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Looking For Jewish Music In Morocco

Chris Silver
Some three years after first discovering the magic of musician Haim Botbol in a record store in Casablanca, I returned to Morocco to find his music in cassette stalls across the country. In fact, I got an even deeper sense of the critical importance of music in the Maghreb on this trip. In Tafraoute, in the country’s deep southwest, frescos of musical instruments like the rebab and images of musical standouts from the 1940s like Hadj Belaid adorned walls throughout the region’s ancient villages.

At a pizza joint along the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a banjo on a chair was displayed prominently. When the restaurant’s owner wasn’t making pies, he would strum a few chaabi notes. And in Casablanca, by the former Lincoln Hotel, a cd seller played Samy Elmaghribi’s version of Gheniet Bensoussan for passersby.

 
After years of collecting Moroccan and then North African music in general, I was interested in not only finding dusty recordings from Tangier to Fez but also to collect musical memories. I was interested in how Moroccans, Jews and Muslims, understood and remembered their Jewish pop icons of yesteryear and so I went looking.
 
I started in Tangier and found very little. I figured a Mediterranean port city with a once large Jewish community would herald in an auspicious beginning. Being there during Ramadan hampered my efforts in many ways. Most medina shops were closed during the day. A general lethargy had set in. Additionally, Marcel Botbol’s music club, just outside the medina, was closed and I soon learned he was switching venues but wasn’t due to reopen until the following month. Undeterred, I kept searching. Walking up and down medina thoroughfares and side streets, I finally happened on a store selling clocks that a friend had mentioned. A half dozen sun faded Mohammed Abdel Wahab LPs were displayed prominently in the window. He must have had more stock, I thought. He did but he was too tired, he told me. I pressed him but I decided to let it go. Considering that he had been holding on to records for some thirty years past their utility and interest for most people, I could sympathize with his exhaustion. Besides, there would be other opportunities.
The interior of Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques (2012)
Where Tangier yielded little, Casablanca was a black gold mine. I returned to the places which had launched this musical journey for me three years ago: Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques on Lalla Yacout and Disques Gam in the opposite direction on Boulevard de Paris. At Le Comptoir, also the home to the Tichkaphone label, I snagged a dozen Botbol cassettes. It’s safe to say that Le Comptoir represents one end of the record store spectrum, organized and immaculate, whereas Disques Gam is the other end, chaotic, hot as hell, and magnificent. Gam Boujemma is the store’s proprietor and a repository of musical knowledge. You have to know what you’re looking for here and I did. With every record or cassette he pulled out, I was deluged with hard to come by oral history. Stories of Samy Elmaghribi performing at the nearby Cinema Lux fascinated me. As did his reverence for Albert Suissa. I walked away with a few prize items from his archive including a couple EPs on the N. Sabbah label and Botbol’s only release for Philips.
Two Giants: Albert Suissa on N. Sabbah and Botbol on Philips (2012)
In Morocco, the musical medium of choice corresponds directly to the seller’s knowledge of the industry. Those selling records should be placed at the top of the hierarchy, followed closely by cassette purveyors and CD distributors a distant third. Also, a couple things happened in Morocco in the 1970s that should be noted. One, the music industry was nationalized. Two, cassettes appeared, allowing records to be transferred directly to tape and distributed widely. The era also represents one of the last gasps of the prominence of Jews in the Moroccan music scene.
 
The Casa medina was once a musical mecca for Moroccan Jews. It was here where Salim Halali’s club Coq d’Or, now a textile factory, once stood. Albert Suissa continued to live and write music in the mellah until a late age. So I was elated when I stumbled upon one of the remaining few cassette sellers in Casa’s medina. His stall was impossibly tiny. Floor to ceiling tapes lined its walls. With my eyes quickly scanning the now all too familiar artists, I noticed something peculiar. In his collection were dozens of Israeli releases of Moroccan Jewish artists from the Holy Land. While the Zakiphon labels had been removed, these were clearly Jaffa-based releases of Cheikh Mwijo, Raymonde, and Sliman Elmaghrebi. Here was evidence of a fascinating chapter of music moving beyond closed borders.
 
Found: Samy Elmaghribi in a Casa cassette seller's attic (2012)
I told him what I was looking for and he had everything. I walked away with long sought after Felix El Maghrebi and Zohra El Fassia tapes complete with hand written song titles. On a whim, I asked if he still had records. Without flinching he took a rickety ladder and propped it against a wall of cassettes and started climbing towards his attic. He pulled down two large bags of 45s. I started to comb through them as my heart raced. What would I find? The occasional Samy Elmaghribi EP surfaced as did the odd Botbol cover (including an Algerian release) but unfortunately none of the covers matched the records and none of what he had was what I was looking for. Despite this, I had learned a great deal in this encounter.
 
