Recording History
Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa
Christopher Silver



Sometime in 1959, in the midst of the Algerian War (the bloody, anticolonial struggle which resulted in Algerian independence after more than 130 years of French rule), the famed Algerian Jewish musician Lili Labassi (né Elie Moyal) walked through the doors of RCA in Algiers to record the era’s last shellac discs. For five decades, that brittle, heavy, and yet durable technological medium, which contained approximately three minutes of music per side, had held. As it did for Labassi, it made innumerable artists popular and made countless songs ubiquitous in the lives of North Africans. It also furnished a heritage. Indeed, the recently opened flagship store and studio of RCA (Recording Corporation of America), in a prime location on rue Dumont d’Urville, was very much a newcomer to a region with a long history of recording. Labassi, whom RCA believed to be critical to the success of its North African catalog, had been making records in the country since the 1920s. And the North African recording industry could trace its origins to the last years of the nineteenth century, to a place not far from where RCA now stood. It was there and then, in Algiers’ lower Casbah, that the pioneering Edmond Nathan Yafil, another Algerian Jew, began to gather the tremendous Jewish and Muslim musical talent in his midst before a large phonograph horn, in order to funnel their sounds, with the aid of a cutting stylus, first onto wax cylinders and then onto shellac records.

In many ways, Labassi’s RCA releases served as an embodiment of the continuity of the recording industry’s past and near present and the resilience of the shellac record. The introduction that opened each disc, spoken just before the artist bowed his violin, adhered to roughly the same formula as it did in the 1890s when recordings were being released on cylinder: “RCA Records presents the famed singer Lili Labassi and his ensemble.” Much as he had apprenticed with his father Joseph before him, now Labassi’s ensemble included his disciple and son Robert Moyal. The young Moyal (soon to act under the French name of Castel, with which he would gain tremendous celebrity) plucked away at the ʿud, accompanying his famous father who held his signature instrument upright on his knee. “For me, it was solemn,” Castel later wrote of the recording sessions which produced records even he himself no longer possessed.1 “I thought that these records had been etched for eternity,” he would lament, “the luth,” his ʿud, languishing “in the grooves of the song Ezhiro [Azhiru].” Labassi’s “Azhiru” (The beauty) proved another link. In addition to interpreting and ornamenting the various genres associated with the Andalusian repertoire, the Jewish musician had composed and recorded hundreds of songs like “Azhiru,” helping give voice to a genre known as shaʿbi (popular).

The RCA catalog was, indeed, popular, pulsating, and sometimes political, even if scholars have tended to focus on the persistence of the high prestige, classical, and reserved Andalusian tradition (al-musiqa al-andalussiya, la musique andalouse).2 Cheikh Djilali Ain-Tedelès (né Djilali Belkaouis), a Muslim musician who must have passed Labassi in the studio hallway, recorded the Bedouin repertoire from the Oran region that would serve as the basis for the emerging and electric sounds of raï.3 Nadjet Tounsia (née Fortunée Zeitoun), a Tunisian Jewish vocalist who appeared regularly on Radio Alger and in the press, recorded a much-sought-after modern Tunisian music, which took many of its cues from the Egyptian scene. In addition to “Azhiru,” Labassi’s anthems, dedicated to Algeria’s principal cities of Algiers, Oran, and Constantine, were profound lyrical acts. As the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French government and military engaged in a fierce battle over the fate of Algeria, Arabic-language music valorizing contested capitals was no small matter.

At mid-twentieth century, Lili Labassi and Nadjet Tounsia were among many, interconnected Jewish recording artists of their stature to move across North Africa (al-Maghrib). In 1952, Tounsia toured for the second time in as many years with the rising Moroccan Jewish star Samy Elmaghribi, doing so “in Casablanca and in all of the cities of the interior, Tangier, and all of the cities of Spanish Morocco,” and with a contract-mandated minimum of four costume changes per engagement.4 In turn, Elmaghribi, whose mere appearance in public drew large crowds of adoring fans, often credited Labassi as an inspiration.5 At venues like Le Bristol, Dancing Vox, and Le Boléro in Casablanca, all of these musicians crossed paths and rubbed shoulders with the legendary Salim Halali. Having recorded with the Pathé label since 1939 and survived World War II while hidden in the Grand Mosque of Paris, this Algerian Jewish musician reemerged after the war with a new repertoire that enthralled admirers from metropolitan France to Morocco and across North Africa. He was considered to have “the most beautiful Arab male voice of the postwar era.”6 He had also become the best-selling North African recording artist of all time.7

