Mohamed Chtatou

Jewish Music and Singing in Morocco (2/3)

Liturgical Jewish music

The Sabbath (Shavat in Hebrew), a day of rest, is an institution, of great importance, in Jewish life. And the songs that punctuate this particular day have a large place in it, both in the synagogue with the five services of Kabbalat shabbat to Motsei shabbat, and at home with the rituals of lighting the candles, the Kiddush (blessing of the wine) on Friday evening, the Birkat hamazone (thanksgiving at the end of the meal), or the Havdalah (the last Kiddush at the end of the Shabbat). It is also customary to sing, during the four Shabbat meals, numerous religious poems called Zemirot (or Tish nigunim among the Hasidim). Shabbat thus allows one to find one’s inner way through one’s outer voice.

At Moroccan homes, the Sabbath begins Friday evening some 20 minutes before sunset, with the lighting of the Sabbath candles by the wife or, in her absence, by the husband. In the synagogue the Sabbath is ushered in at sunset with the recital of selected psalms and the Lekha Dodi, a 16th-century Kabbalistic (mystical) poem. The refrain of the latter is “Come, my beloved, to meet the bride,” the “bride” being the Sabbath. After the evening service, each Jewish household begins the first of three festive Sabbath meals by reciting the Kiddush (“sanctification” of the Sabbath) over a cup of wine.

On this topic, Rachid Aous points out that:

‘’In Judeo-Arab song and music, there is a type of song with a strictly Hebrew melodic style which is expressed in cantillation specific to the aesthetics of synagogal song prevalent in the Sephardic Maghrebi cultural area. This melodic aesthetic is found essentially in the interpretation of the Baqqashots (songs of supplications) and the Piyyutims, an aesthetic conveyed solely by the oral tradition, that is to say without musical notation.

For the rest, the tradition of Judeo-Arabic singing, which has been the subject of audio recordings, has long been carried by great singers such as Haïm Louk, Rabbi David Bouzaglo and Amzallag in particular. They sang in Hebrew or in Arabic texts from the Judaic sacred repertoire to melodies specific to North African-Andalusian music, melodies relating both to so-called Arab-Andalusian classical song (Âla, San’a, Gharnâti, Malûf…) and melodies related to popular songs. Thus the examples below taken from traditional liturgical chants interpreted by Haïm Louk, as by other North African Jewish singers, to tunes from the Moroccan Ala and an Algerian Naqlab Muwwal, in this case, to the characteristic melody of the famous song Qoum Tara (stand up and admire), poem and melody derived from the Algerian San’a.’’

Like the Psalms, the Baqqashots are part of the hymn and the elegy. The Spanish poets and those of the Kabbalist School of Safed cultivated this poetic and musical genre, which is found in the Maghrebi Jewish liturgy of the dawn as well as during sabbatical vigils known as Baqqashot vigils.

The Andalusian music practiced by Moroccans of Jewish faith, descendants of the Judeo-Andalusians of Moorish Spain, is called piyyûtim and trîq. This style originated mainly in Meknes and Tafilalet. Later, Judeo-Moroccan Andalusian music was exported to countries where the Judeo-Moroccan diaspora settled (Israel, France, Canada, the United States, etc.). Before their massive departure from Morocco, Judeo-Moroccan artists were also represented in different musical styles such as cAïta, Shac, Gnawî, and Melhûn.

The piyyutims of Moroccan Jews generally make a free and varied choice of Andalusian melodies, so as to obtain a well-ordered sequence obeying the principle of progressive acceleration borrowed by Sephardic rabbis who composed texts explaining each verse of the Torah. They are sung in religious ceremonies just like the psalms of David. Andalusian, too, and sometimes using the same melodies, are the Samâc or Arabic songs in honor of the Prophet Muhammad.

Jewish poets writing in Hebrew often took their models from Arabic poetry,  whose way of thinking they adopted; thus a Jewish song was very close to an Arabic song and Muslim thought. Both communities listened with equal enthusiasm to the Nûbas they had taken with them from their first homeland, Andalusia. They, also, appreciated the works of their new culture in dialectal Arabic, a language commonly spoken in both communities that produced the rich and varied Melhûn.

