In Christopher Silver’s book Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa, Matti Friedman finds a slice of history whose echoes reverberate in contemporary Israeli culture, and that “matters a great deal for anyone trying to understand Israel” today:
Recording History introduces us to the musical world of the Maghreb in the first half of the 20th century, and specifically to the Jewish performers and talent scouts who shaped the sounds heard by millions of Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. Jews were central players in the Arabic music scene, moving back and forth over ethnic lines and between the concert hall and the synagogue in a way that now seems remarkable. We meet figures like Edmond Nathan Yafil, a Jewish mandolin player from the casbah of Algiers who collected hundreds of beloved local melodies in a 1904 compendium that was the first of its kind. Yafil also mentored dozens of musicians—Jews and Muslims—conducted the radio orchestra, and steered Algeria’s new recording industry in the first decades of the 20th century.
Silver’s memorable cast of characters includes . . . Acher Mizrahi, born in Jerusalem and transplanted to the Jewish Quarter of Tunis, who was somehow a synagogue cantor, a teacher at a religious school, and the author of the suggestive pop hit “Où vous étiez mademoiselle.”
It may surprise many readers to learn that some of the voices most closely identified with the North African independence movements belonged to Jews. [The Tunisian pop starlet Habiba] Messika’s 1928 version of an anti-British Egyptian anthem was considered so dangerous, for example, that it drew the attention of French security agents.
Much changed with the creation of Israel in 1948—but the real shift, Friedman explains, came after the Nazi defeat of France in 1940, when the collaborationist Vichy regime took control of much of the Maghreb:
After 1940, the native Jewish musicians who’d been at the center of the Arab scene, and who were now barred from it by law, watched many of their Muslim friends and colleagues betray them. Cultural officials accused them of importing “decadence” into Arabic music and of appropriating a culture that was foreign to them. Magazines published vicious musical critiques of their work alongside the regime’s new anti-Jewish laws. Mahiedinne Bachetarzi, for decades a protégé of the famed Jewish impresario Yafil, now moved to center stage and wrote a song of exuberant praise for Vichy and its dictator, Marshal Pétain.