The popular songs of Halali and Elmaghribi, performed live before thousands of Muslims and Jews and released on shellac records also in the thousands, skillfully blended Latin rhythms, swing, and other styles with vernacular Arabic to express decidedly modern takes on life, love, and the nation. Both artists were regulars at the royal palace and vocal supporters of the increasingly defiant Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef. The soundtrack for the Moroccan drive for independence was largely provided by Elmaghribi, whose political repertoire, released on his independent record label Samyphone, attracted attention from major anticolonial nationalist parties like the Istiqlal, French intelligence agents, and most importantly, ordinary Moroccans, as well as Algerians. Whether in concert, on radio, by way of record, or merely hummed in marketplaces, the sounds of Halali and Elmaghribi were everywhere. Their secular melodies were quickly rendered sacred by vaunted figures like Rabbi David Bouzaglo, who incorporated them into the synagogue service in an attempt to attract members of his community to Jewish prayer through Arab music.8 Reflecting on the profane and the holy, Labassi’s son Castel would later describe “Arab music” as his “second religion.”9

Halali, Elmaghribi, Tounsia, and Labassi were among the most audible and influential cultural figures of an era of profound change and critical importance, one in which Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria began to chart their own political futures in the absence of French colonial rule. The records of these and other artists set the tone for the period in question. Yet most histories of mid-twentieth century North Africa mention Jews only in passing and usually in reference to their departures. And music, if discussed at all, might get little more than a nod or a note. Tens of thousands of Jews did leave Morocco and Tunisia for France, Israel, and North America between Israel’s establishment in 1948 and Moroccan and Tunisian independence in 1956. The vast majority of Algerian Jews, French citizens since 1870, would wait until just before and after Algerian independence in 1962 to restart their lives in France as “repatriates” of a country that most had never visited. Halali, Elmaghribi, Tounsia, and Labassi resisted as long as possible, but they, too, eventually succumbed and departed. But departure alone does not explain the silencing of the sounds of mid-twentieth century North Africa nor of the many years leading up to it. For a fuller explanation, we must return to the shellac record.

In 1959, as RCA began operations in North Africa, it became the last major label in the region ever to press new music on the old format of shellac. Since its introduction in 1948, the “unbreakable” vinyl record, which was quicker to produce, easier to store, and held far more music, had steadily displaced the technology of the past five decades. By 1959, there was no looking back as far as the recording industry was concerned. Some, like RCA, released shellac and vinyl simultaneously. But most shellac records would never make the transition to vinyl nor be preserved with an eye for perpetuity. As a result of their seeming obsolescence, an untold number of discs were discarded or otherwise disappeared. With them went the sounds of a half century.

Given all I describe, it is entirely reasonable that Labassi’s son Castel would lament the lost “Azhiru,” that record that captured his young self on ʿud alongside his famous father. He believed the last remaining copy of this disc—and with it, a world of North African music—was forever gone. How delighted I am to have proved him otherwise.

In 2011, more than fifty years after it was first produced for RCA, I had the spectacular fortune of happening upon an original, pristine copy of the Labassi record in question. Packed with care and then brought to Israel by a Moroccan or Algerian migrant sometime after 1959—perhaps via France—it sat unplayed in an apartment crawlspace in a remote development town before making its way to an Ebay seller just outside Tel Aviv, who placed it for sale online. I bought it and it journeyed once more. What follows is a story which could not have been written without the surfacing of that disc and hundreds of others like it. Tracing an arc along the trajectory of a technology, this book excavates the sounds embedded in the grooves of a forgotten musical medium. My goal is to render audible a Jewish-Muslim past which has been quieted for far too long.

FIGURE 1. Lost and found: Lili Labassi’s “Azhiru,” RCA F 88.037, 1959—in its original sleeve. Personal collection of author.

A Deep Prelude and a Modern One

In the late 1890s, Edmond Nathan Yafil, an Algerian Jewish twenty-something raised on the music which enveloped his working-class neighborhood, began putting the infrastructure in place to revive a musical tradition—his tradition—which he referred to variously but perhaps most significantly as “the words of al-Andalus” (kalam al-andalus).10 As others were beginning to do, he identified “the words of al-Andalus,” in part, with the multimodal repertoire known around the capital Algiers and to the west in Tlemcen as “ghernata” (gharnati, from Granada), inherited from the “old Moors of the eighth and ninth centuries.”11 Yafil was motioning to what Jonathan H. Shannon and Carl Davila have referred to as the emerging “standard narrative” of Andalusian music, whose modern iteration he was also very much in the process of shaping.12

That standard narrative begins around the year 822, when the Baghdadi musician Ziryab (born Abu l-Hasan ibn Nafi) arrived in Cordoba via Qayrawan (in present-day Tunisia) at the court of the newly crowned Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman II. Chaperoning him on his journey from North Africa to al-Andalus was the influential Umayyad court musician whose name has been left to us simply as Mansur al-Yahudi (Mansur the Jew).13 Even in its purported origins, the seeds of a rather remarkable Muslim-Jewish tale had been planted. At the caliphal court Ziryab ushered in “the splendid era of Arab music in Spain.”14 Among his many activities, he “founded the first school of music, added a fifth string to the ʿud, taught a corpus of several thousand songs, and developed distinct music structures, including the rudiments of the nawba (or nuba, “suite”) form, common in contemporary Andalusian musical traditions.”15 Central to the developing nuba (pl. nubat) was muwashshah (pl. muwashshahat), a strophic (or verse-repeating) poetic form which gained preeminence alike in Arabic and Hebrew and which was particularly well suited to music. Therein lay its attraction which, in addition to its subject matter, included “union with the beloved, separation, desire, wine, and the natural world as embodied in the garden.”16

