Christopher Silver, Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Christopher Silver (CS): This project to fashion a musical history of modern North Africa long called out to me—well before the idea of going to graduate school ever crossed my mind. Its genesis can be traced to a record store in Casablanca which I had the good fortune of visiting in 2009. Enveloped by the physical media lining its shelves—in this case, vinyl—and educated by the store’s proprietor, I began to learn how to listen for the region’s past through its music. In this way, “new” historical actors rose to the fore as nation-builders and anticolonial agitators, women took center stage as taste-makers and agents of change, and Jews, alongside their multitalented Muslim collaborators, played a considerable role in producing the soundtrack of their era, one which was often nationalist and one which drew together large Jewish-Muslim audiences past a point commonly presumed.
That the region’s history sounded remarkably different when embedded between a record’s grooves than the one found in more normative accounts (often reliant exclusively on the colonial paper trail) intrigued me. And while vinyl and its apparent accessibility enthralled me, I found myself gravitating toward something seemingly more elusive: the brittle, fragile, and yet resilient shellac record. This medium pulls you in at seventy-eight rotations per minute, holds you there for three minutes of music per side, and fills the air with the very early-twentieth-century voices that so many of us are desirous of hearing. Pulled in and held there, inspired by an entangled, transnational history that deserved to be amplified, I embarked on a journey to re-narrate North Africa from the birth of the recording industry there at the turn of the twentieth century through the eclipse of the shellac record in the midst of decolonization. Thus an idea transformed into Recording History.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CS: Recording History is guided by the premise that music and history are mutually constitutive. In fact, I take this idea a step further by arguing that music remembers much of what history has forgotten. Given this, the book, situated at the interstices of MENA and Jewish history, addresses the unfortunate reality that too often “music” is missing from the indices of monographs in both fields. Thankfully, change is afoot. The growing recognition that popular music, radio, and sound matter a great deal when trying to understand the modern period in the Middle East is indebted to the recent work of Ziad Fahmy, Andrea Stanton, and many others, as well as to the foundational scholarship of Ali Jihad Racy, Virginia Danielson, and Walter Armbrust. And that we might be on the cusp of a more sustained historiographical shift toward the aural is evidenced by the fact that in quick succession in 2022, Recording History was published alongside Andrew Simon’s Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt and Hanan Hammad’s Layla Murad, The Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt (all three out with Stanford). And this is just the beginning.
Whereas much of the scholarly output related to North African music comes to a focus on the classical Andalusian traditions, Recording History centers the popular, which was, well, extremely popular. That popularity is teased out through all manner of archival documents, literature, and memoirs, but also through the identification of “hits,” whose sales figures I was also fortunate to happen upon. Alongside that shuffling of the playlist, the book listens for the Jewish-Muslim relationship through Arab music rather than strictly reading it through French sources. In doing so, I demonstrate that Jewish belonging and embeddedness in a Muslim milieu and Jewish-Muslim intimacy and enmeshment persisted well after the onset of colonialism and far beyond other canonical periods or events used to mark a rupture between the two groups. That musicians and music were constantly crossing physical borders (as well as those of genre) necessitated a “horizontal” approach to North Africa—to borrow a term and idea from Julia Clancy-Smith—which gives privilege to east-west movement while also looking beyond the boundaries of the nation state. Finally, the critical importance of class in understanding Jewish history in North Africa, the Jewish-Muslim relationship in the region, and music itself keeps tempo throughout the text.
Of course, Recording History is a polyphony of voices and issues which are woven throughout each and every chapter. Topics like sonic nation-building, women and the sound of modernity, musical censorship and anticolonial song, the silencing of voices during World War II, the postwar nationalist soundtrack, and the living memory of music carry the book and a number of historiographical conversations forward.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CS: Recording History builds on my scholarship over the years, whether in coming to a focus on the trade in anticolonial records in interwar North Africa or in spotlighting the stunning postwar career of the Moroccan Jewish star Samy Elmaghribi. The book also compliments the other formats I have worked in and with for some time, including the online archive Gharamophone.com. I launched that particular project in 2017 in order to repatriate the hundreds of Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian shellac records I had gathered in the course of the last decade to the soundscape. Now, with the aid of Gharamophone, readers of Recording History can quite literally listen along to the music which animates the book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CS: This book is as much for academic audiences as it is for a broader public. Given that my main subject is music, I wrote the book at a certain register, one which I believed would satisfy all. In other words, I wanted the prose to sing and so I refrained—as best I could—from employing the most technical language. I think I found the right note, but the crowd will let me know. To be sure, Recording History is deeply grounded in both innovative and more traditional archival material but it is also a monograph that is written at full volume.
