Mohamed Chtatou

Jewish Music and Singing in Morocco (3/3)

The borrowings of the Jews of the Maghreb from the Andalusian music and the qasîdah?

The musical styles of the Muslim, and Jewish communities appear to be very colorful and mutually influential, proving the harmony of their cohabitation and social cohesion. The Judeo-Maghrebi singers have been the actors-witnesses of music shared for centuries with their Muslim “compatriots”, cultivating together the flowers of the rhetoric which draw their essence and their fragrance from the blessed times of Andalusia, that was undoubtedly the crossroads of a Mediterranean cultural bubbling where Jews, Christians, and Muslims respected each other and fraternized warmly.

Among the beautiful voices of the Maghreb, let us remember: among the men: Mouzino, Sheikh Zouzou, Blond Blond, Samy el Maghribi, Salim Halali, Raoul Jouno, and Sheikh Mwijo among the men and among the female voices Zohra El Fassia, Leïla Sfez, Habbiba Msika, Saliha, … The Moroccan-Andalusian music has gone beyond the borders of Morocco and the Maghreb to other horizons, thanks in particular to the mobility of the Moroccan Jewish immigrant community and its fierce attachment to its culture despite all the apparent effects of the constraints of immigration, with, in particular, the creation of the Andalusian Orchestra of Israel founded by Avi Eilam Amzalag.

Very often in the orchestras are found side by side Muslim and Jewish musicians and singers. Only the words of the songs make it possible to differentiate the origins of the distinct musical structures. The so-called Judeo-Arabic music is a popular derivative of the Andalusian Nûba and offers the same similarities to the listener. They prelude in the same way: long vocalizations which express the feeling of nostalgia on an instrumental bottom with plucked or rubbed strings and percussions. Then, the miracle! The whole thing blows up into a formidable instrumental suite composing ornamental arabesques to the velvet voices of these singers.

The Maghrebi Jews who have excelled and innovated in this field are distinguished by their assiduity, their spirit of perseverance, and their deep investigation. They safeguarded, restored, and enriched this art and propagated it beyond its area. Rabbi David Bou Zaglou, Rabbi David Ben Barukh known as David Iflah, David Kaïm El Fassi, Josèph Banon, Melloul, Haroun El Mesfioui, are considered as the pioneers in Andalusian art.

The Gharnati music which constitutes besides the Andalusian music one of the pillars of the classical musical heritage of Morocco, knew great participation of the Jews who enriched it. One finds at their head Youssef Eni Bel Kherraia, Mrs Marie Soussan, Lebradi known as Sassi, Fifiné, Edmond Yafil known as Chbab, and Reinette l’Oranaise.

Judeo-Arab Andalusian music has not only enriched Moroccan Judaism in its particularity but has also contributed to the development of the substantial values of Moroccan culture of communion and tolerance. This is visibly present at the heart of Arab-Andalusian music to the full extent of its repertoire. For this reason, the Essaouira Atlantic Andalusia Festival was created to celebrate Judeo-Arab’s shared culture in Morocco.

The Golden Age

Haim Botbol, Albert Souissa, Samy el Maghribi…, names that few Moroccans recognize today. Yet these Moroccan Jews were real stars in their time. Like their Muslim compatriots, Jews have long been great admirers of Shac music. And one could not imagine a wedding or a bar mitzvah without the presence of a popular music group. It is quite natural that many Jewish singers have long distinguished themselves in this field. Maurice Elbaz, an artistic producer explains:

The Judeo-Moroccan chaabi music has flourished since very early on, in the sense that in relation to the Jewish tradition, there were no prohibitions. There were fewer taboos than among their Muslim compatriots and they were helped by a certain tradition of synagogal singing.

Passed on from mcalem to mcalem, Moroccan Shac music remained relatively elitist until the Protectorate. With the arrival of the recording media, this popular music was democratized and reached all social strata of the kingdom. Jewish artists, very much influenced by their Algerian co-religionists, took the initiative very early on and new stars saw their fame grow throughout the four corners of Morocco.

This is the case of Zohra El Fassiya, diva of the Shacbi song of the 40s. Born in 1905 in Sefrou, she began her career by singing Melhûn in the 20s of the last century. She specialized, little by little, in a more festive Shac music, marked by percussions and called the Hawzî. Already popular in the 30s, Zohra El Fassiya managed to propel her career through the radio. Her fame went beyond the borders and she became a real star in Algeria. Among her most popular songs and which will be taken again years later by many singers of Shac, are: lghorba u lfraq, ya warda, or the unforgettable hbibi diali fayn howa.