But even if the “rudiments” of the North African suite music known as the nuba were already present in al-Andalus, scholars now agree that it did not move out of the Iberian Peninsula as a whole or finished product with the fall of Granada in 1492. In fact, what became identified as the nuba in early modern North Africa was markedly different from Ziryab’s music in both melody and rhythm. In the cities of Saʿdi and then ʿAlawi Morocco and the Ottoman regencies of Algiers and Tunis, many of the song texts performed by Jewish and Muslim musicians were based on muwashshah of post-Andalusian provenance.17 In other words, terms like nuba were applied to a varied North African art music which looked back to al-Andalus but whose meaning and substance were being shaped and reshaped in-house. Shared terminology reminds us that the standard narrative of the nuba, even if revised, is often used to stand in for the totality of music in North Africa over half a millennium and therefore necessarily falls short in capturing its diversity. Stambeli, for instance, a trance music developed and practiced in Tunisia by the descendants of enslaved sub-Saharan men and women, also employs the word nuba but in reference to particular tunes (not suites), imbuing it with an import all its own.18 Likewise, the word diwan, which refers to a collection of song texts when applied to “the words of al-Andalus,” figures in multiple traditions, including as the name for a nocturnal healing ritual among the Bilaliyya order in Algeria.19

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, songbook compilations in manuscript form began to explicitly link and refer to the nuba as it was performed in North Africa as “Andalusian” (Andalusi). Among them was the foundational kunnash (notebook) of the Moroccan jurist Muhammad Ibn al-Husayn al-Haʾik, which likely appeared sometime after 1788.20 This is when we might begin to date the relatively recent consolidation of a music identified as Andalusian into a heritage known as “Andalusian music,” although its practitioners would be the first to admit that it was never practiced as a single tradition. If for Yafil Andalusian music was gharnati, as it was for those in a geographic area extending to the Moroccan-Algerian border, it was al-ala for the inhabitants of northern Morocco and maʾluf for Jews and Muslims dwelling between eastern Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli, Libya. Whatever it was named, Yafil feared it at risk of disappearing due to the elapse of time and to the failure of manuscript holders to get with the times by committing their collections to the modern medium of print. Moving from print to recording, he dedicated his life to reversing a trend that had accelerated since France had led a violent conquest of Algeria more than half a century earlier.

In the French imagination, Yafil, as an Algerian Jew, was supposed to have distanced himself from this “native art” (l’art indigène), as it was reified and debased in colonial parlance, by the 1890s. The combined effects of the French conquest of Ottoman Algiers in 1830, the annexation of Algeria to the metropole in 1848, the 1870 Crémieux Decree, which legally transformed arabophone northern Algerian Jews into French citizens, and the ongoing “civilizing mission,” were to have steered Yafil and his coreligionists away from all things native, including Muslims (who remained subjects of empire), and toward acculturation into France.21 Much of this was also true in Tunisia and Morocco, which were made French protectorates in 1881 and 1912, respectively. While Tunisian and Moroccan Jews were not naturalized en masse, Crémieux being regarded as a mistake by colonial officials, members of this non-Muslim minority group were deemed, in the words of Tunisian Jewish writer Albert Memmi, “candidates for assimilation.”22> In advance of French occupation, in fact, French Jews thought similarly. Through schooling, the Franco-Jewish educational system of the Alliance israélite universelle (AIU), founded in 1860 by, among others, the same Adolphe Crémieux whose name was attached to the Algerian decree, pushed forward a “regenerative” program to modernize and make French their brothers and sisters in North Africa. The first ever AIU school opened its doors in Tetouan, Morocco, in 1862. By 1878, it had moved into Tunisia as well. Dozens of others would follow. By the eve of World War I, the AIU could count some thousands of French-speaking graduates, many of whom now filled important and intermediate positions in the colonial economy.

Most accounts of twentieth-century North African Jewish history trace a line along that path to assimilation in what Memmi has described of his fellow travelers as “their efforts to forget the past, to change collective habits, and their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs.”23 This is not one of them. Indeed, for that story to work, we must ignore figures like Yafil. In similar fashion, most historical accounts of North African music during that same period—of Jewish emancipation and then dislocation—extend the standard narrative of Andalusian music forward. But telling the story along that model, I contend, is to get lost in Yafil’s words and/or to ignore what he and his successors recorded.

