Algerian Songs and Friendships Bring Jews and Muslims Together Again

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In 1492, the Spanish reconquista took place (Portugal followed suit in 1493) and Jews and Muslims were all kicked out of both countries by the now-dominant Christians.  Many of these exiles went to Morocco and Algeria.  Musicians,  both Jewish and Muslim,  had played freely together in the Andalusian mélange for hundreds of years, a legacy of the great Arab-Andalusian centuries (800-1400 a.d.).

Such musical camaraderie in Algeria lasted until 1954, when its war of independence began.  In 1962, after a bitter conflict  when Algeria finally became independent from France, there was a period of rioting and terrorism that sent many people leaving the country.  French nationals including Christians (pieds noirs) Jews, as well as the Algerian-Muslim collaborators with the French occupiers (the Harkis), all headed for France.  All the other Algerian muslims were denied visas and French citizenship.  That’s when the music-making stopped.

But in the 1940s these collaborations were still happening.  Cheikha Rimitti was there, Maurice el Medioni were playing, Lili Boniche was in Algiers.  There was a thriving dance hall scene in Oran with great stars like the beautiful Line Monty.  Constantine and Algiers were also had a great and open music scene. We got a taste of the old Jewish quarter in Oran with the music of  guitarist Algiers-based Lili Boniche and pianist Maurice El Medioni, who even came to the US and LA to perform a few years back.  Bassist Bill Laswell even did a deep bass record with Boniche.

Medioni wowed the crowd at the Skirball Cultural Center here.  In Oran there was a cosmopolitan music scene with singers like the great Line Monty, and it was in Oran that Khaled first heard Johnny Hallyday and decided to pursue a music career , touring the  world familiar with raï (raï=opinion).  The music making ended, however in 1961.  All that ended in 1962 with Algeria’s independence.  The Jewish musicians in Oran, Constantine and Algiers’ Casbah all moved to France for fear of their live

Recently, however, some of the old musicians got together in the chic Marais neighborhood in Paris  (III and IV arrondissments).  A now successful Jewish musician who had moved to France reunited with Muslim musicians he hadn’t seen in 45 years.  Together they performed the popular Arabic language music called chaabi.  The musicians, now in their 80s and 90s, formed a band called El Gusto (the Good Mood), and played a concert at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism that lasted almost three hours.  The old men were crying and dancing during and after the performance.  One said “I have a new life, a rebirth!”  These musicians hadn’t seen each other in over four decades.  It was a joyful and tearful reunion. According to an article in the New York Times,  the concert has revived interest in chaabi, a musical blend of Andalusian and Berber sounds and religious chants.

An Algerian-born film maker named Safinez Bousbia, now living in Ireland, spent years looking for these long-lost musicians and getting them together for this concert, which she also made into a film.  It’s been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival.  The group is now touring French cities.

Here is the magnificent Line Monty, so famous in Oran: