Appreciate this article? +972 depends on your support.

Click here to help us keep going

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

Re-learning history: A tribute to North Africa's Jewish artists

Though often forgotten in Israel today, some of North Africa’s biggest cultural assets were in fact Jewish. Meet the stars who shaped Maghrebi music, from the classical to the contemporary.

By Ophir Toubul

‘There arose the idea of taking people who have nothing in common. The one lot comes from the highest culture there is — Western European culture — and the other lot comes from the caves.’
— famed Israeli poet, Natan Zach.

I, too, used to think this way, and I imagine that a large part of those who went through the Israeli educational system do too. And then I learned about Maurice el Medioni music. It has been seven years since the miracle – since I began re-learning my own history.

Through Maurice el Medioni I learned about dozens of Jewish musicians who were famous in North Africa, before the establishment of the State of Israel. Musicians who received and continue to receive prizes, who are the subjects of documentaries and are generally considered cultural assets of North African culture. It is redundant to state that most of this recognition takes place outside Israel. In Israel, these musicians were at best ignored – at worst they were ridiculed. The following list will provide an example of some of these artists, many of whom have been active in recent years.

‘Treasures from Jewish-Arab songs’ – compilations from North Africa’s biggest artists. It was released in France in the 00’s:
Cafe Gibraltar

A few months ago, I was honored to be part of a group of 20 people, the first Israelis to watch Les Port Des Amours, a documentary film about singer Reinette l’Oranaise. The film, which took no less than 23 years to reach Israel and was screened by the Institut Francais, follows the legendary blind singer/oud player who was loved by Jews and Muslims alike in her home country of Algeria, specifically due to her deep, inimitable voice and her knowledge of the country’s folk music.

The following clip is the only one I could find from the film on YouTube. We see Reinette arguing with her pianist, Mustafa Sakandari, on the length of the Istikbar – the introduction to the piece. In the subtitles, the word Istikbar is translated as “she refused,” because really, what are the chances that an Israeli translator will recognize and identify a common introduction that appears in every North African folk song.

The 2012 film Al Gusto attempted to create a “Buena Vista” for Algerian musicians. Director Safinez Bousbia walked through the Casbah in Algiers and the streets of Oran looking for the big musicians of the 1950s, when the Sha’abi genre was at its peak popularity in the cafes and hair salons in Algeria’s major cities. She collected them, one by one, including the Jewish ones who were uprooted from Algeria, in an attempt to establish the Al Gusto orchestra. The film follows the new-old orchestra’s tour, which continues across the globe today. Jewish artists such as René Perez, Luke Sharqi and Maurice el Medioni appear in the film, among others.

This film was also screened only a few times in Israel, but never made any big waves. One can find the orchestra’s full concert on YouTube, and clearly see the respect given to the Jewish singers.

‘Most of the Moroccans have not understood the idea of what we call the Western world. Perhaps their development is soon to come, perhaps it is happening now, but whatever they brought from Morocco is nothing to write home about. What did they bring? Mufletot? A culture of tombstones?’ Haim Hefer

A singer like Salim Halali, who was one of the great Jewish singers of North Africa, has a message that goes beyond his beautiful music, a deep message that resonates even today – on the future and the different possibilities that lay before us. Through his complex identity, Halali showed that it was possible for Jews and Arabs to live together, as well as someone who respects and follows religious traditions on the one hand, and a secular Westerner on the other hand. His style blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity, and his music showed how Arab and North African music, tango, flamenco and Jewish Ashkenazi music could live side by side in peace. The film Free Men (2011) tells Halali’s life story, and specifically the story of his rescue from the Nazis after being hidden by an imam in a mosque.

Over the past year in Morocco, a concert was held in honor of Haim Botbol, a singer who I had never heard of until that point. The large concert, which was held as part of a music festival in the city of Essaouira, was also filmed for Moroccan television. Alongside the concert, a catalogue featuring Botbol’s entire catalogue, covers of his records, as well as his life story were released. Had a number of bloggers and record collectors (such as Bashir “Tukdim” and Chris Silver) not brought the tribute concert to my attention, it would have passed me by completely.