Toward a History Written in Grooves

Some 120 years ago, the recording industry was born in North Africa. The leading figure behind it was our very own Yafil.24 Ever the impresario, he had already put to use the major technology of the day to record the most renowned musicians of his generation on cylinder and then disc even before international labels like Gramophone, Odeon, and Pathé arrived on the scene in Algiers, Tunis, and elsewhere in North Africa. In quick succession, those companies recruited him to represent their interests and to serve as their artistic director. Thanks to Yafil, the pages of early twentieth-century North African record catalogs were filled with Jewish vocalists and instrumentalists, alongside a minority of Muslims. Their output, increasingly dedicated to all styles popular, topical, and comedic then emerging, as well as to the Andalusian repertoire, was initially labeled by the major companies as “Arab music” but then increasingly packaged in national terms as either “Algerian,” “Moroccan,” or “Tunisian,” depending on the context. Such was the nature of rendering music commercial.

Immediately before and after World War I, additional labels moved into North Africa as homegrown ones developed too. Again, their representatives and concessionaires were for the most part Jews who served as talent scouts, producers, and distributors. Their products, shellac records ranging from 10 to 11-1/2 inches in diameter (sometimes bigger) and which spun, in general, at 78 rotations per minute (rpm), reproduced approximately three minutes of music per side; they were recorded locally and then pressed in places like Germany and France before being made available for purchase in cities all across North Africa. Records were sold to individual Jews and Muslims and as well to a network of Jewish and Muslim middlemen who then resold them to the far reaches of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and across colonial and imperial borders. Consumed in cafés, bars, restaurants, cabarets, theaters, and even brothels as well as in private homes, record sales exploded in the interwar period. In part, this was thanks to the advent of electrical recording via the microphone, which allowed for a greater range of sounds to be captured on disc.

Radio emerged. So did stars and superstars. At the forefront of that celebrity and notoriety was a coterie of young Jewish women who recorded words both Arabic and French, salacious and subversive. They rose against a backdrop of popular melodies crafted by Jewish composers and drawn from the foxtrot, inspired by the Charleston, and indebted to a robust music scene in Egypt. In the concert halls where these “modern girls” reigned, new ideas about love, marriage, the role of women, and the nation were communicated at full volume to Jews and Muslims of diverse classes, who managed to gather in large numbers and listen collectively despite a French colonial system designed to keep them apart.25

So Jewish was Arab music across North Africa between the two world wars that it begged constant comment from contemporaneous observers. Algeria proves a particularly illuminating case study. Some, like writer Gabriel Audisio, son of the director of the Algiers Opera, saw fit to acknowledge in a 1930 review of the Parlophone label’s entrance to the Algerian market that “the native professionals of Algiers are for the most part, as elsewhere, the Jews of the country.” He added, “this is a point that one should not neglect in the study of this music.”26 To French colonial officials, Jewish fidelity to their “native” language and music seemed to betray their status as citizens and as heirs to a civilizing mission more than five decades in the making. That some of their recorded music was also nationalist and anticolonial, even pan-Arabist, confused and angered intelligence agents and bureaucrats who noted with growing trepidation the role played by Jewish “auxiliaries” in spreading what Rebecca Scales has referred to as “subversive sound.”27

Muslim elites were sometimes none too pleased themselves. At the very moment that Audisio made his remarks, Mahieddine Bachetarzi, Yafil’s Muslim disciple and successor, was confronted with “a widespread grievance” then current in Algiers. The novelist and critic Abdelkader Hadj Hammou delivered the message to the tenor known as the “Caruso of the Desert”: El Moutribia, the acclaimed Algerian orchestra founded by Yafil and whose direction he had inherited, was too Jewish, its repertoire not faithful enough to al-Andalus, and its sound too popular. Bachetarzi responded at first by defending Yafil, then by describing his own failed efforts to recruit Muslims to his orchestra. He lamented, “it is extremely unfortunate that an artistic effort has aroused confessional conflict. Good relations would have done much more to aid the development of Arab music.”28 He meant the admixture of Muslim musicians to the Jewish base of pioneering musicians, like early recording artists and founding members of El Moutribia Eliaou “Laho” Seror and Saül “Mouzino” Durand, who had transformed Arab music since just before the turn of the twentieth century. After all, Bachetarzi reminded, “Jews, Yafil, Laho Seror, Mouzino had been the first to spread it.” Despite their confession, this was not “Jewish music” (la musique juive), he argued against a charge that must have been leveled, but “Arab music” (la musique arabe), shared by Algerians of both faiths.

The “widespread grievance” communicated to Bachetarzi—that his Algerian orchestra was not Algerian enough—pointed to the growth of an interwar mass politics which increasingly defined the nation in Arab and Muslim terms. Across North Africa and in metropolitan France as well, nationalist political parties demanding reform and rights but not yet independence attracted considerable membership as well as negative attention from French authorities. Music, disseminated on records, proved pivotal to that process. That movement was further accelerated by World War II, which for many North Africans commenced with the fall of France’s Third Republic and the concomitant rise of the Vichy regime in 1940.29 While music was far from silenced in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia under Vichy rule between June 1940 and November 1942, Jewish musicians certainly were. That was also the case for those North African Jews who found themselves living in the German Occupied Zone of France during that same period and until the liberation of Paris in 1944. Under Chief of State Marshal Philippe Pétain, Vichy applied a series of anti-Jewish race laws (statut des juifs) to the Unoccupied Zone of southern France and North Africa beginning in October 1940. This legislation, similar to that in Germany, extended to domains like radio and public performance, which meant that the Jewish musicians largely synonymous with the recording industry and concert scene of just a few years prior were increasingly difficult to hear across the Mediterranean. This was not true for their Muslim counterparts, including Bachetarzi, who continued to perform under and for Vichy, replacing their former Jewish collaborators and competitors on the airwaves and on stage in the process.

