Dr. Christopher Silver, Assistant Professor in Jewish History and Culture in the Department of Jewish Studies, specializes in Modern Jewish History, 20th century North Africa and Middle East studies and popular culture and music. His first book, Recording History: Jews, Muslims and Music Across Twentieth-Century North Africa, comes out in June 2022 with Stanford University Press. It offers a new history of twentieth-century North Africa, giving a voice to the musicians who defined the vibrant recording industry that carried their popular sounds from the colonial period through decolonization.
We asked Professor Silver to share his insights on his research and how his new book contributes to the scholarship on popular culture and music in North Africa.
Q: You launched Gharamophone.com in 2017 to preserve North Africa’s Jewish musical past. What inspired this archival project and how has it shaped the research behind this book?
In 2009, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a record store––selling actual records––in Casablanca. Upon entering, the proprietor provided me with an unparalleled education in music. We spent quite a bit of time together listening to vinyl from the mid-twentieth century. After nearly every spin, he made sure to mention that the artists in question hailed from the country’s once sizeable Jewish community. Intrigued, I bought some records and then quickly grew curious about the recording industry’s origins in Morocco and across North Africa.
I began to gather brittle and yet remarkably durable early 20th century shellac records (10-12 inches in diameter, played at 78 rotations per minute) – from flea markets and online auction sites like Ebay. In the process, I built an archive that transformed my thinking about North Africa and the Jewish-Muslim relationship therein. Wanting to return this music to the soundscape, I launched Gramophone, a portmanteau of the Arabic “gharam” (love or passion) and the English “gramophone.” After decades of dormancy, the records uploaded thus far have been listened to more than 200,000 times.
Q: Why was it important to cover the history of North African music and its recording history?
Sound recording constitutes one of the most monumental technological innovations of the modern period. And it was a global phenomenon, even in its earliest years at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, if we want to understand why the present sounds like it does––musically or otherwise––then we must listen for the past. This includes excavating the origins of the recording industry in North Africa. With the rise in popularity of the phonograph at the turn of the twentieth century through the end of French rule in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia at mid-twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of records flowed across colonial borders in the Maghrib.
In following the sounds of Jewish and Muslim artists there, we are not only provided with a historical soundtrack for modern North Africa at epoch-making moments but so too, can we hear how recorded music itself served to inculcate new ideas and galvanize mass movements (including anticolonial nationalism). The transnational musical story I tell confronts nationalist historiography: class is everywhere, women quite literally take center stage, and Jews emerge as important icons and taste-makers of Arab popular culture.
Q: Your book explores how Arab music brought North African Jews and Muslims together. What is novel about this scholarship?
Music is of consequence, and this is as true in North Africa, as it is elsewhere. Our historical actors have long made this clear, even if historians have until recently paid little attention to what the Jewish-Muslim relationship once sounded like. Many accounts of North Africa under colonial control have relied on a French-language paper trail produced by officials and official institutions and in doing so, reproduce a narrative of inevitable Jewish-Muslim separation. To be sure, this impulse draws on the different legal regimes that Jews and Muslims were subject to in Algeria, for example, and the push in Morocco and Tunisia to “emancipate” Jews through assimilation to French language and culture. Those policies were textbook “divide and conquer.”
But what happens if we orient ourselves away from visual sources and toward aural ones? Consider, for example, that the 1920s concerts of the Tunisian Jewish star artist Habiba Messika brought together diverse classes of Jews and Muslims who managed to gather in large numbers and listen collectively despite a system designed to keep them apart. Or that the 1930s music of Salim Halali, an Algerian Jew, is not only still performed across North Africa but can also still be heard in North African synagogues in France, Israel, and beyond. Or that the most popular records of both Messika and Halali expressed an anticolonial nationalism that French authorities could hardly contain. Music, it seems, remembers much of what history has forgotten.
Q: In your research, did you come across any findings or stories that surprised you? In what ways did they challenge or confirm your understanding of the history of popular culture in North Africa?
History should surprise. That is what makes it so exciting, even daring. There are many individual archive-related stores that I could recount. I still remember the moment when I happened upon a French intelligence report from the early 1950s in which the superstar musician Samy Elmaghribi (né Salomon Amzallag)––who would later become the cantor at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue here in Montreal––was surveilled for his nationalist activities in service of Moroccan independence. But perhaps the most exhilarating takeaway for me is the fact that records from a century ago or more have survived outside of more formal institutional spaces. Stewards, like Elmaghribi’s intrepid daughter Yolande Amzallag, who have held onto this material are owed a debt of gratitude for preserving the sounds of this past for the future.