And what was the fate of the North African artists who came to Israel? They had two choices: either squeeze themselves into the category of religious music and piyutim, or either stay in the Moroccan cultural ghetto or become a joke outside of it. This is how Sami Elmaghribi, who outside of Israel sang songs such as “Caftanek Mahloul” and established a jazz orchestra, focused on liturgical music in Israel. It is hard to imagine what kind of star Raymond Abakasis would have become had she not come to Israel. Or take Zahra al-Fasia, who was the first woman to be recorded on vinyl in Morocco, about whom poet Erez Biton wrote his famous poem. Jo Amar’s story is unique and complex, and Ron Cahlili dedicated an entire post to his story [Hebrew]. Cheikh Mouizo, Nino Bitton and dozens of others who made music here, who came to Israel with a rich musical past, did not even make it into this text, and were entirely forgotten. In a radio show recorded by Amit Hai Cohen and Reuven Abergil, one of them describes a singer by the name of Braham Swiri, who put out records in his youth yet lived the rest of his life in anonymity and sold his recordings outside the entrance to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market.

‘Every ethnic group brought its own import. The Moroccans brought Mimouna, the Americans brought equality.’ Anat Hoffman, Chairwoman of Women of the Wall.

Dozens of years after the migration from Morocco to Israel, Moroccan culture is starting to undergo a revival. More young people are realizing that we did not come here from caves, and that we brought more than just Mufletot (a thin, crepe-like pancake traditionally eaten by North African Jews during the Mimouna holiday, after Passover). The search for our culture demands effort, but it is easier today due to YouTube and Facebook.

Kobi Peretz’s last album signals an interesting attempt to bring back the Maghrebi sound to Mizrahi music. It started with his hit “C’est La Vie” by Khaled Algerai, and continued with his inclusion of a Sami Elmaghribi classic “Omri Ma Nansak Ya Mama” as a duet with with his father, the singer Peti Armo.

And finally, the gem of the young Maghrebi artists in Israel: Neta Elkayam. A rare singer who pores over the treasures of North African music, and who started a fantastic band that revives that very same music. Just last week we saw her collaborate with Maurice el Medioni in Tel Aviv’s Barby Club, showing us that a different future is possible.

Based on a workshop that took place as part of the 2014 Piyut Festival. Thank you to Khen Elmaleh, Amit Hai Cohen, Amos Noy and Neta Elkayam for the comments. Read this article in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.

Related:
Searching for song and identity, from the Maghreb to the Negev
Finding a place in the Middle East through music

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article
  • LEAVE A COMMENT

    * Required

    COMMENTS

    1. Richard

      Another piece about Mizrahi Jewish culture outside of Israel aimed at undermining cohesion in Israeli society and driving a wedge between the evil Ashkenazi and the poor Mizrahi serfs who only came to Israel because of a Zionist conspiracy. Maybe the author didn’t write it for that purpose, but that’s why +972 published it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Brian

      @Richard: Bizarrely tendentious and paranoid and small minded take on a lovely, open-hearted piece about music. It seems you hate the sentiment and the values and truths expressed here:
      “Through his complex identity, Halali showed that it was possible for Jews and Arabs to live together, as well as someone who respects and follows religious traditions on the one hand, and a secular Westerner on the other hand. His style blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity, and his music showed how Arab and North African music, tango, flamenco and Jewish Ashkenazi music could live side by side in peace. The film Free Men (2011) tells Halali’s life story, and specifically the story of his rescue from the Nazis after being hidden by an imam in a mosque.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        You’ve quoted what’s basically an argument for the one-state “solution” and you’re calling me paranoid? You’re being a fool, or maybe you don’t read +972 enough to see how many “look how easy Jews get along with Arabs” pieces they publish.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Mark LeVine

      This article is fascinating, but it leaves out an entire genre–rock music. Perhaps the most important Moroccan rock band of the 1970s, and one of the founders of prog rock globally, was Les Variations, which was composed of Jewish musicains from Fes, if i’m not mistaken. The program of the premier grass roots rock festival in the mediterranean, l’Boulevard des jeunes musiciens festival from 2008, did a big cover story on Les Variations.

      Reply to Comment
    4. NIZ

      @Richard go back to your ashkenazi hole. Lovely piece of work. Jews were always part of the mosaic of the east: Iraq, levant, North Africa, Egypt, Yemen… the list goes on. The problem is not Jew-Muslim… it’s about ethno-nationalism’s disastrous consequences on our societies.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Ashkenazi hole? I guess the propaganda is working on you.

        Reply to Comment
    5. CigarButNoNice

      “Richard go back to your ashkenazi hole.”

      Gotta love the “anti-racist” Left’s racial fixations…

      Aside from Stormfront, never have I seen such obsession with race as there is on the Prog-Left. It’s a dazzling testimony to the Horseshoe Theory of Politics that Far Right and Far Left are both incapable of viewing the affairs of the world through other than the lens of racial conflict.