But as the reappearance of Halali, the debut of Elmaghribi, and the continued popularity of Labassi postwar remind us, our narrative does not end at midcentury, as many others have, with either the establishment of Israel in 1948, the start of the Algerian War in 1954, or Moroccan and Tunisian independence in 1956 and Algerian independence in 1962. The music of Elmaghribi, for example, first recorded for Pathé in 1948, provided the Moroccan march to liberation with its rhythm. It also lifted the spirits of Algerians. Even after the Jewish musician departed Morocco in 1959 for Paris, he recorded music to comfort his compatriots after a catastrophic earthquake leveled the Moroccan coastal city of Agadir, toured Algeria in the midst of the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) struggle for independence from France, and maintained a centrally located record store in Casablanca that bore his name until 1965. During that period and for long afterward, a number of his iconic songs were reprised and reinterpreted by Muslim artists in North Africa. While he was not forgotten, much of his nationalist repertoire was. If “the incontestable Jewish element in this profoundly North African musical tradition stakes perhaps the strongest claim in Muslims’ collective memory of Jews,” as Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel Schroeter have written, echoing Hadj Miliani, still missing is the breadth, scope, and impact of their sounds.30 Given all of this, it is time to finally listen for them.

Why was Arab music so Jewish for so long across twentieth-century North Africa? Ethnomusicologists have proposed at least one answer: that the vexed nature of music and certain musical instruments in Islam created a space for Jewish instrumentalists, as well as Jewish vocalists, who used the instrument-free space of the synagogue to hone their craft. But such a conclusion, as many of the same scholars readily admit, satisfies only in the broadest of strokes, especially when considering Islamic legal theory as separate from the rich tradition of Muslim musical praxis.31 As research for this book progressed, other questions, less obvious and more intriguing, came to feel more pressing. What did Jewish participation in this all-important cultural realm in such large numbers say about their (changing) place in twentieth-century North Africa? How might we understand the nature of their musical contributions? Who were their audiences and what was the meaning of music to them? Finally, what might music reveal about the region and about the Jewish-Muslim relationship that other sources could not?

Recording History serves as a wake-up call. Situated at the nexus of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) and Jewish history but so too studies of popular culture, it is first and foremost an acknowledgment that music is of consequence. In this way, I contend that listening to the past provides twentieth-century North Africa with a soundscape that dramatically alters its historiographical landscape. Or, put differently: this book demonstrates that music remembers much of what history has forgotten.32 In this first-of-its-kind study, an investigation of the origins of recording across North Africa and its largely Jewish infrastructure provides for a rewriting of the not-too-distant past in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. By attuning our focus to music as a process, involving impresarios and intermediaries as much as it did instrumentalists and vocalists, it locates North Africa as an integral nodal point in a global industry—still little understood—which supported among the most monumental technological innovations of the last century and half: the phonograph and the record.33

Although Recording History deals mainly in the popular and commercial, the Andalusian repertoire gets the attention it deserves. In part, this is because popular melodies sometimes drew inspiration from the high art tradition. In fact, musicians like Labassi and Elmaghribi often moved back and forth between the two registers over the course of their careers. Despite this, the very legitimacy of popular music has long been bound up with the undeniable prestige of al-Andalus and its musical legacy. Not coincidentally, the recasting of Andalusian music at the turn of the twentieth century as the one and only national tradition, whether in Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia, was a reaction, to a considerable degree, to the popularity of Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention (the phonograph), Emile Berliner’s 1887 modification (the disc instead of the cylinder), and the spread of mass culture. As others have done in connecting the growth of Andalusian music associations and orchestras under colonialism to the formation of nationalism, this book centers the story of nation building on the commercial recording of popular music as well.34

By following composers and lyricists, artistic directors and distributors, critics and audiences, in addition to the star musicians themselves, Recording History likewise contributes to a growing literature on mass culture and mass politics in MENA, notably but not exclusively in Egypt.35 Similarly, by immersing itself for the most part in popular music, which proved to provide the content for the best-selling records of the time, this book locates colonial modernity both locally and regionally, a modernity that was expressed in various forms of vernacular Arabic, including those morseled with French.36 The orientation away from both metropolitan France and elite-centered high culture surfaces notable absences from the normative narrative of twentieth-century North Africa. In Recording History, for example, female musicians take center stage as among the most articulate voices of the nation and nationalism.