On the origin of Judeo-Arab Andalusian music, Joseph Chetrit writes:

‘’Numerous Arab chronicles mention, as early as the ninth century, the cooperation of Jewish and Muslim musicians in Andalusia, especially in Cordoba. There it was the Jewish musician Mansur who was commissioned to accompany, in 822, the great Ziryab, who had fled Baghdad and was to create at the court of Abd ar-Rahman II a new and vast body of music, since called “Andalusian music”. This vast corpus was initially made up of 24 mega-symphonies, called nawba (pl. nawbat) and each articulated around 4 different rhythmic modes, from the slowest to the fastest, called mizan (pl. mayazin). It was performed, enriched and transformed, from the 9th to the 13th century, in the princely courts of Andalusia and the Maghreb, and gave rise to different traditions that have been perpetuated to this day in the different countries of the Maghreb. From the beginning, as this vast musical corpus was studied orally and transmitted from master to disciples, it was lyrical and romantic texts, and often even bachic, written in the popular or semi-classical genres of the jazal, muwashshah and tawshih, that ensured its preservation and transmission.’’

Jewish religious cantor: Haim Louk

Rabbi Haim Louk was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1942. He became famous very quickly and at a very young age was considered a prodigy of Jewish liturgical music. Endowed with an exceptional voice and a remarkable talent, he was encouraged and followed by different masters and more particularly by the great master of the Moroccan Jewish liturgy, Rabbi David Bouzaglou ‘Zal, and the Muslim Abdessadeq Cheqara, the Andalusian voice of Tetouan. Based on his extensive knowledge of the Sephardic tradition, he symbolizes this dual Jewish and Arab identity.

His faith and rabbinical knowledge were as important as his passion for Sephardic liturgy and his love for religious poetry. Haim Louk combined the classical tradition of Moroccan Andalusian music with the Hebrew repertoire of piyyutim and baqqashot.

During his studies in different Yeshivot in England, Morocco, and Israel, he never stopped working and progressing in his art. And during his various functions as a teacher or director in different schools in Morocco, and Israel, he perpetuated the tradition of Jewish liturgical music to the benefit of his students.

After living in Morocco until 1964 he decided to move to Israel, where he lived until 1987. That same year, Rabbi Haim Louk moved to Los Angeles to take up the position of Rabbi of the Sephardic community Em Habanim.

Since his return to Israel and in the tradition of Sephardic masters and scholars, he has combined his studies of rabbinic texts with his work as an educator to combine his musical talent for Sephardic liturgy with his love of religious poetry.

Internationally recognized as a virtuoso of classical Andalusian music, he has produced and broadcast numerous audio and video recordings, which can be heard, and seen on various media. He has given numerous recitals and received rave reviews in Morocco, Israel, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Poland, and the United States.

On the Moroccan synagogue service music and singing, Edwin Seroussi writes:

‘’The Moroccan Jewish worship, namely daily, weekly and holiday prayers, has been hardly analyzed contextually. Unlike the prestigious paraliturgical piyyut, liturgical repertoires mark sonic difference between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. They comprise an intimate space of Jewish sound that links the Moroccan Jewry not so much to its immediate Muslim neighbors but rather to the diasporic Jewish commonwealth of Sephardic and Oriental pedigree and, to a certain measure, to modern colonial contexts, mostly French-Jewish. Yet, this intimate musical space of the Moroccan Jews still bears some traces of the non-Jewish surrounding. It is not deprived of “musical Andalucianisms” at different levels, some at the level of voice production only, others much deeper that comprise, in my opinion, a modern development. 

There are of course aesthetic reasons too for the lack of emphasis on the liturgical repertoires of the Moroccan Jews among the contemporary agents of musical production and music scholars. This music is highly functional; it is generated by the structures and contents of sacred texts whose ceremonial performance and clear-cut pronunciation precedes musical concerns. These texts are an assortment of very diverse sources and registers: biblical and oral law passages, post-biblical prayers in poetic prose and poems (piyyutim) spanning almost a millennium of literary history. This textual mixture creates a sonic tapestry that moves between fast non-metered mumbling on a single recitation tone to clear-cut florid melodies with fixed meter with various permutations of melodic and rhythmic formations in-between these two extremes.’’