Q: What role, if any, did the gender and class of musicians in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have on the success of the artists’ works? Were certain genres, lyric themes or instruments more typically associated with female or male performers?
Music and class were inseparable. At the tail end of the 19th century, the recording industry in Algeria, for example, emerged in the decidedly working class space of the lower Casbah of Algiers. Many of the first to record were cobblers by trade. In 1912, the members of El Moutribia, the first modern Algerian orchestra, lived within two hundred square meters of one another. All of them were Jewish. These musicians kept an ear to the ground and to the future. The popular music of the era reflects and amplifies this idea quite well.
Young Jewish female artists, like the aforementioned Messika, were particularly adept at articulating and popularizing new ideas about love, marriage, the role of women, and the nation against a backdrop of melodies drawn from the foxtrot, inspired by the Charleston, and indebted to a robust scene in Egypt. Because their music was commercial, it necessarily had to have a wide appeal.
Q: In “A Dying Colonialism”, Frantz Fanon identified how the radio became a technical instrument to disseminate news across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in their fight for independence. What role did music have in supporting or sustaining anticolonial sentiments via the radio? In what ways was music used to stir national sentiments and frustrate French colonial authorities?
Fanon’s “listening-as-resistance” framework is crucial to understanding the role played by radio in anticolonial nationalism in the Maghrib at mid-twentieth century. But we should also recall that state radio was first established in North Africa at the end of the 1920s and served a variety of audiences and purposes. In the book, for example, I point to the fact that Radio Tunis, which was divided between “Arab” and “French” programming, carried a Jewish broadcast between 1939 and 1956.
Initially, the Hebrew Hour, as it was called, was designated “Arab” and letters written to the station reveal that quite a few Muslims tuned in and even made requests. And while Hebrew liturgy was a staple of the program, Jewish listeners often made demands that the popular records of certain Muslim artists be included. Through radio, then, we also get a sense of the impact of World War II and the Holocaust on North Africa. Throughout 1939 and early 1940, the Hebrew Hour’s announcer Félix Allouche warned of the Nazi menace and chronicled state-sponsored anti-Jewish legislation and violence in Europe. With the rise of the Vichy regime in France in summer 1940, the Hebrew Hour was taken off the air in Tunisia. It would only resume again after the conclusion of the war.
Q: In a world increasingly marked by globalization and advancements in technology, how would you characterize the influence and legacy of Arab music in today’s global entertainment industries? Do younger generations of North Africans and its diaspora see this musical culture as a part of their present, or their past? Or both?
Incredibly, some of the recorded music of more than a century ago can still be heard in North Africa and throughout the North African diaspora. On television, in concert, at weddings and other celebrations––certain voices of the past are still very much there. Of course, the provenance and context are often times missing. Delving into a more robust catalogue, as I do in the book, means that the depth and range of these multifaceted Jewish artists is once again surfaced. Habiba Messika was not just a diva, but the powerful voice behind an emergent and expansive sense of the nation.
Samy Elmaghribi was not only a masterful performer of the popular and an expert interpreter of the classical Andalusian repertoire, but a figure who provided Moroccans and Algerians with a sense of what independence could sound like. In recent years, a younger generation of North African Jews and Muslims have begun to rediscover and reinterpret the sounds of those who came before them. It is my hope that Recording History resonates with them.
- “Ya man yahounou” by Habiba Messika (Baidaphon, c.1928)
- “Je t’appartiens” by Salim Halali (Pathé, c.1945)
- “Anti Souria Biladi” by Habiba Messika (Baidaphon, c.1928)
- « Allah, Ouatani Oua-Soultani » by Samy Elmaghribi (Samyphone, 1956)
You can browse Dr. Silver’s extensive catalogue at Gharamophone.com
Christopher Silver is the Segal Family Assistant Professor in Jewish History and Culture in the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University. He earned his PhD in History from UCLA. Recipient of awards from the Posen Foundation, the American Academy of Jewish Research, and the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, Silver’s scholarship on Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia has appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Hespéris-Tamuda, AJS Perspectives, History Today, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. He is also the founder and curator of the website Gharamophone.com, a digital archive of North African records from the first half of the twentieth century. His first book Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music Across Twentieth Century North Africa is forthcoming from Stanford University Press in June 2022.