The pursuit of music in this book, whether in following artists who toured and settled between capitals, the unfettered flow of records across borders, or styles incubated in geographical borderlands, makes the case not only for the utility of a regional approach to North Africa but for its necessity as well. Pushing back against a “colony-metropole perspective [ . . . ] severed from the Maghreb and its many histories,” Julia Clancy-Smith has proposed “a horizontal axis to investigate the problematic of identity and physical displacements.” Recording History therefore moves beyond the nation-state by operating along a “horizontal axis.” In so doing, it links parallel, interconnected, and inseparable processes across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia (and farther afield in Egypt) while resisting the telos of fitting a transnational story into national boundaries.

Finally, in mapping the prominence of a Jewish minority who produced and popularized a modern Arab music that indelibly shaped the culture of the Muslim majority, this book joins recent scholarship which has come to view Jews and Muslims in the wider MENA region through lenses of entanglement and enmeshment rather than of power relations as seemingly self-evident as “majority-minority.”37 As Recording History illustrates, the Jewish-Muslim relationship in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia was often intimate, improvised, and unpredictable. In a way, this was not unlike the music itself.

Sourcing Music

Given its political, cultural, sensorial, and emotional importance, the general silence of historians on music surprises. As Edwin Seroussi has pointed out, “comprehensive textbooks on Jewish culture of recent publication do not include the word ‘music’ in their index.”38 The same is true for their analogues in MENA studies, although this is changing.39 In a different context, Richard Cullen Rath has traced this reticence to the “belief that, unlike a document, sound is ephemeral, going out of existence even as it happens.”40 Complimenting Rath, Seroussi has suggested that “one could add to this perception of inaccessibility the poor public relations that music has among nonmusic scholars in the modern and postmodern eras of mechanical reproduction.”41 Expressed differently, too many have operated for too long with the understanding that music is at best intangible and, at worst, the domain of someone else.

Recording History recovers a world of physical, visual, and audible musical documents, making clear that sourcing music in the first half of the twentieth century is not only possible but of considerable benefit to scholars moving forward. This has meant that alongside a more conventional source base used by historians of North Africa, like the press, the colonial paper trail dotting Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and France, the literature of the period, and memoirs—all of which teem with sounds—this book has employed a novel and hitherto untapped primary resource: the Arabic-language records themselves. Gathering discs one by one, in some cases more than a century old, has brought me into spaces not typically associated with historical monographs—like flea markets and bric-a-brac shops—a process which has allowed me to build a new type of archive filled with old media from the bottom up.

As physical objects, shellac records hold considerable data: the names of record companies, song titles, musicians and composers, as well as issue and matrix numbers indicating the order and dates of release, sometimes identifying the sound engineer, and much more. As aural objects, recordings provide a wealth of information, in addition to the powerful music itself: the branding and copyright inherent to the spoken announcement of record company, performer, and often the performer’s epithet before the start of the music, words, pronunciation, and instruments that have fallen out of use, the identification of a musician not listed on the printed label but whose name might be invoked by others after a particularly expert execution of improvised vocals or instrumentals, and the contours of the recording facility (cavernous or not) and its proximity to the street (evidenced by the sound of a passing vehicle). Meanwhile, worn grooves and hand-fashioned repairs made to chipped or broken records bear witness, both physically and aurally, to their repeated play over time.

There are also the ephemera: the multilingual record catalogs, branch details printed on paper sleeves, and import stamps and store stickers affixed to discs, all of which permit us to map a pioneering industry and the movement of its history-making sounds. Together with newspapers, documents of French policy and bureaucratic concern, radio transcripts, production sheets from pressing plants, concert posters, family papers, and personal letters, these fragile, well-loved discs allow us to hear that which our historical actors once heard in order to better understand them and their society.

That records have survived outside of more traditional archives is remarkable. Musicians themselves do not always hold on to their own creations. To begin with, music is a difficult business. At the best of times, it forces our greatest artists to travel lightly. Many of those discussed in this book endured war, turmoil, and dislocation, sometimes at the height of their success. Their discs, of awkward size and weight, made of the most inelastic of material, vulnerable to mishandling or the application of the wrong playback equipment, and containing just a few minutes of aging music per side, could not have been expected to survive, whether in their possession or not. But survive the records did. In a testament to the significance of music, individual Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians grasped discs carefully over great distances and many years hoping to hear them again.

Answering the unspoken call of these caretakers and stewards, I have collected hundreds of records from locales expected and unexpected for well over a decade. Thanks to handwritten inscriptions and address labels provided by their one-time owners, we can begin to follow their direct and sometimes meandering paths: of a Salim Halali record gifted in Tunis on May 20, 1949, and then brought to Paris sometime after; of a certain Moïse Benayoun’s collection of interwar Algerian discs transported to Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley; or of the last surviving copy of Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika’s “Inti suriya biladi” (You are Syria, my country), once cherished by the Ottoman Syria-born Saleeh Farroh in his adoptive Detroit and which somehow made its way to an online seller in Kansas before arriving at my doorstep (in New York at the time).

