Whenever I listen to early music from North Africa, even the classical pieces with piano by Algerian singer Mahieddine Bachtarzi, I find myself reminded how different North African music is from classical Arabic music. To my amateur ears, it comes with an entirely different set of influences, though there are similarities at the same time. One of the most obvious influences on North African music is indigenous Amazigh culture, and this piece is a prime example of Amazigh music captured in Morocco in the early days of the recording industry. Though they are still used interchangeably, I am using the term “Amazigh” as opposed to the frequently used “Berber,” as many Amazigh believe the term “Berber” to not only be pejorative, but also a name foisted upon them by other cultures. Morocco gained independence in 1956, after having been a French and Spanish protectorate.

In the Souss Valley, and in the Atlas Mountains of southern and southwestern Morocco, live the Shilha Amazigh (also known as Chleuh, and Ishlhin). Their native language is tashlhit, an Amazigh dialect. The musical traditions of the Shilha are rich. Small groups of professional Shilha musicians are known as rwais. The singular of the term rwais is raïs, and raïs refers to the leader and person in charge of the repertoire and poetry used in the group’s material. Hence our group’s leader: Raïs Mohamed Ben Bihi.

Generally, there is a repetitive, call-and-response quality to all the early rwais music that I’ve found, or have heard. The primary instruments used in a rwais ensemble are the rribab, the one stringed fiddle from the region made of walnut and olive wood, the lotar, which is a four-stringed lute with an enamel soup bowl as a resonator, and the naqus, which is a percussive bell that is played with a metal rod. The raïs sings his poetry line by line, and very often the chorus repeats it, line by line. I chose this piece, however, because it’s an instrumental, and it features another instrument used by the rwais ensembles which is not as often featured on early recordings: the haha, a flute used in the Essaouira region (thanks to reader ‘asklu’). Accompanying the flutes are two types of drums, though I’m not sure which ones – possibly the tallunt frame drum.

Polyphon, the French-run label related to Polydor, recorded this piece in 1936, probably in Marrakech. The first rwais recordings were made by Pathé only about 10 years earlier, and featured the artists Raïs Abdallah Enaïr and Raïs Elmokhtar Ben Saïd. The Gramophone Company followed suit, recording rwais troupes in 1929. In 1938, the Baidaphon company’s Paris outfit recorded the famed El-Hadj Belaïd, who even recorded a song about his travels there: “The Trip to Paris.” On the one hand, it’s interesting that recording of such a large cultural group that was easily accessible in major Moroccan cities did not begin until the mid- to late 1920s. We know that companies such as Polyphon and other European multinational recording companies were driven to find new markets, if they existed. In the late 1920s, Sub-Saharan recording began in vigor, and previously that was a recordist’s no man’s land. Perhaps the same feeling existed with regard to the non-urban music of Morocco. I suppose we can only be thankful that they began recording rwais groups when they did.

Rwais performances are, like so many other local styles of music, traditionally long-form styles. The 78rpm record can only capture a snapshot of the reality of a live performance, so we are left with mere snippets. The Polyphon label has remained an idiosyncratic favorite of mine, when it comes to the recording of small troupes across North Africa and elsewhere. For some reason, they chose to record in some of the most sonorous, gigantic recording spaces that must have been available. In some cases, particularly with large ensembles, this was a terrible choice, with the result sounding like mud. But for small troupes (including the Arab-Andalusian and raï music from Algeria recorded during the period), it worked magically – even with a little over-modulation.

Raïs Mohamed Ben Biak – Caïd Mokhtar

Technical Notes
Label: Polyphon
Issue Number: 46016
Matrix Number: 8033 WPM

Much info gleaned from the articles and dissertation by Philip Daniel Schuyler.

slaouiSince October’s Lili L’Abassi piece was so popular, I thought I’d post more classic, driving popular music from North Africa – this time, from Morocco.

Hocine Slaoui (more commonly spelled Houcine Slaoui) can be credited with helping to invent Moroccan popular music, acting as a bridge between earlier Moroccan chaabi and more contemporary sounds, despite actively recording only a short time. He was born in 1918 as Houcine Ben Bouchaïb in the city of Salé –  the pronounciation of the city’s name gave him the new last name of “Slaoui.” An oud player with a crack group of accompanying musicians, Slaoui began his recording career for Pathé in the years after World War II, recording upwards of 30-40 songs for the company from ca. 1948-1950 (possibly in Paris). He then mysteriously passed away in 1951. His 78s were huge sellers in the Maghreb, and his name was probably as well known as Mohammed Abdel Wahab or Farid El-Attrache – perhaps because he deliberately gave his songs mass appeal by intermingling all manner of styles. That said, they now turn up infrequently. There is next to nothing written about Slaoui in English, and there appear to be no available CDs, at least in the West, that contain his work.

Along with Slaoui on oud, you’ll hear percussion, qanun, and his chorus – even a little ululating!  This one really moves, like everything else I’ve found by the artist. The title “Yal Cahla,”  is a rather poor English transliteration of something that might be better spelled “Ya l’kHla,” which is a reference to a black-skinned woman. The song, according to reader Tim, is filled with possibly ironic stereotypes of blacks (see the comments below).

Hocine Slaoui – Yal Cahla

Technical Notes
Label: Pathé
Issue Number: PV 202
Matrix Number: CPT 7871-1P (M-127784)

(Thanks to the Alkadhis for help with translation!)

chikha-aicha-hmv.jpgNorth Africa was a busy hub of early recording, with nearly every major label conducting numerous sessions in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. (Because of its independence in 1951, 78s recorded in Libya remain a little bit of a mystery, although some do exist.) Interestingly, most of HMV’s Moroccan sessions appeared on their amazing, catch-all “K” series, which featured material from locales as disparate as Algeria, Cuba, Madagascar, and Auvergne, just to name a few places of interest.

This fantastic and spirited jam was recorded between July 22nd and July 24th, 1929, by Gramophone engineer Harold Fleming on a trip to Casablanca. The title, in fact, is a transliteration of the Arabic “Are you from Casablanca?” The female singers are accompanied by violin and percussion (bongos or a dumbek).

Chikha Aicha El Hertitia – Âaita Baidaouiya

(Thanks to Abdelali for the title translation.)

Technical Notes
Label: HMV
Coupling Number: K-4631
Face Number: 50-2114-G
Matrix Number: BS-4219
Other: M3-43689

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