Samy El Maghribi, another figure of the Judeo-Moroccan song, has also marked the history of Shac. Born in 1922 in Safi, he left with his family to Rabat and joined, at the age of 7, a group of the mellah of the capital. Passionate about Andalusian music, he learned to play the cûd (lute) on his own before joining the Casablanca Conservatory of Music. It is this last experience that allows him to frequent the greatest masters of the Andalusian song. At the age of 20, he left his job as a sales manager to devote himself exclusively to music. Samy El Maghribi, whose real name is Salomon Amzallag, is a true master of Moroccan classical music.

On his account, Maurice El Baz says:

The style of Sami El Maghribi is atypical. He is one of the pioneers of the Moroccan classical song. His songs are all characterized by an intro, a verse, a chorus, and a longer rhythm, while his lyrics were researched and more romantic.”

During the 50s, this singer celebrated his love for his country and in 1955, greeted the return from exile of King Mohammed V with: Alf hniya wa hniya, goulou 3-slama l-sidna Mohammed al-khamiss soltan almaghrib. In 1960, following the earthquake in Agadir, he paid tribute to the victims with his Qasîdat Agadir.

But to speak of Shac song without quoting Albert Souissa is to deny the history of the origins of the modernization of this musical genre. Some call him “King of Bendir“, others see him as the one who “created 90% of the chaâbi melodies we know today“, says El Baz. Because, being neither in the Andalusian spirit nor in that of the Melhûn, Souissa set out to create his own music, whose words were all in darija, sung on the rhythms of the inevitable bendir (tambourine).

Israel, the new El Dorado of Moroccan Jewish singers

By the 1960s, the majority of Moroccan Jews had already left the kingdom. A tragedy for the Jewish-Moroccan song.

The real problem was that when the musicians left, they took their orchestras, their recordings and their instruments with them,” says Maurice El Baz. Having left Morocco, most settled in Israel and Canada and continued their careers in their new host countries. In Morocco, the Jewish Shac song is all the more penalized that in the 70s, political repression is also accompanied by control of artistic productions.

Patriotic songs abounded on radio and television, while Shac music, both Muslim and Jewish, was marginalized by the authorities. It is only during the 80s that new figures emerged again, like a certain Pinhas.

It is thanks to marriages and especially to the arrival of Middle Easterners, especially from the Gulf, that singers are able to revive their art,” explains El Baz for whom “Saudis could give up to 50,000 dirhams to a singer per performance.”

Nowadays, most of the Jewish Shac singers perform in Israel, if they cannot do so in their country of origin. No less than seven Jewish Andalusian music orchestras perform regularly in Israel. In Morocco, the Jewish Shac cannot sell itself. The structures for a real take-off of this art are absent. An observer of the Moroccan art scene does not hesitate to confide that, “fortunately, there are still producers adventurous enough to dare to lose money by organizing a concert, like that of Botbol.’’

Some prominent Moroccan Jewish singers

Pinhas Cohen: Icon of Moroccan Jewish music

He is a legend of the Moroccan popular scene. Pinhas Cohen was born in Casablanca in the famous district of Verdun. Originally from Fez, he has immersed in music thanks to his father Azar who was a sofa maker, but who was also a talented lute player who used to animate family parties (weddings, Henna…). Pinhas studied engineering, but the love of music led him to the art world, becoming, in just a few years, one of the most important and recognized Moroccan artistic phenomena.

This Shac singer revolutionized the artistic landscape in the 1980s, and 1990s, and he is recognized as the star of wedding parties in Morocco and even abroad. He often sang about love, and romance, which made him more adorable, especially to the female public. He stands out thanks to his festive style and his natural elegance.

His specialty is the popular song and the Shgûrî, a musical genre characterized by its fast rhythm, its dancing music, and its audacious lyrics that sing of love, uprooting, and nostalgia of the beautiful Andalusian era, before the expulsion of Jews and Muslims.