Before finally heading to Fez, I spent a week with my girlfriend and friends traveling in the Marrakesh area and to its east. Toward the end of the week, we visited the village of Telouet, home to a breathtaking Glaoui casbah. As we left, it started to drizzle and then pour. A nearby café provided us shelter and piping hot mint tea. On our way in I had noticed a 50s era HiFi system at the entrance. Where there was a record player, I thought, there must be records. I started asking the right questions. Within a moment my hosts informed and then showed me that it still hummed along, in fact, it played beautifully. They put on a couple of Western LPs and then brought out two black plastic bags of 78s. These were all priceless 1940s recordings of Hadj Belaid on Pathé and Baidaphon. We were all having a great time. A waiter took a lighter to one of the records to show me this was no plastic we were dealing with. This was shellac! Handshakes were had all around and then I excused myself to finish my tea.
 
Le Cristal in Fez, still bustling (2012)
My last few days in Morocco were spent in Fez. For the first time, I stayed in the Ville Nouvelle. I was captivated. For the tourist and the historian, some of the beauty of Morocco, even in its “modern” counterpart to the medina, is the (at least superficially) unchanging landscape and architecture. Thus my hotel in Fez was located right next to the now defunct Astor Cinema, which was next to the still in operation Astor Bar (home to Fez’s remaining kosher restaurant) and a stone’s throw a way from independence era café’s like the Cristal. You quickly started to get a feel for what Jewish Fez must have looked like in the 1950s and 60s.
 
I was not disappointed by what I found in Fez’s medina. After paying homage to the record-turned-cd label Fassiphone, right outside the old walls, I launched myself into the city’s infamous myriad alleyways. It was not before long before that I located the cassette district. One seller’s stash of Jewish musicians was significantly reduced. About seven tapes were all that remained. He was eager to sell, including what appeared to be his most master-like recordings, but I held off.
 
Botbol, tea, and towers of tapes in Fez (2012)
A twist and a turn later and I had found my man. “Mohammed” cut a handsome figure against a background of thousands of tapes. He saw me staring and ushered me “in.” A dozen pleasantries later, short introductions, a sip of wormwood infused tea, and the cassettes jumped one after one into the tape deck. Mohammed was a former musician and played often with his Jewish counterparts. His familiarity with the scene was astonishing. When I asked about Botbol, Mohammed mentioned he knew Jacob, the father, and then dutifully put on a recording, which he sang every word to. This pattern of singing along with the uttering of an artist’s name repeated itself with a range of performers from Cheikh Mwijo to Samy Elmaghribi. The mere mention of Zohra El Fassia, the grande dame of Fez, brought a large smile to his face. He started recalling the heyday of places like the Astor and Cristal and others. I couldn’t resist, I bought way too much from him but it was worth it. He then took us to his gorgeous medina home for another cup of tea. His roof view rivaled any in the city. I asked him to see pictures but instead I got his address with a request to keep in touch. I couldn’t have been happier to oblige. Mohammed wasn’t sure if anyone still sold records in Fez but I was happy nonetheless. Not everything has been transferred to CD so getting your hands on tapes is the next best thing.
Prized records including Botbol, bottom row (left) (2012)
 
Zohra El Fassia on Polyphon c. 1940s (2012)

I took the long way out of the medina and I’m glad I did. A few missteps and backtracks later and I had located what may be Fez’s last record store. The owner, much older than Mohammed, was also a former musician. Hundreds of records were arranged in some of the most creative ways I had ever seen. He displayed his most prized records, including a not-for-sale Botbol, on one side of the store. At his desk were beautiful black-and-white and sepia photos of his former life. Behind him were cassettes of Morocco’s most influential stars including Samy Elmaghribi, whom the proprietor called the best Isra’ili singer in Moroccan history. I painstakingly combed through piles of LPs and EPs and pulled out impossibly difficult to find cuts. As I continued to look high and low for records, which seemed to be hiding everywhere, I saw a dozen 78s in the corner. I gently removed them from the shelf. Sifting through these treasures one by one, my heart skipped a beat. There it was…a 70-year-old recording of Cheikha Zohra El Fassia made for the Polyphon label. I showed it to the owner. He put on his glasses and said zeena (beautiful). Sadly, the record itself was beyond playing condition but its near forgotten presence in this store still sings volumes to me.