These precious materials, ably cared for by individuals who acted as archivists and preservationists in all but name, passed through many hands and between many ears long before I ever encountered them. Turning knobs, pressing buttons, and making other adjustments on amplifiers, equalizers, and record players, I placed needles of various shapes and sizes on discs in order to surface sounds buried deep in their grooves. In this way, I was not only able to reproduce the product of an original recording session but also to commune with those previous to me. Indeed, Benayoun, Farroh, and I were all privileged to hear the exact same recordings, albeit at different times and in different places.

I have collected these discs for one reason: to return them to the sound-scape, to repatriate them to those who once delighted in their sounds and to others who might yet do so. To accomplish this goal, I have been digitizing them for years, making them available to anyone with an internet connection through an online, trans–North African archive I have called “Gharamophone,” a portmanteau of the Arabic “gharam” (love or passion) and the English “gramophone.”42 After decades of dormancy, the records uploaded thus far, many of which feature in this book and represent but a fraction of my overall collection, have been listened to more than 200,000 times and counting.

Among those who have found their way to the online archive have been the children and grandchildren of the music makers and purveyors in question. Initial connections have developed into lasting relationships. Eventually, we would sit together in their homes. Once, Gilberte Kalfon (née Kespi), the nonagenarian daughter of El Moutribia’s famed interwar conductor Joseph “Cheb” Kespi, placed herself at the piano and tapped out a piece of music learned from her father in Algiers. On another occasion, a similarly aged Roger Hazan reminisced about his father’s record store Bembaron et Hazan in Morocco. During yet a different meeting, Paulette Habib, the octogenarian daughter of recording artist and artistic director Messaoud Habib, provided insight into the Tunisian female stars of yesteryear. Always, grandsons and granddaughters and their children would bring out a box filled with photos, handwritten letters, and other documents found nowhere else. I then pressed play on the computer and together we would marvel as the soaring voices of their loved ones filled the room. As one grandson remarked:

It is just unbelievable for me to listen to the grandfather that I never knew[.] We only had one poor quality recording[.] All the discs have disappeared[.] I am his grandson and I bear his name.43

The discs may have not yet completely disappeared, but we are on the precipice of a last chance to gather them. Given that, Recording History bears a responsibility to amplify their sounds again for the future.

Fidelity to the Past

“The first rule must always be: if you can’t hear it, be suspicious.”

—R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World 44

This book understands music to be both inherently political and inseparable from history. This idea is a not a new one, but it has sometimes been slow to gain ground depending on the context. Writing in 1963 in a very different setting but about a not dissimilar cultural domain, C. L. R. James suggested that a history of the sport of cricket was the history of his native West Indies itself. An important advocate for Trinidadian independence, a lifelong activist, and a passionate cricketer, he observed in his pathbreaking Beyond a Boundary that “cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics I did not have much to learn.” For James, a history of elite pursuits and individuals, that which “filled space in print but not in minds,” was little reflective of the collective past.45 It was sports that mattered. In our case, it is music. Either way, the proof is in the audience.

Recording History, therefore, approaches North African music much as its audiences once did rather than through the use of highly technical language. As Alex Ross has written, “at a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rhythm. They are a crowd and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.” Whether in the concert hall or in the café, in public or in private, “ultimately, all music acts on its audience through the same physics of sound, shaking the air and arousing curious sensations.”46 In much the same multisensorial fashion, music acts on society as a whole. Simply put, modern North African history is also a history of music, those who embodied it, and the many others that lived it. As best the printed page can, this book records that past in high fidelity.


1. Castel, Je pose soixante-quinze, 311.

2. Much of the literature on Andalusian music in early to mid-twentieth century North Africa focuses on specific national contexts. On Morocco, see, e.g., Davila, Andalusian Music of Morocco; Schuyler, “Moroccan Andalusian Music,” 33–43; and Chottin, Tableau de la musique Marocaine. On Algeria, see, e.g., Glasser, Lost Paradise; Serri, Chants andalous; Saidani, La musique du constantinois; Merdaçi, Dictionnaire des musiques et des musiciens de Constantine; and Bouzar-Kasbadji, L’émergence artistique algérienne au XXe siècle. On Tunisia, see, e.g., Davis, Maʾlūf: Reflections; El-Mahdi and Marzuqi, Al-Maʿhad al-rashidi li-l-musiqa al-tunisiyya; Rizqi, Al-Aghani al-tunisiyya; and D’Erlanger, La musique arabe. On Libya, see Ciantar, Maʾlūf in Contemporary Libya. For North Africa–wide approaches, see Shannon, Performing al-Andalus; Langlois, “Music and Politics in North Africa,” 207–27; Reynolds, “Musical ’Membrances of Medieval Muslim Spain,” 229–62; Poché, La musique arabo-andalouse; Le chant arabo-andalou, ed. Marouf; and Guettat, La musique classique du Maghreb.