Haïm Botbol: Monument of the music

At 75 years old, he has accumulated more than 60 years of stage experience. Inheriting the first name of his uncle, a dressmaker at the Palace until 1961, Botbol the musician, in the lineage of Samy El Maghribi, is the custodian of the Judeo-Moroccan musical heritage. From the Sijlmassa in Casablanca to the mythical cabarets of Tangier, he has accompanied the country’s upheavals from the 1960s to the present day. Nostalgic for the Hassan II era, the living legend was also one of the artists appreciated by the king, who extended by one hour, in 1968, one of his concerts, broadcast live on TV. A true monument of Moroccan music (his repertoire includes some 300 songs), he recorded with Abdelhadi Belkhayat and Hajja Hamdaouiya.

Zohra El Fassiya: The pioneer of melhûn

Known by her pseudonym Zohra El Fassiya (born in 1905 in Sefrou near Fez – died in 1994 in Ashkelon), she was one of the emblematic figures and pioneers of Melhûn, an authentic Moroccan musical genre. She began her artistic career singing Moroccan Melhûn in the 1920s. In the 60s she lived in Casablanca, precisely on Sarah Bernard street, where many witnesses could hear Zohra El Fassia’s voice in the whole neighborhood. After her great success, she left her native country of Morocco to settle in Ashkelon until her death in 1994.

Emile Zrihan

Sephardic and Moroccan, he immigrated to Israel. Emile Zrihan became known to a large public as a star singer in the Andalusian orchestra of Israel. Although he is not well known in France, he has all the qualities needed to seduce the lover of oriental variety music. He is a connoisseur of Arab-Andalusian music and the art of mawwâl (with his splendid Ma Yafou Dadaich), which was his school as it was for many Jewish artists, and was a vector of tolerance for him.

Just as it was the case for Tonton Raymond (the future Enrico Macias who played in his orchestra) with the Malûf in French Algeria, Zrihan with his beautiful voice is committed through music to bringing people together and to the pacification of the latter.

Maxime Karoutchi: The crooner of Casablanca

Of the sentinels of the Moroccan Jewish musical heritage, Maxime Karoutchi is among the youngest… and the last. Settled in Casablanca and originally from Essaouira, the man who was destined for a very wise career as an engineer finally opted for the keyboard, then for singing, to the great astonishment and pride of his father. He did his scales in the family orchestra, before taking his momentum and being, today, the most known Moroccan Jewish singer. From weddings to palace parties and vibrant tributes (like the one dedicated to Botbol), Maxime Karoutchi, cousin of Roger Karoutchi, vice-president of the UMP (right-wing party) in France, is today the representative of the country’s Jewish and Arab-Andalusian music.

Sheik Mouizo/Mwijo

Moussa Attias, known as Sheikh Mouizo/Mwijo, is one of the greatest masters of Moroccan Jewish songs. Born in Meknes in 1937, he began singing at the age of 25. Mouizo descends from a line of singers and composers, going back to his grandfather. His father Yaakov Attias was a percussionist who played in the Mâalem Ben Haroush ensemble. The latter moved to Israel and Mouizo accompanied him in his last days. To thank him for his presence, Ben Haroush gave him his songbooks, which would be the source of his rich repertoire of more than 500 traditional songs from the Maghreb, as well as other written songs, including “Tanjiya“, “Ma Kayan Kheir“, “Ibrahim Al-Khalil“, “A ibad Allah“, “A labnat” and “Ghazali houa Sbabi“… His songs with very contextual lyrics have crossed generations of Moroccan Jewry. Sheikh Mouizo died on May 2, 2020 after a long and inspiring career.

Simon Elbaz: Star of Matrûz

Born in Morocco, in Boujaad. He settled in France where he completed his studies in Humanities at the University of Paris IV. For more than twenty years he has devoted himself to the art of Matrûz art, a musical creation based on oral traditions leading to the crossing of cultures and languages: Hebrew, Arabic, French, Latin and Judeo-Spanish. Nourished since his childhood in Morocco by the traditional teaching of Hebrew cantilation and Berber-Arabic-Muslim culture, he practiced singing in Paris with Tamia, Giovanna Marini, Sigmund Molik and the cûd with Hussein el-Masry. He continued his theatrical training with Jacques Lecoq, Jerzy Grotowski and with Peter Brook and Eugenio Barba during working meetings. He interprets most of his musical and theatrical works: Offering, The Song of Songs, Bled-on-stage, Medina-Folies, Mchouga-Mabul, etc.

