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Myths and realties on North African Jewish music Myths and realties on North African Jewish music
by Joseph Gatt
2020-07-22 08:50:49
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I meet quite a few music lovers here and there in North Africa. There are quite a few misunderstandings related to the Jews, Jewish musicians and the Jewish musical scene. So let's bust those myths.

Myth: “Algerian Jews are crazy about Judeo-Arab music”

Reality: There are way, way, way, way more Muslim Algerian fans than Jewish fans of Judeo-Arab music.

Judeo-Arab music is a music genre said to have originated in Andalucía and maintained after the exile of Jews and Muslims from Andalucía to North Africa in the 15th century. The genre used to be favored at many weddings, Bar Mizvas and Jewish and Muslim ceremonies in North Africa.

nafjemu01_400Jews and Arabs used to be trained together to the genre, but most orchestras tended to separate Arabs and Jews in North Africa.

With the radio and the record industry booming since the 1920s, many Muslim and Jewish North Africans recorded music of the Andalus genre. There were also shows specially dedicated to the genre in North African radio stations. The genre was also popular in cafés and pubs until the 1960s.

Andalus music died out in the 1960s, but remained wildly popular among Muslim Algerians. Muslims were discouraged from singing Andalus music by local authoritarian governments who feared the poetry of the genre would turn into protest music. With the North African Jewish exile to France and Israel, Andalus musicians have to reinvent themselves in other careers.

In the late 1980s, a French ethnic radio station for a North African Muslim audience found old records of Jewish and Arab Andalus music singers and started playing the old music. That gave many of the Jewish musicians a second career. Names like Lili Boniche, Maurice El Médioni, Line Monty, Alice Fitoussi, René Perez, Luc Cherki, José de Souza, Blond Blond, Reinette L'Oranaise, Cheikh Zouzou, Cheikh Essassi, Lili Labassi, Raymon Leyris and a few others resurfaced out of nowhere.

Some of those names were kind of famous in the 1950s, like Lili Boniche. Others, like René Perez, had never sold a huge amount of albums.

BUT, the renaissance of this music had many fans among Muslim Algerians. Among North African Jews, not so much. 

The North African Jewish communities of France and Israel were more into French and Israeli pop music than into this genre. Many explanations for this. Israeli and French Jewish radios rarely play this genre. Another explanation would be that most North African Jews tried hard to erase any memory and trace of their North African heritage, save cuisine and religious rituals. That is, it is very rare for an Algerian Jew to read Algerian newspapers for example.

Myth: North African Jews play Arab music at their weddings, bar mitzvahs and ceremonies, and at home

Let's be methodical.

Around the diaspora, in France, the US, Canada and the UK where there are large Jewish populations, local Jewish radio stations mostly play Israeli pop music (for some reason).

That is American or French Jewish radio stations never really tried to promote “American Jewish music” or “French Jewish musicians” perhaps for economic reasons: most musicians want to be famous everywhere, and don't want to be confined to an ethnic or religious group.

And most Jews in the US, France or the UK listen to “normal” music everyone else listens to. Younger Jews might listen to Taylor Swift or Dua Lipa or Rihanna or Beyoncé, the older ones might listen to more classical or retro stuff. The Woodstock generation will probably listen to 1970s rock and pop and disco music and so on.

Now there is an Israeli Andalus orchestra that is quite active. And a huge majority of their fans are... in North Africa. And a huge majority of Israeli Andalus music fans are... Muslim North Africans who watch the orchestra on YouTube.

That is the Andalus orchestra has not produced “radio hits” in Israel yet, nor does the genre have its radio or television stars.

Finally, an important point. In North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) the music scene is rather gloomy when it comes to production, distribution and airing of local music.

Moroccan music stations do air quite a bit of novelty when it comes to local music. But Algerian and Tunisian radio stations mostly play classical French and Algerian music and rarely promote new musicians.

So Algerians and Tunisians tend to be “thirsty” for novelty and seek new music where they can find it. And if they can find novel music in their local dialect, but produced in Israel, they will take it. And they will thank Israel for producing it.

In sum, if you're a North African Muslim, don't go around asking Jews about the Andalus orchestra and Judeo-Arab music, because chances are, the Jews will have no idea what that is.

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