Africa, North: Musical Traditions

views updated


Geographically, North Africa (the countries of the Maghreb, i.e., Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) belongs to Africa, but culturally it is a part of the Islamic world. Some scholars have set up a twofold division of the entire area: the musical culture of the coastal region and that of the interior, roughly corresponding to "urban" and "rural," or "Andalusian" (i.e., Spanish-influenced) and "Berber" (i.e., autochthonous) music. Neither of these areas however, is homogeneous, and there are sometimes considerable differences in musical style between one coastal or interior district and another. North Africa is therefore a musical crossways of many traditions: old Mediterranean, Berber, Bedouin, Near Eastern (including Turkish, and recently Egyptian), Andalusian (or "Moorish"), and Saharan. Not all of these are present at the same place and time, and often one is faced with stylistic blends, which are difficult to define.

The Jews, historically among the oldest elements of the population, have taken an active part in each stage of the area's musical history. They have also preserved more elements from older traditions, with the conservation typical of "fringe cultures," and, in addition, have absorbed still other outside influences through factors in their own history. Both before and after the appearance of Islam there was close and permanent contact with Palestinian, Babylonian, and Egyptian Jewry. During the reconquista and after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Spanish, Portuguese, and later also Italian Jews settled in North Africa. The musical usages of the immigrants were influenced by the local ones and influenced them in return. This blending of styles and openness to influence has remained typical of North African Jewish music.

Thus, the musical traditions and practices of the North African Jews represent a conglomerate of a variety of old and new, sacred and secular, folk and art, local and shared musical styles. One can also add the advent of recent innovative stylistic blends representing the attempt to modernize the old tradition. Interestingly, talented Jewish musicians in all four countries were intimately involved in the creation and promotion of the new styles. As a rule, one can state that the musical traditions and practices of the North African Jews are interconnected in various ways with those of the non-Jewish environment. However, comparisons between the Jewish and non-Jewish musical styles are particularly difficult to make, since each is in itself a complex of historical and cultural entities, not to mention the serious obstacles characterizing any other oral tradition – the lack of musical documents and the lack of accuracy in oral transmission. This makes it impossible to state what derives from a Jewish and what from an Arab source. Nevertheless, one can speak of certain specific traits.

It seems nevertheless that the distinguishing traits should be essentially sought in the linguistic, thematic, and functional particularities. First and foremost are the musical rendering of biblical readings and prayers, and the singing of liturgical Hebrew poems, piyyuṭim, written by the most famous poets of the Jewish people as well as by locally distinguished ones. These include hymns of praise, supplications, lamentations, and the celebration of holidays. The French specialist in Moroccan music, Alexis Chottin, mentions the remarkable fact that when Hebrew texts are adapted to replace the original, they maintain the Arab metric and prosody, which, he points out, is not translation. In addition to the setting of the borrowed melodies to Hebrew texts, this type of arrangement usually leads to melodic and rhythmical changes, so their functional use in Jewish-specific circumstances may be considered as factor highlighting their Jewishness. A special category of bilingual poetry called maṭrūz (combined Hebrew and Arab verses and strophes) should also be noted. The question of Jewishness in the Oriental music appeared in connection with the intriguing phenomenon which arose from the broad-based ethnic movement of the 1980s in Israel. Challenging the widely held belief that Oriental musical traditions have a folk and indigenous background, representatives of the latter responded by arguing that the erudite mystical-religious ceremonial music known as *bakkashot, should be placed on the same level as western classical music.

The singing of bakkashot and piyyuṭim always refers to North African classical music, which, itself, is identified with the Andalusian compound and multi-sectional form of the nūba in all of the African centers. Established in Spain, the basic components and characteristics of the Andalusian nūba have survived in the major traditions of Fez, Tlemcen, Algier, and Tunis where they are called respectively: āla, gharnāṭī, ṣanʿa, and ma'lūf. Some differences notwithstanding, they are very similar in spirit and structure. The individual nūba is named after the mode or ṭab'ʿ (nature or temperament); for example nūba dīl, nūba raṣd, etc. The overall physiognomy of the nūba in all centers is more or less alike: it comprises an instrumental prelude or preludes and a series of pre-composed vocal pieces that represent autonomous phases of the nūba, each having its own set of poetic texts as well as melodic and rhythmic characteristics. Most of the poems sung in this repertory consist of muwashshaḥāt and free-measured pieces that intersperse the various phases. The overall structure as well as the individual phases are governed not only by modal unity but also by rhythmic acceleration that reaches its peak toward the end of the nūba.