The Matrûz

The Matrûz – in Arabic, what is embroidered – is an oral tradition. It is an old musical tradition of the Judeo-Arabic cultural heritage attached to the Hebraic, Muslim, and Christian artistic practice current in the melting pot of multicultural Andalusia. The Matrûz designates a musical concept of Judeo-Arabic crossbreeding characterized by the alternation of Arabic and Hebrew in the lyrics. It is a music of oral tradition still present in certain Moroccan circles that value this common heritage of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures of Andalusia. Usually, the first part of the poetry of the songs of the art of Matrûz is composed in Arabic, while the second part is organized in Hebrew, and the orchestras interpret them on the same rhythms and melodies from the Gharnati repertoire.

The Matrûz, which originated in the Middle Ages in Andalusia, in Spain that was Muslim at the time, is a song often practiced by Andalusians of the Jewish faith, mixing Hebrew with Arabic in an exceptional harmony. The Matrûz is the result of Arabic, Berber, and Muslim influences. Due to the waves of immigration of Muslims and Jews fleeing the Christians of Spain, this Arab-Andalusian music is more present in Morocco than in any other country. It symbolizes the life of the Jewish ancestors who lived in perfect conviviality with their Moroccan Muslim brothers.

Rachid Aous introduces the Matrûz in the following terms:

“The Matrûz philosophy is marked by the values of convivial tolerance shaped in Andalusia, within the framework of the Civilization of the Arab-Muslim West, which opens with the occupation of Spain at the end of the VIII century and closes with the fall of Granada in 1492. It is a privileged period of history marked by understanding and a fruitful cultural and scientific dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims, united by a common musical language: the modal system. All this language, a true bridge between the two shores of the Mediterranean, is found in Simon Elbaz’s “Matrouz”.

The Judeo-Arabic tradition born in the land of Islam, where the Arabic language is practiced, only survives outside these territories. It is only found in Israel, and particularly in France. Carried by Sephardic Jewish artists of Maghrebian Arabic-speaking culture, it finds its fullness thanks to the freedom of expression that characterizes the democratic countries that are now the receptacle, where many Jews of this origin live. And this is not without fruitful consequences for the Jewish-Arab dialogue.’’

Simon Elbaz is considered the renovator of the Matrûz, he was inspired, at first, by this art based mainly on the alternation of two languages, Arabic and Hebrew. He enriched this tradition by relying on a compositional process based essentially on the interweaving of languages: Hebrew and Arabic in particular, but also French, Latin, Judeo-Spanish, and also music of different traditions: Judeo-Arabic, Maghreb-Andalusian, Oriental, medieval, and Berber, and, finally, different modes of expression: music, song, storytelling, and theater, which, for the first time, “entered the scene” in the Matrûz repertoire with Elbaz performance.

Simon Elbaz was inspired, at first, by this art based mainly on the alternation of two languages, Arabic and Hebrew. He could have kept and looked at this heritage as an object of nostalgia; he, instead, took possession of this artistic tradition and renewed it all together, by associating the sacred and the profane and by relying on another compositional process based on the interweaving.

Simon Elbaz, from a triple Franco-Jewish-Maghrebi culture, of Moroccan origin and born in Boujaad, devoted a large part of his life to Matrûz. He is an author, actor, composer, and singer. Drawing his inspiration from the poetic and musical tradition of Andalusia, he has created a new kind of show, linked to tradition, but resolutely turned towards the future and modernity.

Matrûz is an invitation to a journey into the sounds of intertwined languages and music: the repertoire of this genre of music is made up of original songs related to the Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian cultural traditions of Andalusia, as well as songs from different traditions, especially Judeo-Moroccan. The compositions and arrangements are based on the successful and rewarding interweaving of languages: Hebrew and Arabic in particular, with French, Judeo-Spanish, Berber, Latin, and music genres: Judeo-Arabic, Oriental, Maghreb-Andalusian, medieval, and Judeo-Spanish. A cappella or accompanied by instruments, the songs are introduced in French by short poetic sequences or punctuated by vocal and instrumental improvisations, giving a glimpse of various aspects of the Judeo-Arabic culture in its singularity.

