Last night, I saw the Levon Helm Band at the Beacon Theatre, NY. What a great concert! Full of old people (the queue for the Gents was for once longer than the queue for the Ladies), it started on time and ended at a reasonable hour. I was in bed before midnight.
Levon Helm is 67. He understands.
PS. Among the special guests brought on, one Phoebe Snow.
Nosing around my favourite record shop this afternoon, I picked out an album by Abdel Hadi Halo and The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers, about which I knew nothing. I bought it on spec, stuck it in the car CD player and wasn't disappointed. Once home, I started googling. Turns out there's quite a story behind this album.
In a concert hall down by the old port in Marseilles, a rabbi wearing a suit, Phillipe Darmon, walks on stage and launches into an unaccompanied song. Beside him stands another man; they trade verses before singing together. So far, so ordinary: except for the fact that the man at the rabbi's side is Cheikh Saidi Benyoucef, a Muslim imam.
It was a brave signal that Jewish and Muslim musicians can work in harmony: the first European show from an Algerian orchestra brought together by a project, three years in the making, that has involved a film, an album produced by Damon Albarn, and now a series of concerts across Europe. Called El Gusto - a Spanish word meaning "joy", in recognition of the Jewish settlers who arrived in north Africa from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century - it set out to revive the musical links that once existed in Algeria between the two communities.
This from Robin Denselow in the Guardian, previewing a concert at the Barbican on October 10. He continues:
Behind the rabbi and the imam was a 42-piece orchestra, composed of Algerian Muslim and Jewish musicians. Some of them had lived together in the country before 1962 - the year of Algerian independence - when some 130,000 Algerian Jews, the vast majority of the community, fled for France, fearing for their future in what was now a Muslim state. It was the end of an era in which Muslim, Jewish, and European musicians had lived and played together in the narrow streets of the Casbah in Algiers, developing a rousing, wildly varied hybrid pop style - chaabi - that the El Gusto project set out to rediscover.
It began in 2003 with a documentary by Irish-Algerian film-maker Safinez Bousbia, who was determined to track down surviving musicians from the heyday of chaabi, the 1940s and 50s. Chaabi is a mix of Arabic and north African berber styles, blended with modern French chanson, American boogie and Latin American styles, brought by the American troops stationed in Algeria during the second world war. It's a lively, versatile music suitable for weddings, bars and concert halls alike, and played exclusively by men.
Above all, chaabi is a reminder of the role Jewish musicians have played in north Africa. The community had existed there since Roman times, and their numbers increased with the influx of both Muslims and Jews after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. As pianist Maurice el Médioni - one of Algeria's finest Jewish musicians, known for his award-winning collaborations with Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodrigues, and a chaabi pioneer - put it, "they brought with them the same music from Andalucia. They had the same music in their suitcases."
In Algiers, Bousbia met Abdel Hadi Halo, a pianist who became the project's musical director. His father had run a music school in the city that continued to teach chaabi until 1974, after the Jewish musicians had left. Halo spent three years building up a new orchestra of chaabi musicians, many of whom were graduates of his father's school. "Chaabi had died," he says. "It disappeared 20 years ago when it was replaced with more modern styles, but now it's coming back again. Young Algerians are interested in chaabi once again."
The album, produced by Damon Albarn, does not include any of the Jewish musicians associated with the project as they were reluctant to travel to Algiers at the time. However, says Abdel Hadi Halo, "Once the European concerts are over we will make a CD with the whole band."
The "whole band" places Halo's orchestra alongside five Jewish musicians, including El Médioni and the 74-year-old French actor Robert Castel, the son of popular chaabi composer Lili Labassi. Castel, too, joined the Jewish exodus to France in the early 1960s. Backstage in Marseilles, he talks of the "good times" in Algeria, and the sufferings of his fellow immigrants as they tried to make a new life in France. Describing his father - "a Jewish musician who was invited to play both at Arabic marriages and Jewish barmitzvahs, and worked with all the musicians of Algeria" - Castel comes close to tears.
Nigel Williamson in The Independent also covered the project:
You don't venture into the Algiers casbah without protection and we make our way under heavy escort through a warren of over-populated back streets, souks, courtyards and winding alleys that seem to lead nowhere. Despite the area being declared a Unesco world heritage site, the crumbling colonial façades have seen better times and the pungent smell suggests that the plumbing system collapsed long ago. Attempts at regeneration have been slow and haphazard, hampered by the district's fearsome reputation in recent years as a terrorist recruiting ground.
Yet it was not always so, and eventually we arrive at the corner of a run-down cobbled street where, inside a small barber's shop, a framed but fading photo on the wall contains the evidence. Taken more than half a century ago, it depicts a group of smartly dressed musicians of various ages and ethnic origins – and it is here that the El Gusto story starts.
