the fact that her music remains so deeply embedded in Tunisian collective memory, curiously little is known about her final years. And yet, if “Heukm Ennessouane” survived passage, other archival documents must have as well. In time, I hope, these too will surface. Until then, the archiving of her music will continue apace.

As already mentioned, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Houda Mzioudet for untangling what proved to be an intricate web of lyrics in “Heukm Ennessouane.” Thanks are also due to Thomas Henry for assistance in dating the record in question.

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Heukm Ennessouane
Artist: Louisa Tounsia
Issue Number: X 55269
Pressing Number: N 98915
Date of Pressing: c. 1930-1931

[1] All of this would earn her the ire of cultural conservatives in her own time and for decades to come.

[2] Why this record was labeled “Constantinois” (“Constantine-style”), given that it was crafted by Tunisian artists, is unclear.

Flifla Chamia – Moute Habiba Messika – Gramophone, c. 1930

There was near-consensus during the interwar period that Flifla Chamia was the greatest dancer of her generation. The Tunisian Jewish artist’s brilliant performances in both Tunisia and Algeria were widely covered in the press at the time. Her fame even garnered her mention in the literature of the period, including in Vitalis Danon’s Ninette of Sin Street (1937), recently released in English with an introduction by Lia Brozgal and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. By 1937, Flifla Chamia could also lay claim to the Tunisian silver screen. That year she starred in Le Fou de Kairouan (The Madman of Kairouan), Tunisia’s first talkie and a landmark of North African cinema.[1]

But Flifla was also an accomplished singer. In fact, nearly the entirety of her family was. Her sister Bahia Chamia recorded for Pathé, as did her niece Ratiba Chamia, who also lent her voice to the Baidaphon and Rsaissi labels. Flifla’s daughter was the famed mid-century artist Hana Rached.

Despite her success, Flifla’s records—like her archival trail—are difficult to locate. This is all the more surprising given that one of her records, “Moute Habiba Messika,” produced for Gramophone in December 1930, circulated widely across the Maghrib. The disc, presented here and which translates to “the Death of Habiba Messika,” was one of quite a few like it at the time. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the twenty-seven year old superstar’s murder, a flurry of Arabic poetry, printed Judeo-Arabic dirges, and commercial recordings expressed a very national grief that attended Messika’s death. That grief, palpable and excruciating on Flifla’s recording, in which she exhorts people “to listen” to the strange (ghriba) and unprecedented (ʿajiba) set of circumstances that were visited upon (Habiba), still resonates some ninety years later.

Update: Upon further listening, two details emerge that need be mentioned. First, Flifla’s song is narrated from the perspective of Habiba Messika herself. So, for example, in her third line, Flifla sings, “Elli jara li ana Habiba (“What has befallen me—Habiba”)—making this recording all the more heart-wrenching. Second, it appears that Flifla is drawing directly on a lament (qina) written (and likely recorded) by the Palestine-born, Tunisian recording artist and hazzan (cantor) Acher Mizrahi. Those words are reproduced below. The sources for this text are Mizrahi’s grandchildren Yaacov Assal and Acher Mizrahi. More information on Acher Mizrahi, recording artist and hazzan, explore here.

Quina ala Hbiba Msika by Acher Mizrahi

“Ya ness essmeou el ghriba
Eli gara li ana Hbiba
Zit men el khedma farhana
Tkhelt el farchi nassanna
Tkel aliya ouahad rhadar
Rma aliya el nar
Ma tkelouch el denia nassiana
Tkel aliya ouahad rhadar
Rma aliya el nar
Ma tkhelouch el denia nassiana
Eli ameli ma khalitouch
I kamel el shar”

Notes
Label: Gramophone
Title: Moute Habiba Messika
Artist: Flifla (Flifla Chamia)
Issue Number: K-4355
Face Number: 25-213161
Matrix Number: BG1228
Date of Pressing: c. 1930

[1] Le Fou de Kairouan was lost after 1939 and recovered in 1989 thanks to the work of Tunisian researcher Hichem Ben Ammar.

Salim Halali – Je t’appartiens (tango) – Pathe, c. 1945

Istwanat Pathé, Salim Halali.” These were the words the Algerian Jewish musician Salim Halali spoke in the summer of 1945 as he recorded at the Pathé studio in Paris. Those 1945 recording sessions occurred about a year after Paris’ liberation from Nazi German control. For many, this recording –– “Je t’appartiens” (“I belong to you”) –– and others from his 1945 sessions signaled that Halali had survived in Paris. It was a question that many Algerians had wondered at war’s end. With this tango, then, Salim Halali not only boldly announced his return to the stage and studio but also made it clear that, once again, he belonged to his public.

Salim Halali is a fitting candidate to launch Gharamophone.com –– the online archive dedicated to preserving North Africa’s Jewish musical past, one record at a time. Halali is a figure who is known in the broadest of brush strokes, and at the same time, a personality for whom almost all of the details still escape. We know, for example, that Halali was born in 1920 in Bône (Annaba), Algeria, that he made his way to Paris as a teenager in the mid-1930s, that he survived the war years in Paris, and that he eventually established the famed Le Coq d’Or cabaret in Casablanca. And yet, all of the rest still needs filling in. Similarly, some of his music catalogue is readily available –– instantly conjured by generations of fans from the Maghrib –– and still, so much of his music has remained unreleased until the present. With the addition of Halalil’s “Je t’appartiens” to the archive, I aim to change some of the above.

Beyond constituting a long forgotten component of Halali’s repertoire, this record also provides a rather remarkable glimpse into his immediate postwar life. Indeed, if before the war, Halali had made a name for himself alongside Algerian orchestral leader Mohammed El Kamal and Algerian composer Mohamed Iguerbouchène (whose names were featured on all of his early recordings), by the outbreak of war, the three had more than parted ways. As Halali went into hiding ­­­­–– possibly at the Grand Mosque of Paris –– El Kamal and Iguerbouchène went to work for Nazi German-controlled radio in Paris. In fact, at the very moment that Halali himself went silent in occupied Paris, El Kamal pressed ahead, continuing to record throughout the war alongside French jazz musicians in the capital.

While Halali survived the war, other North African Jewish musicians stranded in the metropole did not. Gaston Bsiri, for example, giant of Tunisian song –– a recording artist and composer –– was deported from Paris and then murdered in Auschwitz in April 1942.

What is intriguing about this Salim Halali recording – beyond the music itself –– is that the words for “Je t’appartiens,” are credited to none other than the Gaston Bsiri. In fact, this was the case for almost all of Halali’s immediate postwar recordings, which are attributed not to his former Algerian collaborators (turned collaborators of a different sort) but to the Tunisian Jewish Bsiri. Did Halali and Bsiri encounter each other in Paris? It is almost certain they did. And yet, whether the writing credit and its timing constitutes mere coincidence or an act of homage on Halali’s part is unclear. What is clear is that this record begins to give voice to the wartime fate of some North African Jewish musicians and so too to their long silenced output in the days following the war. Given the Bsiri credit and his tragic fate, so too might there be another layer of meaning to the lyric, “I belong to you.”

Notes
Label: Pathé
Title: Je t’appartiens (tango)
Artist: Salim Halali
Composer: Gaston Bsiri
Issue Number: PV 5
Matrix Number: CPT 5975 (M3-107233)
Date of Pressing: c. summer 1945