The Noche de Berberisca (Berber night)

Among the traditional ceremonies of the Moroccan Jews, the richest, most original, and most picturesque is undoubtedly the one called the henna or henna party or noche de novia, noche de Berberisca or Noche de paños in the communities of the ex-Spanish zone (Larache, Tetouan, Ksar El Kebir, Azilah, etc.) and in Tangier which was a city in the international zone.

This celebration takes place during the week before the wedding, in an atmosphere of rejoicing, songs for the bride, music of youyous, sumptuous dishes, cakes and pastries with honey and almonds, and exhibition of the trousseau, the Shabbat that precedes the wedding called: Shabbat a kala.

The most awaited moment is the one when the bride-to-be makes her appearance, at the head of the procession, adorned with her most beautiful finery, carefully made up, eyes enhanced with kohl, cheeks revived with carmine, dressed in the superb red, green or wine-colored velvet dress, gleaming with golden embroidery, pearls, and sparkling stones. This ceremonial costume is called al-keswa l-kbîra (in darija the ‘’big dress’’) or, among the Jews of the former Spanish zone, traje (or vestido) of berberisca, or ropas de oro, or traje de paños, among the Jews of Tetouan.

The Noche de Berberisca (Berber night) or Noche de paños (night of the cloths) or Lilt al-henna (night of the Henna) is a ritual celebration of fertility and holiness. It is a typical custom of the Jews of northern Morocco that they brought with them from the Iberian Peninsula on their expulsion in 1492.

Traditional Sephardic songs, youyous and hearty meals punctuate this picturesque celebration organized on the eve of the wedding, usually on Tuesday, because it is the day of the creation of the moon and the sun and the unification of man and woman in the Hebrew Genesis.

The bride and groom’s families gather to celebrate the holiness and fertility of the bride, as a living symbol of etz haim, the tree of life, from the Torah. The oldest and most distinguished people sing their blessings and praises to the bride, during a procession similar to that of the Sefer on Simhat Torah, and then enthrone her on the talamon, dressed in the sumptuous traje de berberisca.

After the purification bath (tebila) and a special liturgy, led by a song, where the piyyutim “sung poems”, prevail over the ordinary ritual. The groom dresses in his ceremonial apparel, an indigenous costume including a pair of pants made of cloth (serwal), an embroidered vest with silk buttons (bediya), a long cloth jacket (zokha) tightened at the waist by a silk belt.

The bride is enthroned on the talamon (from the Spanish talamo, ‘’chair’’), made up, perfumed, adorned with gold and precious stones, resplendent in her ceremonial costume, the large and sumptuous outfit called al-keswa l-kbira whose pieces are the following: wimple of velvet embroidered with gold (ktef), the bodice of garnet or green velvet, enhanced with gold braids and silver buttons (ghonbaj); skirt of velvet of the same color (zeltita), loaded with gold braids and under which are hidden many petticoats (sayât); wide and stiff belt of velvet embroidered with gold and pearls (hzâm or mdamna); babouches embroidered with gold (sherbîl); wide sleeves of embroidered silk veil (khmâr and tesmira); crown headdress loaded with pearls, emeralds, rubies, gold coins etc. (khmâr or swalef); long scarf in beautiful silk which fixes the hair (festûl); white or green silk scarf (sebniyya) which is covered with a light white veil (elbelo from the Spanish velo) lowered on the face.

On the Judeo-Moroccan music of northern Morocco, Paloma Vincent El Baz writes:

‘’One of the points that are most significant about the transmission of identity through the music of the Jews from northern Morocco is that it is performed through elements that derived from cultures of contact, through an oscillation between its musical repertoire which is perceived to be exclusively internal and the repertoire of the ‘external’ world. As previous studies of Maghrebi music have shown, music genre, social position and expressive behaviour are a common principle in the Maghreb and have social and political meaning in relation to one another (Langlois 2009, 227). One can thus conclude that public sphere repertoires, which I name below as ‘external’ are crucial in informing and influencing social and political meanings around Jews within the nation and ‘internal’ repertoires serve to reiterate cultural specificity and cement the minority group.’’

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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