Travelers who record their impressions usually display exceptional intellectual curiosity and their observations can supply important evidence. By an extraordinary coincidence, three different travelers recorded their impressions of wedding ceremonies held in the same community of Tangier: the Jewish Italian writer Samuel *Romanelli in 1787; the French painter Delacroix in 1832; and the French author Alexandre Dumas in 1832. All three travelers describe Jewish women dancing, and the traditional group of three musicians, which accompanies the dancing and singing: the 'ūd (the classical Arab short-necked lute), the kamanja (short-necked bowed lute) or the modern violin which has come to be its substitute, the darbūka (pottery vessel-drum) or the ṭār (frame drum). The kamanja or violin is played in the medieval fashion, with the body of the instrument resting on the knee. Delacroix, who also recorded in his journal that the Jewish musicians of Mogador were the best in all Morocco, depicted this traditional ensemble along with a dancer. Romanelli records that the instrumentalists, poet-singers, and preachers were remunerated in two ways. In the synagogue, the intended payment was only announced out loud, but outside the synagogue the coins were immediately put on the instrument or on the performer's breast.

Jewish musicians also distinguished themselves as entertainers in local gentile society, either in company with Muslim musicians or as special "Jewish bands." One folktale tells how such a Jewish ensemble was commanded to give a concert before the sultan on the Ninth of Av (see *Av, Ninth of). Since they could not refuse to appear, they played the melodies of the traditional *kinot, and henceforth were known as "The Singers of Woe."

The art of the payṭan (religious poet, and by extension, singer of religious poetry) is also rooted strongly in the Andalusian tradition. In almost every synagogue there is a payṭan in addition to the ḥazzan. His principal task is to sing prayers such as Nishmat and *Kedushah, and all the piyyuṭim. A payṭan may take part in the performance of the bakkashot, but not every payṭan possesses the necessary knowledge for this special art, so that a vocally and musically gifted layman will often function as the "leader" there. Since the bakkashot were performed early on Sabbath mornings, the instrumental part is completely avoided. As a result, the singers evolved the habit of adding passages sung to the syllables na na na in which the role of the accompanying instrument is thus imitated. These syllables and the wealth of vocalizes (textless ornamented phrases) is in fact a remarkable feature of the North African art of singing. When the bakkashot and piyyuṭim are sung on a weekday, they are usually accompanied by the traditional instrumental ensemble.

In the realm of folk music one should mention the folk tradition of group performance, especially in the Atlas Mountain regions, often in the form of women's ensembles. Their music and dances are not different from those of the Berber tribes.

Music plays an important role in the pilgrimage festivals at the numerous hillulot (sing. *hillula). It marks and enhances the celebration of a revered public figure and the mass pilgrimage to the site of his burial, which, in some cases, is venerated by both Jews and Muslims. The ritual of sainthood is deeply entrenched in all strata of the people.

A special Moroccan custom is the taḥdīd, a ceremony conducted the night before circumcision when it is believed that the newborn, subject, prior to circumcision, to harm by evil forces, is at the highest vulnerability. In this event a sword is used to banish the evil spirits while a selection of appropriate biblical verses is chanted.

Another well-known celebration marked by singing and dancing is the *Maimuna (which has been transferred to Israel). At these gatherings many original creations of the qaṣīda type can be heard. The qaṣīda, a popular song in Hebrew or in the vernacular, is sung both by the educated and the lower classes. Some qaṣīda songs are anonymous and well-known poets created others. In the framework of the bakkashot were introduced dozens of qaṣīdas composed by local poets borrowing their tunes from Arab qaṣīdas. Their texts include praises of the saints, ethical and religious subjects, and comments on historical and present or recent events. They are sung with or without accompaniment, and the tunes are mostly adaptations of well-known melodies. Such qaṣīda songs are found in all North African countries. One of the most talented poets of this genre was David Elkayim (1851–1940), and among the most celebrated payṭanim were David Ḥasin (1727–1792), David Iflah, and David *Buzaglo (1903–1975).