Coming from a triple French-Jewish-Moroccan culture, he has dedicated himself for more than thirty years to the renewal of Matrûz: ‘’Artistic Creation of Languages, Music and Intercrossed Theater. ‘’ In parallel to his university studies in Human Sciences, he pursued his artistic training as an actor, musician, and singer. He is a member of the El Mawsili Ensemble of Arab-Andalusian music and has performed in plays by authors such as Liliane Atlan, Tahar Ben-Jelloun, Edmond Amran El Maleh, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Henri Meschonnic, Juan Rulfo, Kateb Yacine, as well as in his own creations, and in films, notably “Where are you going Moshe? ” by Hassan Benjelloun, in which he plays the main role.

He performs in France, and abroad in many festivals, including Avignon, Bourges, Casablanca, Edinburgh, Fez, and Montreal.

Neta Elkayam

Two months after the release of her album composed of covers of three traditional songs from the Jewish-Moroccan heritage, the Israeli artist of Moroccan origin returns with a new album “Arénas” where she explores again her roots by dusting off old songs of the Jewish women of the Atlas Mountains, having transited through the French camp of the Grand Arénas of Marseille.

The artist, who fully assumes her dual Jewish and Moroccan identity and who was discovered in Kamal Hachkar’s latest documentary “In your eyes, I see my country”, has succeeded for years in conquering an international audience by lending her voice to the music of North Africa. A regular at the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques in Essaouira, Neta Elkayam has been performing on the most prestigious stages in Jerusalem and Casablanca, surrounded by various orchestras and musicians of the highest caliber. She has received numerous awards, including the ACUM award and the Sami Michael award. Also, she was nominated for the Ophir Oscars for her leading role in the musical ”Red Fields” (Mami), 2019.

Jewish influences in the history of Moroccan music

The cultural eclecticism of Morocco translates into a multiplicity of musical influences at the origin of musical genres that today occupy a place of their own in the rich Moroccan musical culture.

Moroccan Jews have left their mark on Moroccan culture in many areas, including music, cuisine, and certain trades. In Israel, Moroccan Jews form the largest Arab community that do still maintain close ties with their homeland. Morocco also has many synagogues, sacred Jewish graves, and Jewish courts. In many Moroccan cities, Moroccan Jews lived together in the “Mellah“, the Jewish quarter. They were autonomous and practiced their religion freely.

Judeo-Moroccan music is very strongly influenced by the heritage left by the Moors. This style of music was born in Morocco after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from southern Spain. Judaism is inextricably linked to the Moroccan soul. A part of Morocco is Jewish and Judaism has its own place in this country and in the heart of its people.

Before their massive departure from Morocco, Judeo-Moroccan artists were also represented in different musical styles in the country: cayta (such as the Judeo-Moroccans of Safi), Shac, Gnawî (such as the Judeo-Moroccans of Essaouira), Melhûn. This style little known to the Moroccan public is from a mixture of the Sanca (صنعة) which is a form of music Arab-Andalusian Gharnâtî which mixed with music Shac gave birth in the 1920s to this style of music in Casablanca, then it spread to Salé, Rabat, Safi, and Fez, and it even crossed the borders. The great masters of this music are Houssine Toulali, Samy EL Maghrebi, Zohra EL Fassia, nowadays we find EL Merrakechi, the Penhas brothers, Sheik Mouizo and some singers in exile as: Charly, Fabien Rachid Otfi, Nino EL Maghrebi.

This music borrows its modes from Andalusian music, by simplifying them, the text is generally resulting from a Qasîdah written by great masters. This music remains reserved nowadays for the elite, more in private parties. During the song; dancers generally women perform choreography with a white scarf, in their hands, a symbol of the bourgeoisie.

Contrary to the idea received in Morocco that this music is reserved for the Jews of Morocco, according to Moroccan historians, this music was not born in 1920, but quite simply brought by the Muslims driven out of Andalusia, and there is not a piece of Jewish Andalusian music and a Muslim Andalusian music but quite simply classical Arab-Andalusian music.

Besides urban Moroccan Jewish singing, there is a less-known Judeo-Berber singing and dancing in mountain areas that were quite popular among the Amazigh population of Morocco, Mohamed El Medlaoui introduces this particular art, in the following terms:

‘’The participants in this aḥwash – most likely toshavim – come from the Iglua and Tidili in the central High Atlas. Their aḥwash is characterized by a fairly strong adherence to the canons of the aḥwash of the places of origin. This can be seen, among other things, from the following features: beginning with a functional, but also ritual, heating of authentic tambourines (tagnza) on a brazier (figure im7) in order to adjust their three percussive tones (lhmz “low”, agllaya “medium” and nqqr “high”); an improvised ashtray in nnaqus “bell sound”; a good command of the 5/8 quinary rhythm, typical of the aḥwash, with these three tambourine percussion tones (lhmz, agllay, and nnqqr) ; accurate youyous and sober dancing with shoulders and vertical body movement; mastery of the pentatonic modes of the tune repertoire; memorization of a rich repertoire of ancient songs and melodies; accurate chleuhe diction and standard chleuhe pronunciation (no disturbance of sibilants as in the megorashim). On the other hand, men sometimes have difficulty holding the high register, which characterizes the vocalization of Chleuh singing; they sometimes degrade their voice by an octave for certain tunes compared to women.’’

Conclusion: What remains of this Judeo-Arabic culture?

What remains of this Judeo-Arab-Amazigh culture, today that the Jews of the Maghreb are dispersed throughout the world?

In France, the Sephardic community lives alongside the Muslim emigration. In Israel, Maghrebi Jews and Oriental Jews, although in the majority, are treated as marginal minorities.

This culture has left its mark on the soul of Maghrebi Jews. It still resonates in the hearts, in the uprooted souls of the emigrants in Israel, it resounds in their music, in their songs, in their folklore and their rites. There is homesickness,” says Haïm Zafrani, a Moroccan Jewish writer who lived in Israel.

In Morocco, none of the representatives of this Judeo-Arab-Amazigh music have been forgotten, neither the masters already mentioned, nor Samy el Maghribi, nor especially Salim Halali, the singer of modernism in the traditional music of the three Maghreb countries. New names have appeared such as Boutbol or Pinhas. As well as new experiences arose, notably those initiated by Francoise Atlan, a soprano who specializes in Sephardic songs and Arab-Andalusian music.

Patiently, since 2007, Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, a researcher, and performer of songs from the Jewish-Moroccan heritage has collected hundreds of recordings and continues to do so in her small office in Casablanca, the economic capital and megacity where the majority of Morocco’s Jewish community now lives. At the end of January 2015, the initiative was presented at the Museum of Moroccan Judaism as part of a screening debate.

With her initiative, the forty-year-old woman said she wanted to revive the memory of the not-so-distant past: in the 1950s, the kingdom had 250,000 citizens of the Jewish faith. But successive Arab-Israeli conflicts made them emigrate to Israel, and numerous departures to France and Canada took place and have, subsequently, reduced this presence to less than 3,000. However, Moroccan Jews remain the main Jewish community in North Africa.

The name of the project – “Khoya: The Sound Archives of Jewish Morocco” – was chosen to reflect this common heritage of Moroccans. “Khoya” has a double meaning, “my brother” in dialectal Arabic and “jewel” in Spanish.

Its message is that:

Moroccan Jews and Muslims are brothers, share the same customs and must work together to revive this heritage,” says El Baz.

From a family originally from Tetouan (northern Morocco), she herself represents those Moroccan Jews steeped in Spanish culture, an influence that is reflected in the concerts El Baz gives.

The sound library includes two types of recordings: songs and music by popular Moroccan Jewish artists, collected in the field or in a commercial format, and recordings of stories of Moroccan Jewish families told by both Jewish and Muslim citizens.

Khoya” is still “incomplete,” notes Vanessa Paloma El Baz, however, explaining that many Moroccan Jews in Israel, Europe, and North America have recordings, videos, and photographs that could add to the collection, which already consists of hundreds of hours.

Gathering Moroccan Jewish memory “has not been easy,” she says, citing the reluctance of some families to hand over the recordings.

Will the work of Vanessa Paloma El Baz revive and reinvigorate interest in Moroccan Jewish music among Muslims and Jews worldwide and could ultimately be used as a bridge to the resurrection of the Andalusian vivre-ensemble and convivencia  much-needed today in the time of religious turmoil and radical negativism. That is the question we all ask and the hope we all entertain. Amen.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

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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