‘Chaabi’ music of Algeria revived in France

 Chris Silver of Jewish Morocco blog is on a musical journey of discovery: in France this summer, he attended a concert of chaabi music, popularised by the recently-reconstituted Arab-Jewish band El Gusto. Touring with El Gusto is  Algerian-Jewish musician Luc Cherki, whose compositions seem to epitomise estrangement and exile. (With thanks: Michelle)

While in France, I had the tremendous opportunity to see live music as
well. Thanks to the kindness of Safinez and Nabila I met with members of
the recently reconstituted 1950s-era Algerian chaabi orchestra El Gusto.
I was privileged to have ftour (Ramadan break-fast meal) with these
master musicians and glean hidden nuggets of music history from the
likes of Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni through informal interviews
backstage. The concert itself, in an amphitheater on the water in
beautiful Sète (also interestingly a ferry point for North Africa), was
electric. A couple observations from the concert before I jump to our
artist of interest.

  • Throughout the concert, Abdelmajid Meksoud referred to Maurice El Medioni as Cheikh.
  • The set list included a majority of songs popularized or written by Algerian Jews including Mchate Aaliya (Lili Boniche), Alger Alger (Line Monty-Maurice El Medioni), and one of my favorites – Ghir Ajini Ajini (Lili Labassi). (..)

Monsieur Luc Cherki: In the lead up to the concert I chatted with Luc (sometimes Lili)
Cherki, a musician who had long been a curiosity of mine but whom I had
never written about. Luc was born on August 8, 1936 and spent his
formative years in Algiers, Algeria. He came of musical age in the 1950s
at a time when chaabi music across the Maghreb was on the ascent. What
made him special (in part) was that he could not only jam on the guitar
in a number of styles but could also sing distinctively in Arabic,
French, and Hebrew. As the end of the decade approached, his identity as
an Algerian Jew of French citizenship became increasingly complex. Like
most of his fellow coreligionists Luc Cherki left Algeria for France by
1962 and has never returned. He increasingly sang in French and became
associated musically and politically with his French hit Je Suis Pied

Luc Cherki recorded for a variety of labels in France including Kahlaoui’s Dounia. His Arabic music was often forgotten as the years wore on and by the end of the 1980s he seemed to distance
himself from music all together. He took a nearly 15 year
musical break before returning to the performing stage in the 2000s and
now tours with El Gusto.

Luc Cherki. L’Mouèma. Dounia. 1970s.

L’Mouèma: Yes,
I’m posting a song about a Jewish mother, an Algerian Jewish mother to
be exact. L’mouèma is the affectionate word for mom in darija, North
African Arabic. The album artwork from this 1970s Luc Cherki release
features a dedication to children deprived of their mothers’ love. When I
asked my friend Jawad (check out his Juifs Berberes
photo blog) for some help with the lyrics, he concurred that the song
was written about a mother but he offered another explanation. L’mouèma
can also stand in for the motherland, he said. In other words, it’s
possible that Luc Cherki is singing here about his longing for Algeria.
The song begins with, “separation is worse than death.” Take a listen. I
hear hints of Cheikh Zouzou’s Bensoussan here in the music. The
theme of exile, estrangement is ominpresent. What I also find
fascinating about this song (and really El Gusto as a concept) is how
much it complicates the narrative. Cheers.

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  • Great post and kol hakavod for the magnificent work Chris Silver is doing.

    I also agree that there are two parallel narratives in this song: the abandonment by/absence of the mother on one hand, and the abandonment by/absence and estrangement from the motherland.

    This double meaning is very common both in music and literary works (for example Taha Benjelloun's La priere de l'absent has this double meaning as conceit) because it is naturally suggested by the identity of the terms "gharib" (the absent) and Maghreb (where the sun sets=becomes absent) "mgharba" (Maghrebans)

    Gusto/gosto is also a fascinating Jewish linguistic concept though the term is no longer in use.


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