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Big in Tetouan: The Jewish women who pioneered modern Arab music

Arab_Female_Singers

Many in the Arab world still remember these singers but elsewhere in the world their contribution to the musical scene has been obfuscated and forgotten, often buried underneath stereotypical and prejudiced portrayals of Jewish life in the Muslim majority world.

Shira Ohayon, educational director at the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra is attempting to resurrect their legacies.:

Big in Tetouan: The Jewish women who pioneered modern Arab music

They scorched the stages of Algeria and Tunis, in Casablanca and Baghdad, and also in Berlin and Paris. With bobbed hair − a daring style for the time − a thin cigarette in a holder between their fingers, they were among the leaders of the musical and cultural scene in their countries and even became international stars. They are the great Jewish female musicians and singers who were active in North Africa and the Middle East in the mid-20th century: Leila Mourad, Faiza Rushdi, Zohra El Fassia, Habiba Msika, Louisa Tounsia, Reinette L’Oranaise, Line Monty and Raymonde Abecassis. Msika, a Tunisian Jew, was an actress in the Arab world’s most prominent theater. El Fassia, a Moroccan Jew, was the first woman from that milieu to release a record album. Like many others, she too wrote the lyrics and music of the songs she performed.

Abecassis, the last of the giants of that generation, will be appearing Thursday with the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra of Ashkelon in a concert titled Ki Kolech Arev �(For Your Voice is Beautiful�), conducted by Tom Cohen. The concert, which will be part of the Heart at the East Festival in Tel Aviv, will be dedicated to the women who were singing stars in Arab and Maghreb countries.

Why were Jewish female singers so prominent among the pioneers of modern Arab music? And how did it come about that in Morocco and other places, they are engraved in the collective memory and remembered with esteem − yet most Israelis never heard of them?

Shira Ohayon, the education director of the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra and a prominent Mizrahi feminist researcher and activist, conceived and produced the concert. She is researching the singers’ histories, has written essays about them on the Cafe Gibraltar website and plans to publish a book containing her findings. She says she started researching their stories when she started wondering why there were no female singers in the Andalusian Orchestra in Israel. Her father, who was born in Morocco, told her about the great singers of the past. The discovery that there were quite a few Jews among them surprised her. “I asked myself, Why Jewish women, specifically? After all, I know the conservative Moroccan Jewish way of life from home,� she says.

It turns out that the picture is a complex one. “Our knowledge here about Jews in Islamic countries is nourished by Zionist stereotypes that spoke about absorption by modernization, and portrayed the Jews who came from those backgrounds as coming from the back of beyond,� says Ohayon. “But of course, they didn’t all come from the same mold. They went through profound processes of secularization starting in the 1920s. Our history doesn’t start at the moment the Zionist movement discovered that it needed ‘natural workers’ and population distribution,� she says.

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  • mindy1

    How cool-my dad used to be in a group called the Orientals 😀

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    Nice article interesting read

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