The first and earliest documents focusing on the eternal debate concerning the permissibility of music are the two responsa of *Hai Gaon to questions addressed by representatives of Tunisian Jewry. One of them, perhaps addressed to the community of *Kairouan, forbids the ḥazzanim to sing poems in the "language of the Ishmaelites," even at banquets. Another one, often quoted in later literature, is addressed to the community of *Gabès, and discusses whether the traditional prohibition (Git. 7:1) against singing with instrumental accompaniment and which restricts all secular songs in memory of the destruction of the Temple also applies to wedding celebrations. Hai Gaon approved of singing pious hymns of praise on such occasions, but secular Arab love songs were strictly forbidden, even without accompaniment; "and so to what you have mentioned … that women play the drums and dance [at such festivities], if this is done in public there is nothing more grave; and even if they … only sing, this is most unseemly and forbidden." The free and unsegregated participation of women singers in wedding festivities, family rejoicings, pilgrimages to saints' tombs, and their prominence as professional mourners, were probably related to similar usages in Berber society and have survived until the present.

The Tunisian term laʿb (lit. amusement but used for dancing) is mentioned in two *Genizah documents: in one, the birth of a boy in Fostat, Egypt, is celebrated with laʿb by his family at Mahdia in Tunisia; in another, a poor Tunisian teacher alludes, surprisingly, to laʿb at the burial of his son.

In proximity to Gabès lay the famous Island of *Djerba, home to a quite old Jewish community. It was there that in 1929 Robert *Lachmann carried on important fieldwork research with the hope of disclosing in their liturgical cantillation older stratum of Jewish music. His important analytical study of this tradition was published after his premature death (see Bibl.).

The output of piyyuṭim and songs the Jewish poets wrote in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic is considerable and played an important educative and socio-cultural role. They cover numerous song genres and themes related to Jewish life.

Toward the end of the 19th century and during the first decades of the 20th Jewish musicians played an essential role in the indigenous cultural reform movement as well as in the crystallization of a new musical style. They were involved in the growth of the cinematographic and record industries and the introduction of the modern Egyptian musical style, and distinguished by the remarkable involvement of numerous talented female musicians. Some of those female musicians established their own café-concert halls, which attracted numerous Jewish and non-Jewish music fans. Leila Sfez, who owned a popular café-concert hall, was the aunt of the legendary actress and singer Ḥbiba Msika, whose tragic premature death was the subject of a film produced by the Tunisian Slama Bachar. Interestingly, the first records of Tunisian music, published in 1908, included the interpretations of the Jewish female musicians: Louisa the Tunisian, and the sisters Semama, Fritna, and Ḥbiba Darmon.

In an article dedicated to Jewish musicians published in 1960, the Tunisian author 'Alī Jandubī warmly extolled the valuable contribution they made to Tunisian music and musical life. He mentions the special skills of many famous Jewish female and male musicians, including a few of Libyan origin. Among the famous singers and instrumentalists he mentions are Isaac, Abraham Tibshi, Khaylu al-Sghir, Mridakh Slama and his son Sousou, Gaston Bsiri, Ḥbiba Msika, and Raoul Journo.

In 1928, the Jerusalemite cantor, payṭan, and composer Asher Mizraḥi arrived in Tunis, staying until 1967, the year of his return to Israel. He soon became a dominant figure, particularly in the realm of synagogal and paraliturgical music, thus enriching the musical life of the community.


Following the riots against the Jews in Spain in 1391, a wave of refugees found shelter in Algeria. Among the newcomers was the rabbinic authority, philosopher, and kabbalist Simeon ben Tzemaḥ *Duran (b. Majorca, 1361), who was elected chief rabbi of Algeria in 1408 and died in 1444. Duran was the author of a comprehensive book, Magen Avot, which deals with religious philosophy and diverse sciences, including an important section on the science of music. In addition to generalities he wrote on music, its nature and influence, the bulk of his exposition concerns the biblical accents, which are "genera of melodies," extolling their importance for the understanding of biblical texts and their rhetoric-musical meanings. Regarding the melodies used for the piyyuṭim, he tends to admit that they were adopted from other nations.