3. On raï, see, e.g., Swedenburg, “On the Origins of Pop Rai,” 7–34; Daoudi and Miliani, L’Aventure du raï; Schade-Poulsen, Men and Popular Music in Algeria; and Virolle, La chanson raï.

4. “Contrat,” February 27, 1952, Samy Elmaghribi archive (hereafter SEA).

5. Raphael Levy, “El Maghribi à la place des arts,” La Voix sepharade-Montréal, June–July 1978, 11, SEA.

6. Hachlef and Hachlef, Anthologie de la musique arabe, 215.

7. Bachetarzi, Mémoires, 1919–1939, 356.

8. See reference for “El hay ram gadol ashira” (track 13), Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews. From the Paul Bowles Collection, Rounder Select 82161-5087-2, edited with notes by Edwin Seroussi (2000), n.p.

9. Castel, Je pose soixante-quinze, 310.

10. Yafil, Majmuʿ.

11. Yafil, Majmuʿ.

12. Shannon, Performing al-Andalus, 35; Davila, Andalusian Music of Morocco, 295. On the myth-making around Ziryab, see also Reynolds, “Al-Maqqarī’s Ziryab,” 155–68.

13. Shiloah, “Al-Mansūr al-Yahūdī,” 679.

14. Shiloah, “Al-Mansūr al-Yahūdī.”

15. Shannon, Performing al-Andalus, 38.

16. Glasser, Lost Paradise, 85.

17. See, e.g., Davila, “Andalusi Turn,” 159.

18. On stambeli, see Jankowsky, Stambeli.

19. On the diwan and the Bilaliyya, see Turner, “The ‘Right’ Kind of Ḥāl,” 113–30.

20. Davila, “Andalusi Turn,” 154.

21. On the limits of the Crémieux Decree, see Stein, Saharan Jews.

22. Memmi, Colonizer and the Colonized, 13.

23. Memmi, Colonizer and the Colonized, 15.

24. On Yafil, see Glasser, “Edmond Yafil and Andalusi Musical Revival,” 671–92.

25. For a central text on the “modern girl,” see The Modern Girl around the World, ed. Weinbaum et al.

26. Audisio, “Enregistrements algériens,” 57.

27. Scales, “Subversive Sound,” 384–417.

28. Bachetarzi, Mémoires, 1:155.

29. On the impact of World War II on North African Jewish political subjectivities, see Heckman, The Sultan’s Communists.

30. Gottreich and Schroeter, introduction, Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Gottreich and Schroeter, 16.

31. Seroussi, “Music: Muslim-Jewish Sonic Encounters,” 429–48.

32. Thanks is due to Sami Everett and Rebekah Vince for first coming up with a similar formulation and then imploring me to speak on the matter during a 2019 workshop at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.

33. On the recording industry in MENA, see Racy, “Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music,” 23–48; Moussali, “Les premiers enregistrements”; and Hachlef and Hachlef, Anthologie de la musique arabe. To date, the global history of the recording industry has yet to be written.

34. For a parallel example, see Jones, Yellow Music.

35. See, e.g., Starr, Togo Mizrahi and the Making of Egyptian Cinema; Gitre, Acting Egyptian; Reynolds, A City Consumed; Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians; and Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt.

36. On popular music in early twentieth-century MENA, see, e.g., Fahmy, Street Sounds; Davis, “Jews, Women and the Power to Be Heard, 187–206; Armbrust, “Formation of National Culture in Egypt,” 155–80; Danielson, Voice of Egypt; Dougherty, “Badia Masabni, Artiste and Modernist,” 243–68; Sakli, “La chanson tunisienne”; and Lagrange, “Musiciens et poètes en Égypte.”

37. See, e.g., Heckman, The Sultan’s Communists; Sternfeld, Between Iran and Zion; Marglin, Across Legal Lines; Katz, Burdens of Brotherhood; Le Foll-Luciani, Les juifs algériens; Boum, Memories of Absence; Bashkin, New Babylonians; and Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry.

38. Seroussi, “Music: The ‘Jew’ of Jewish Studies,” 3.

39. The question here is of the integration of music into MENA historical scholarship. It needs to be mentioned, however, that studies specifically dedicated to sound and radio in the region in the early to mid-twentieth century have grown in recent years. See, e. g., Abbani, “Beirut’s Musical Scene,” 54–77; Mestyan, “Upgrade? Power and Sound,” 262–79; Stanton, “This Is Jerusalem Calling”; Jackson, Mixing Musics.

40. Rath, “Hearing American History,” 417.

41. Seroussi, “Music: The ‘Jew’ of Jewish Studies,” 3.

42. See

43. See comment on “Elie Touboul dit Pinhas El Saidi—Istikhbar Zidane + Ya Saki Ou Sʾki Habibi (Columbia, c. 1928),” Gharamophone,

44. Schafer, Soundscape, 132.

45. James, Beyond a Boundary, 72, 71, 70.

46. Ross, The Rest Is Noise, 61, xv.