      In the meantime, reality bears out the conflict between two multiracial ethnicities in the region: The Jewish indigenes of the Land of Israel, versus the Arab colonists who wish to rob them of their only state on their only tiny piece of land in the world. Painting this conflict as a racial one is nothing but a means of obscuring the nefarious intent of Arab imperialist aggression, and the Left’s shameful support thereof.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Brian

      Gott im Himmel! The paranoid mean spirited stuff brought out of you over a lovely piece on music!!! So telling!

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Playing dumb.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Kiwi

      “Playing dumb.”

      Trust me, he is not playing. He is dumb.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Honest to god the crazy negative right wing vitriol over a pleasant article about music!!! The mind boggles!!! There is nothing on Earth you guys can’t turn into fodder for right wing vitriol and rejectionism. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad and strange. I bet you just hate this part don’t you?
        “Halali showed that it was possible for Jews and Arabs to live together, as well as someone who respects and follows religious traditions on the one hand, and a secular Westerner on the other hand. His style blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity, and his music showed how Arab and North African music, tango, flamenco and Jewish Ashkenazi music could live side by side in peace. The film Free Men (2011) tells Halali’s life story, and specifically the story of his rescue from the Nazis after being hidden by an imam in a mosque.”

        Reply to Comment
    8. Eyal

      The conflict is not about race since 70% of the population in Israel proper is to consider as Arab (Mizrachim and Israeli Arabs), the conflict is about the failure of the Ashkenazi lords to integrate Israel in the region by persisting the meant to fail strategy of occupying and oppressing the Palestinians without a well-thought-out exit plan.

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        “The conflict is not about race … the conflict is about the failure of the Ashkenazi lords to integrate Israel in the region”

        In other words: The conflict is not about race, it’s about race. Gotcha.

        Some day, Leftists will make sense. I expect it’ll be right after pigs gain aerodynamic capability.

        “70% of the population in Israel proper is to consider as Arab (Mizrachim and Israeli Arabs)”

        You try and tell a Mizrahi Israeli Jew he’s an Arab and you’ll be needing extensive dental treatment. They love Arab culture but they have a burning hatred for the Arabs. And no, not because of Zionism; it goes all back to centuries of living under Islam’s apartheid rule. The majority of remaining Israeli Jewish left-wing reserves is comprised nearly solely of the very Ashkenazim you Western leftist racists blame the conflict for.

        “…by persisting the meant to fail strategy of occupying and oppressing the Palestinians without a well-thought-out exit plan.”

        There is an exit strategy, that of booting the Arab settler-colonist land-thieves out of the Land of Israel, and I can only hope Israel will have the leadership to carry out that duty soon enough.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Gustav

      Brian:”@Richard: Bizarrely tendentious and paranoid and small minded”

      BRIAN:”Honest to god the crazy negative right wing vitriol”

      BRIAN:”a pleasant article about music!!!”

      Typical preachy hypocrisy by an EXTREMIST left winger pointing the finger at right wingers. Nauseating hypocrisy in fact. Easy stomach …

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        How on earth is the nice, pleasant, very benign article above “another piece about Mizrahi Jewish culture outside of Israel aimed at undermining cohesion in Israeli society and driving a wedge between the evil Ashkenazi and the poor Mizrahi serfs”?? Even paranoids have enemies, but I don’t get it. How do you see the evil lurking in the pages of this article. What devils lurk? Don’t you WANT Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and Arab people to get along and prosper and see not only their differences but their similarities as human beings and explore ways in which they can mix creatively and fruitfully? Don’t you WANT Israel to be an interesting place, a culturally rich place and not a place with blinders, with everyone negative and suspicious and denigrating all the time? Take some medicine!

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “Don’t you WANT Israel to be an interesting place, a culturally rich place”

          It is obvious that you have never visited us, sunshine (yes, you Brian). Otherwise you’d know how interesting and culturally rich Israel IS.

          Never mind. It’s your loss, Brian dear. And our gain.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Oh not true, I was last in Israel in March of this year and stayed with my good friend in Kiryat Ono and visited with musicians, journalists, professors, writers, graduate students, mechanics, etc. A culturally rich experience. You guys on the contrary betray a narrow mindedness that I know from personal experience is not how all Israelis are.

            Reply to Comment
        • CigarButNoNice

          “Don’t you WANT Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and Arab people to get along…”

          Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, yes, but not Arabs. I for one am not interested in having members of an enemy nation populating the one and only tiny Jewish nation-state in the world. Out they must go, to any among 20+ Arab nation-states of their choosing.

