“She’s Still Alive”

That is the English translation of today’s track from the great Lili Labassi (spelled L’Abassi on the label, and also known as ‘Lili El Abbassi’), a well-known Jewish chaabi singer and violinist from Algeria. This piece was released in the early 50s on the French Pacific label in their “Collection Musique Orientale” series, and was likely distributed in both North Africa and Algerian enclaves throughout 1950s Europe (Marseilles, for instance).

Labassi began his 78rpm-era recording career in 1929 with HMV. He later recorded with Polyphon in the 1930s, Columbia, and finally Pacific. Chaabi, what Labassi is known for, is a loose term essentially meaning “popular” or “of the people.” There is chaabi from Algeria, such as we have here, but there is also chaabi from Morocco as well. Algerian chaabi developed in Algiers and is indelibly linked to the masterful Hadj Mohamed El Anka, considered the father of the genre. His chaabi was an older style, employing rootsy folk melodies and poetry. But by the mid-1950s and the start of the Algerian War (1954-1962), a modern chaabi style had become popularized.

Labassi was a contemporary of El Anka, but I think this piece seems to fall right in between the rootsy and the modern. Playing violin and singing, Labassi is accompanied by oud, piano, kanun, and percussion. Both sides are included on this track, and you’ll hear why I decided to include both – not just because it’s a lengthy piece and it would be necessary to include both sides anyway, but because the second side (beginning at about 2:47) is the more improvisatory side, with Labassi showing off his considerable vocal skills. This was very common in recordings in North Africa and the Middle East, when it came to extended, 2-sided songs – time would nearly always be made for improvisation, or a brief ‘taxim.’

Lili Labassi – Mazal Haye Mazal

Technical Notes
Label: Pacific
Issue Number: CO 7036
Matrix Number: AI-0372-2/AI-0373-2

Thanks to Karim Boughida for the title translation [updated and changed 10/14, as Karim listened to the song and realized that the title’s meaning was different]! For more Lili Labassi, try the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. In 1998-1999, two volumes of a CD set of Labassi’s work titled “Le Genie Du Chaabi” was released, but it seems all but impossible to find now. I have no idea about sound quality, either…

And the new Honest Jons release is upon us. It looks wonderful, and it includes a track by the one, the only, Rizeli Sadik. Hmmm, I wonder where I’ve heard that name before…

There are two posts today (one musical, one visual), this being Excavated Shellac’s one year anniversary, for what it’s worth. Many more people have stopped by over the past year than I would have expected, and I appreciate that.

This post features another favorite type of music of mine: early Algerian raï. Raï is a major force in North African music today (I just combed through 5-10 current raï compilations at Amoeba Records this weekend), although musically it’s a shadow of what it used to be, nearly unrecognizable in comparison. Take a listen to the track samples on the Rough Guide to Raï, for instance, and for the most part you’ll hear what may sound ostensibly to Western ears like current North African pop music. Lyrically current raï departs from standard pop, but musically it’s undergone a renaissance. With one notable exception on the CD by the great Cheikha Remitti (1923-2006) who up until her death still sang the original raï, you will barely hear a glimpse of the hypnotizing rosewood flutes and older, raw voices found in early raï – which, as you can probably surmise, is barely represented on CD.

Raï means “opinion” or “advice” in Arabic – although I’ve read that it can sort of mean “Right on!” when exclaimed. The origins of the music converge in the 1920s-1930s in the seaside port of Oran, where rural bedouins and migrants brought their music into the city. Generally a male or female singer sang accompanied by only one or two gasba, the aforementioned desert rosewood flute, and a guellal, the Algerian hand drum. And raï’s vocals are intense: a driving, repetative lyrical force that sometimes lingers around a very narrow range of notes, which gives it the effect of a chant. What gave raï its reputation however was the way in which women, the Cheikhas, eventually popularized the genre in the mid-20th century, and the controversial subjects that they sang about. In much the same way that Greek rebetika music is known as the music of the Greek underworld, early raï is referred to as the music of Orani brothels and taverns.

Which is probably a narrow view, unfortunately. Raï music was obviously a far cry from classical Arabic music, and many singers sang about social issues, poverty, and the police – but there are raï songs about love, too. This piece, by Cheikha Djerba, recorded in 1954 (!), is one of them. The title, “Rah Alia Rah” translates to “He’s Gone.” I quickly played this for a friend who is a native colloquial Algerian Arabic speaker and he was able to discern that it was sung by a woman who yearns for her husband, who has traveled overseas to find work.

Here are both sides of this record. Pathé gave us this recording a bit muffled for some reason (it’s not digital distortion), but it hardly distracts.

Cheikha Djerba – Rah Alia Rah

For more early raï, there are wonderful pieces by Cheikha Relizania on both R. Crumb’s “Hot Women” CD, and the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. There were also several volumes made in France of a series titled “Anthologie du Raï” in the 1990s which seem completely unavailable – if you have any of these, please get in touch!

Also a great surprise, this fellow on YouTube plays a batch of classic raï from 45s, right on his record player for your eyes and ears.

Thanks to Karim B. for the translation!

Technical Notes
Label: Pathé
Issue Number: PV 477
Matrix Number: CPT 11644 (21) – M3-164009