 


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Author: Chris Silver writes about music, travel and the Jewish Maghreb.

Comments (9)  

 
Morcelli
+2 #1 HELLO EVERYONEMorcelli 2013-02-14 11:58
Man do I miss you guys! Hope that you all are doing fine and that you had a happy new 2013.

First thing first, I see that the war between Algerians and Moroccans in Morocco board is alive a kicking and I am scared to jump in, hence, I decided to play it safe and take on Jewish Music in Morocco.

Moroccan Jewish musicians were really good, I had many opportunities to party with Pinhas (jewish) and Naima Samih (Muslim). Two of the best if you ask me, not only as artists, but as human beings. Life was not too kind to them, he got in trouble with the law and she got messed with alcoholism.

Bref, Pinhas was simply amazing, there was no way you would remain seated when he's singing. What I like about him is that he was a true Moroccan and the audience never felt that he's otherwise.

Very soft spoken and always with a big smile on his face. He would talk to everyone after the show and take pictures with everyone including myself and my buddies of course :).

Those are the good old days when Moroccans were tolerant and do not care much about religion. At the time if you are a Muslim, you are for yourself and you do not impose your beliefs on anyone else.
Things have changed now, I don't recognize Morocco anymore, where is the charm and the beauty of the land? Where is the baraka?

Now it's all money money money. Pretty sad.
Man en blanc, nice to see you still remember that annoying Morcelli and I have a feeling that you too know Pinhas.

Riffi, I am happy that you are still carrying the Moroccan torch.

Is Aziz el Alami still around? or he's still in China or some weird place?

I can see that my very good friend Chtaini is posting but not commenting and even asking for peace with the Algerians.
Chtaini, if you are reading this, I swear i never disliked you. I think you are true patriot regardless of our disagreements.

Haras, it looks like you are still digging in with my Algerians brothers.

Let's all dream one day you all, Algerians included of course, come and visit me and we'll have a big party and invite Pinhas, He is in Canada, I am sure he'll come.

MB, thank you for giving us the opportunity to meet with our friends, complain about the Algerians, the Sahara, Bouteflika, and M6

Lastly, I second Mohammed A that we should all get along, I know it's a wishful thinking but hey dreams are free.


Here is Pinhas Enjoy:

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Morcelli
+2 #2 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In MoroccoMorcelli 2013-02-14 12:13
I meant to show this video of Pinhas with Moroccan Americans in Washington

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Aziz El Alami
+1 #3 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In MoroccoAziz El Alami 2013-02-14 13:37
@Cousin Morcelli -- I'm here buddy -- but about to get on a flight to Morocco :-)) Brief visit, will only be there for 5 days!

Thank you for sharing that Pinhas video -- it brings back some wonderful memories.
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Morocco101-Mohamed
+1 #4 BorbolMorocco101-Mohamed 2013-02-15 07:26
In the good old days my family hired Botbol for all the weddings. It was wonderfull!!
Mohamed
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El Mostafa Chtaini
+1 #5 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In MoroccoEl Mostafa Chtaini 2013-02-15 13:43
Morcelli
I am happy to see that you are OK. As you know I do not live far away from you in california. I would love to drive down and have lunch with you some day. MB has my email. I am sure they will give it to you. Welcome back Bro!
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man en blanc
0 #6 A cure for the soulman en blanc 2013-02-16 14:32
Glad to see that you're e-alive and e-kicking Morcelli. And yes, the Jewish Music topic is much safer and less banal than the endless "Algerians-suck , no-Moroccans-su ck" back and forth diatribes.
I do remember Pinhas, Bitbol..etc great Musicians.
I know an old Jewish man in LA, he was born and raised in Casablanca but spent his adult years in California. Every time I go to morocco he begs me to bring him Shikhat tapes and CD's. According to his wife, it's all that he listens to.
Funny how music can bridge those seemingly unbridgeable ravines that separates us.
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Riffi
+1 #7 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In MoroccoRiffi 2013-02-16 15:32
i reminds the good old days in moroccco
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Morcelli
+1 #8 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In MoroccoMorcelli 2013-02-16 20:47
Man en blanc,
You are absolutely right. Music does miracles. Don't all Moroccan love Algerian Rai to the point that cheb Khalid is married to a Moroccan woman and recognizing the the Sahara is Moroccan, see him here wearing sahraoui clothes and Moroccan flag :)

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riffi
+1 #9 RE: Looking For Jewish Music In Moroccoriffi 2013-02-16 23:45
Morcelli don't use the dagger.
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