          Reply to Comment
    10. Gustav

      “Don’t you WANT Israel to be an interesting place, a culturally rich place”

      “Oh not true, I was last in Israel in March of this year and stayed with my good friend in Kiryat Ono and visited with musicians, journalists, professors, writers, graduate students, mechanics, etc. A culturally rich experience”

      See? It wasn’t that hard. Even an idiot like you can admit that Israel is already a culturally rich place.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        The culturally rich Israelis I know do not feel the need to gratuitously insult those they differ with, nor to nervously brag about their country. They are more secure than that. My best Israeli friend exemplifies magnanimity. From every impression you are giving, you exemplify the opposite.

        Reply to Comment
    11. Gustav

      “The culturally rich Israelis I know do not feel the need to gratuitously insult those they differ with”

      “From every impression you are giving, you exemplify the opposite.”

      LOL whatsa’ matta’ Brian dear? Are you running out of insults? That’s the best you can do?

      Too funny. Psssssssst here is a little secret I wanna share with you. I insult those who are rude to me and who insist on telling lies about the country where I live my life. In case you don’t get it Brian dear, that’s people like you …

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Yeah, well, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          And I once again am reminded that one shouldn’t argue with an idiot (like you Brian dear) because they drag one down to their level and then beat you with experience…

          You just proved how true that saying is by showing your idiocy and bringing pigs into it.

          Reply to Comment
        • Tiredofbeingduped

          Brian… Why waste your energy on such ridiculous people who crawl out of their corners and revel in their ignorance? Dealing with them is a waste of time: History will judge them accordingly. I sounded like them 30 years ago, defending the actions of their apartheid state. I feel so sorry for my Israeli friends who have to deal with such fascists (whether of the Arab or Jewish or whatever variety)… They sound like pricetag people to me. Sadly, we have many such people here in the US who wreaking havoc. All the best Brian… It is pathetic that such people can’t enjoy an innocuous article on musical history. What sad and empty lives they must lead. They are on the wrong side of history and they know it. A terrible shame.

          Reply to Comment
    12. Kiwi

      Yep, no doubt about it Gustav. You should not have argued with him. He does seem to be more experienced at being an idiot than you. And I won’t even talk about the levels to which he stoops to. I will give you a hint though: oink oink!

      Reply to Comment
    13. Brian

      Quod erat demonstrandum.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Gustav

      Seriously though …

      There is nothing more nauseating than a thin skinned heckler like this Brian fellow.

      He has been posting here now for a month or so (give or take) and he has been as rude as they come. He called a number of us racist trolls and he tells bare faced lies about Israel.

      Yes, I called him an idiot because unlike some others who are critics of ours, Brian is not even intelligent enough to take care not to contradict himself. But even this thread shows how erratic his views are. He hasn’t even got the intelligence to keep his assertions consistent.

      Then again, that is how all liars are eventually exposed. They just cannot tell a consistent story …

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        You’re digging yourself deeper, Gustav. Again. You have a talent for it. Pretty soon you’re gonna start serenading me with “I got you under my skin….” Please stop harassing me.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “You’re digging yourself deeper, Gustav.”

          Only in your eyes.

          Stop harassing Israel. Criticism is ok. Destructive criticism and lies are not ok.

          Reply to Comment
    15. Eyal

      They love arab culture..of course they do..its their culture (The “Aghab” culture), even how much the state of Israel has tried to eradicate the Arabness and identity of Mizrachim, Maghrebim, Temanim, Yehudim Aravim, Yahudi ‘Arbi, the blood lines just don’t wash away, yemenite jews and the others that share a similar heritage are probably most likely more Arabs than the people you like to refer to as Arabs, unfortunately are these facts not compatible with the ashkenazi endeavor of nation building, a social construct based on lies and false foundations. Also, with reference to your comment on dental treatment Mr. Sayeret Matkal (CigarButNoN), many mizrachim express their Arabness without smashing teeth when they find themselves in other settings then the Apartheid one. Or is it perhaps of self-preservation they express themselves like that being outside Israel? You answer that question. “We are also a kind of aghabs” “My friend we’re cousins”, “Ah you’re from Jaffa? I’m from Tel Aviv but please let us leave what happends down there, down there”, “Sallam akhi!”. Shalom. Ahava. Inchallah Tov Khabibi.

      Reply to Comment
      • JohnW

        Israelis are Israelis. Israel is a melting pot. Already the lines are blurring between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Intermarriage is common.