No matter who the reader is, my aim is to make clear that music, hardly ephemeral or somehow unrecoverable, was of consequence and remains so. In terms of impact, I hope audiences will walk away from Recording History with the sense that history sounds dramatically different when we listen for it. It is also my wish that readers will marvel, much as I did and continue to do, at the survival of early-twentieth-century sound recordings despite all odds. Either way, all of us should feel a profound sense of gratitude to the many stewards who held on to their records with the hope that the music and history contained therein might be heard once again.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CS: Right now, I am working on a couple of projects. The first might be considered my sophomore album. I have begun following the paths of North African Jewish musicians out of the Maghrib in the second half of the twentieth century. Here, I am asking questions of the persistence of Arab Jewish identity, as well thinking seriously about music and migration, in cities like Jaffa, Marseilles, New York, and Montreal, in an age of extremes. The other project takes a beat from music—just for a moment—to explore the world of North African boxing in the first half of the twentieth century. Needless to say, I am beyond excited to move forward with all of this and much more.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter Six, “Curtain Call,” pp. 176-179)
Beyond Samyphone, Samy Elmaghribi and his family remained intimately tied to Morocco in other ways. At their request, Cohen regularly sent goods like olive oil, tea, flour, wormwood, and almonds to his sister Messody and his brother-in-law in France. In addition, Elmaghribi continued to subscribe to the paper La Vigie marocaine. As he explained to Cohen, “we are very thirsty for news from our dear country, which we are sincerely pining for.” Reading the daily Moroccan press also allowed him to keep up with many of the new developments back home. It was Elmaghribi, for example, who informed Cohen of a new dahir which had increased salaries in Morocco by 5 percent, including his. In addition and whenever possible, the musician also provided financial support to various family members and friends in Casablanca, Rabat, and Salé.
As best he could and at a distance, Elmaghribi sought to satisfy the musical needs of his compatriots. After Cohen informed Elmaghribi that the Andalusian standard “Shams al-ʿashiyya” (The evening sun) was “very in demand” among Moroccans, the musician quickly recorded it for his Samyphone label. The 45 rpm record was in many ways a departure for the artist as it was the first to feature and foreground his children. In fact, the disc itself was credited to his son Dédé Elmaghribi (Amram Amzallag) and “his sisters.” Their famous patriarch provided accompaniment on the ʿud. Eager to learn about its reception in Morocco, Elmaghribi dashed off a letter to Cohen. “Provide me with the details of the sale of Chems el âchi through today and if you think this record is a hit, especially among Muslims.” Cohen responded on January 19, 1960. “You asked if it was a hit, without a doubt, for that matter, you will see the [accounting] statements and understand that it is a hit among all Muslims and Jews.”
Late on February 29, 1960, the Moroccan port city of Agadir was struck by a powerful earthquake. More than fifteen thousand were killed. Among those victims were an estimated 1,500 Jews, representing not only 10 percent of all fatalities but some two-thirds of the total Jewish community there as well. Thousands more were injured. Refugees sought shelter in the area but also much farther north. Hundreds of the remaining Jewish survivors fled to Casablanca in order to benefit from the communal infrastructure in the cultural capital still very much in place.
On March 3, 1960, Cohen attempted to convey the enormity of the situation to Elmaghribi. “This tragedy,” he wrote, “has touched all of Morocco and business has ground to a standstill.” But Elmaghribi already knew full well many of the devastating details. Not only did he receive La Vigie marocaine but, unlike Cohen, he also had access to French television. “All we talk about is this catastrophe,” Elmaghribi informed Cohen, “which is causing us great sorrow.” In fact, by the time he had received Cohen’s letter, he had already channeled that grief into a song. He had also recorded it, sent it to the pressing plant in Paris, and designed its cover art, which featured a “a beautiful view of Agadir before the catastrophe.” On March 5, 1960, Casablanca record dealers, including Samyphone, had already ordered a thousand copies of “Qissat Agadir” (The story of Agadir) for their stores. The record was now bound for Radio Maroc in Rabat and Radio Africa in Tangier as well.
“Qissat Agadir” was not the only song composed or recorded by Moroccan Jews to commemorate the tragic events of February 1960. Against the backdrop of what Cohen described as a scene of fasting, fundraising, and “the cries of women and children” in Casablanca, Rabbi David Bouzaglo, the great paytan and pillar of Moroccan Jewry, had also written something to mark the tragedy and soothe Jewish mourners. That version may very well have been performed by Bouzaglo on Radio Maroc, as the rabbi remained a regular performer on the Jewish program La Voix des Communautés until his departure for Israel in 1965. In Israel, a number of qasaʾid (s., qasida; sung poems) on the Moroccan tragedy appeared as well. There, a second “Qissat Agadir,” written by a certain Jacob Dahan and recorded by Sliman Elmaghribi (no relation, né Ben Hamo) was released on the Jaffa-based R. Zaky label. But few could compete with Elmaghribi and his reach among both Jews and Muslims.
In the weeks after the earthquake, Elmaghribi’s slow-moving lament became something of an anthem for Moroccans not just in the diaspora but in Morocco as well. His record, on which he intoned “in the middle of the night one Tuesday, O chance, the ground thundered and Agadir collapsed” (laylat talata fi wast a-layl, ya sada, traʿadat l-ard w-bilad Agadir nakhlat), was broadcast regularly on Radio Maroc. Meanwhile, other musicians began to perform Elmaghribi’s “Qissat Agadir” on Moroccan radio as well. As a consequence, the Samyphone record sold quite well. For a time it buoyed the label. “May God bless you and may the Lord protect you and guide you” (Tabarkallah ʿalayk al-rabbi huwa yanzik w-yahdik), Émile wrote, switching from French to Moroccan Arabic.
Despite his physical absence from the country for more than six months, Elmaghribi’s voice was now once again a powerful presence in Morocco. He was present in other ways as well. His face, for example, graced the popular “Qissat Agadir” record, which of course was sold both on his own label and from his very visible Samyphone store in the heart of Casablanca. For Elmaghribi, the record was more than just a commercial venture. He proposed, for instance, that one-third of the profits be designated for aid relief in Agadir itself. On May 10, 1960, he tasked Cohen with contacting their local representative in Casablanca to inquire about where the money might be best directed. “Send him my greetings,” Elmaghribi wrote, “inform him of my desire to do my duty like any citizen of this country.”