We find years later interesting and unique evidence of the involvement of Jewish musicians in indigenous music. It occurs in the book of a young Russian pianist, Alexandre Christianowitch (1835–1874): Esquisse historique de la musique arabe, published in 1863. The author, an officer in the czar's navy, was compelled, for reasons of health, to stay in Algiers. For two years he did research on the local classical music. He reports that his first encounter with indigenous music took place in a Moorish café-concert hall where he heard a group of Jewish musicians, and that later on his Muslim mentor was critical concerning the authenticity of the classical music played by the Jews. This is, however, not the case in recent Muslim sources, which, on the contrary, warmly extol the role played by Jewish musicians such as Maalem Benfarachou, Laho Seror, and Mouzinou in the preservation of the old classical Andalusian tradition. This approach characterizes in particular the book of Algerian musicologist Nadya Buzar-Kasbadji: L'Émergence artistique algérienne au xxesiècle (published in 1988). The first chapter of this book is, to a large extent, dedicated to the Jewish musician Edmond Nathan Yafil. The author describes him as "an outstanding personage who has been the pivotal actor in an artistic Renaissance movement wherein Arab-Andalusian music constituted the leaven." She adds that Yafil remained faithful to the Arab-Andalusian tradition, which connected Jews and Arabs, endowing them with a feeling of common identity. Yafil also founded in 1911 the al-Moutribiyya music society, most of whose members were Jewish musicians.

Like their Moroccan, Tunisian, and Libyan Jewish colleagues who immigrated to France, Jewish Algerian musicians pursued a successful career in their new environment, often in close collaboration with non-Jews. This is, for instance, the case with the blind female singer and 'ud player Sultana Da'ud, alias "Reinette l'Oranaise," who, after she achieved remarkable success in Algeria, continued to be admired by her numerous fans in France for her expressive and poignant art. Samples of her repertory were issued in several cassettes and cds. Another example is the recent comeback of the popular singer Enrico Massias to the classical music of Algeria. This occurred after the assassination of his master and father-in-law, the celebrated Jewish musician Raymond Leiris.


A.Z. Idelsohn, Melodien, 5 (1928), devoted to Morocco; R. Lachmann, Jewish Cantillation (1940); A. Mizrahi, Ma'adanei melekh (1945); A. Herzog, The Intonation of the Pentateuch in the Heder of Tunis (1963); Sh. Romanelli, Ketavim nivḥarim (1969), 29, 54–56; I. Ben-Ami, "Nagganim ve-lahaqot," in: Tazlil, 10 (1970); E. Gerson-Kiwi, "Robert Lachmann," in: Yuval, 3 (1974), 100–108; idem (ed.), R. Lachmann: Gesange der Juden auf der Insel Djerba (1978 – Yuval Monograph Series, 7); idem, Migrations and Mutations of the Music in East and West (1980), 130–136; A. Chottin, Tableau de la musique marocaine, ed. P. Geuthner (n.d.), 149–53; I. Ben-Ami, in: Taẓlil, 10 (1970), 54–58; Levy, Antología, passim; A. Amzalag, Shir yedidot, in: Pe'amim, 32 (1982), R.F. Davis, "Some Relations between Three Piyyutim from Djerba and Three Arabic Songs," in: The Maghreb Review, 5–6 (1984/85), 134–144; A. Shiloah, "The Language of the Heart," in: Ariel, 105 (1997), 15–28; idem, "Rencontres et ententes," in: Perspectives 9 (2002), 170–183; idem, in: H. Sa'adoun (ed.), Kehillot Yisrael – Morocco (2003), 205–212; idem, in: S. Fellous (ed.), Juifs et Musulmans en Tunisie (2003), 309–316.

[Amnon Shiloah (2nd ed.)]