        Within a few decades, there won’t be much talk about Ashkenazim and Sephardim. We will talk only about how we are all Israelis. Only racists extremists will try to differentiate themselves as Ashkenazim or Sephardim.
        That won’t of course mean that we will stop talking fondly about Sephardi grandmother on the one hand and our Ashkenazi grandfather on the other. Nor about their culture, music or food. But we will know that we inherited good stuff from both.

        Reply to Comment
      • Rachel

        Eyal,you don’t know what you are talking about. I grew up in Morocco and I have never heard of the expression Arab Jew
        until I visited Israel in the 70’s.
        It is a new label. I have nothing against the term but it is not authentic as we have never identified ourselves that way. Furthermore, many Muslims in the region don’t define themselves as Arab either.
        If some people want to define themselves as Arab Jews, it is their choice. But it is usually done for political reasons by anti-Zionists, radical leftists, or activists. The majority of us refuse the attempt to shove down our throats an identity that is alien to our sense of self. We define ourselves as Jews of Morocco or Sephardic Jews, and even as French or Spanish speaking Jews! How about that? We have multiple identities, unlike those who grew up in Israel, hemmed in by their “Mizrahi” label. This article is talking about music that was popular among the older generations. It was music made popular in the 30s and 40’s, I believe. I never heard this music growing up. It was not on the radio. I find it jarring that the grandchildren are reviving this kind of music in another cultural context. It feels phony. It is like an American hipster singing in Yiddish. It is interesting and I appreciate it but what is the point exactly? How many Israelis are tuned in? Ophir forgets the entire French colonization and its cultural impact on the Jews of North Africa. And by the way, I don’t hate nor love Arab culture. I don’t know it and don’t partake of it. And my attitude has nothing to do with Ashkenazi hegemony and its “nefarious” project to de-arabize us as I did not grow up in Israel. Besides, the notion that a government can dictate what culture people choose to follow in the privacy of their homes is ridiculous. Many leftists Ashkenazim delight in using this term even when we object to it. Why is that? Are they just as racists as the early Zionist elites? And why do Mizrahi activists go along?

        Reply to Comment
    16. Cheklad

      Great to see the revival of a neglected heritage that otherwise would have disappeared. Bridges from the past are ways of finding new links for future generations of our different communities.
      However, I must point out to you that North Africans are not Arabs nor their music-culture in general-. Amazigh for their vast majority but most of the population lives in denial of its origins due to the arab-islamic ideology.
      After the Reconquista the elite and most affluent members of the muslim and jewish communities were given refuge in major urban areas of Amazigh North Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese raided and occupied a signicant number of cities lying on the coast till the advent of the Ottomans at the request of Amazigh dynasties(Except Morroco). The Ottomans from allies turned into ruthless rulers.The urban population of cities where andalusian lived gave allegiance to the Janissaries of the’Sublime Gate’.In return they were allowed to prosper by collaborating with them. The divide and rule policy of the Ottomans. To put it in perspective, from the 16th to the late 19th century only about 20%,if that, of the population was urbanised. French colonial conquest of Algeria was a new chapter in the History of the region as a whole. A huge human cost. Urban centres regenerated albeit to the benefit of the dominant colonial companies. Some communities benefited from it like the Jews thanks to the Cremieux Decree. Despite many of the advantages gained Jews in general kept strong links with their old tribal communities in the countryside and remained attached to their ancestral traditions even in towns.Many Jews have played an important part in the struggle for Algeria’s independance along with their Amazigh muslim compatriots. Official history ignores their contribution. In the cities and towns though the picture is more blurry as many succumbed to the ideas of the “l’Empire Arabe” as promoted by NapoleonIII and his
      “Bureaux Arabes” that systematically pushed the new colonised country on track for its rapid arabisation. The nascent arab nationalism as spurred by the British and the French to which many of the conservative Muslim clergy would adhere would lead to present day arabo-islamism. This snapshot of a turbulent history reminds us that hegemonist ideologies that exclude conviviality and respect of differences suchas that corpus of ideas imported from Arabia by Ibn Tumert of the Almohad and today arabo-islamism nurtured by the old colonial powers have dealt devastating blows to the culture and psyche of all the people of North Africa. Our vernaculars, culture including music are not arab. Though it’s true we too abusively and wrongly tend to accept this misnomer. The Koran written in the language of GOD spoken by the greatest prophets of All Mohamed makes arabs and arabic a divine-like pinnacle for muslims to revere…No better way to condition the masses of believers living under dictatorships. Please avoid and do not encourage this arab ethnocentrism for many nations are suffering from it: Amazigh people, Kurds, Copts, Darfurians…
      Azul !
      Regards

      Reply to Comment
    17. Click here to load previous comments