"I was in the shop one day and was intrigued by the picture and so I asked about it," says Safinez Bousbia, a 23-year-old Algerian film director, now resident in Dublin. "They told me that it was a group of Muslim and Jewish musicians who used to play in the cafés and at weddings and other ceremonies in the casbah. Before the war of independence, Jews and Muslims resided together in the same religiously diverse community, sharing the same lives and making music in common. I decided to find out if any of them were still alive and if they were to track them down."
.... Bousbia also discovered that the group had been called El Gusto (it translates loosely as "the good mood") and had been formed at a famous music school run in the casbah by the acclaimed master and originator of modern Algerian chaabi music, Hadj El Anka.
El Anka had long since died, but Bousbia tracked down his son, the chaabi musician Abdel Hadi Halo, and together they located some 40 musicians, all of them over 60 and some as old as 90, living in France and Algeria. In November 2006 they bought them together in Algiers for a reunion concert, to record an album produced by Damon Albarn and to shoot a documentary film.
At least, that was the plan. In the event, the elderly Jewish musicians – none of whom had returned since 1962 – were too nervous to make the journey to Algeria. Thus the first reunion concert at the Algiers Opera House featured only Muslim musicians. So, too, does the album produced by Albarn.
Yet that wasn't the end of the story. Bousbia and El Hadi were both determined to realise their vision of reuniting the group and if the Jewish musicians wouldn't travel to Algeria, they laid plans to take the Muslim musicians to Europe instead. Their first concert together in more than 45 years took place triumphantly in Marseilles earlier this month and they will reunite again for a further performance at London's Barbican Centre of 10 October.
....A year on, in Marseilles, Halo has the last word. "There is no star in the El Gusto story because everybody is a star," he says. "We hadn't met for many years, but we came back together to sing chaabi because the music unites us."
An article in Le Figaro adds more detail.
Listen to Abdel Hadi Hajo & The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers here.
Info on Maurice El Medioni.
This post is brought to you as a public service.
(Enough already! [ed])
In 1938, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" was a number one hit for the Andrews Sisters, then Benny Goodman, then Guy Lombardo. Meaning "To me you are beautiful", (in Yiddish, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, or ביי מיר ביסטו שיין), the song was originally composed by Sholom Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs for a Yiddish musical, I Would if I Could, (in Yiddish, Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht) that ran in 1932 for one season only.
In 1937, as the Yiddish Radio Project tells it:
Lyricist Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy were catching a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when two black performers called Johnnie and George took the stage singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" -- in Yiddish. The crowd went wild. Cahn and Levy couldn't believe their ears. Sensing a hit, Cahn convinced his employer at Warner Music to purchase the rights to the song from the Kammen Brothers, the twin-team music entrepreneurs who had bought the tune from Secunda a few years back for the munificent sum of $30.
Cahn gave "Bei Mir" a set of fresh English lyrics and presented it to a trio of Lutheran sisters whose orchestra leader, oddly enough named Vic Schoen, had a notion of how to swing it. The Andrews Sisters' debut 78 rpm for the Decca label hit almost immediately. The era of Yiddish swing had begun.
"Bei Mir" would soon be covered by virtually every pop and jazz artist of the age, and was even retranslated into French, Swedish, Russian -- and German. (The song was a hit in Hitler's Germany until the Nazi Party discovered that its composer was a Jew, and that the song's title was Yiddish rather than a south German dialect.)
Sammy Cahn claimed that he bought his mother a house with money earned from "Bei Mir." For her part, the mother of Sholom Secunda visited the synagogue every day for a quarter century to ask God for forgiveness, certain that he was punishing her son for a sin she had committed.
If you look at the left hand sidebar on the Yiddish Radio Project link, you can click on a medley of cover versions of the song, including snippets of Ella Fitzgerald and Trinidadian band, Felix and His Krazy Kats. (If it doesn't open for you, try using Real Player). The song has been recorded by, inter alia:
* The Andrews Sisters
* Acker Bilk
* Al Bowlly
* Buddy Clark
* Billy Cotton & His Band
* Dukes of Dixieland
* Booker Ervin
* Giora Feidman
* Ella Fitzgerald
* The Flying Neutrinos
* Slim Gaillard
* Judy Garland
* Benny Goodman
* Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra
* Klezmer Conservatory Band
* Ramsey Lewis
* Guy Lombardo
* Glenn Miller
* Louis Prima
* Willie "The Lion" Smith
* Jack Teagarden
* Budapest Klezmer Band
Interestingly, while hunting for background material, I came across this post to what looks like an old Usenet discussion list:
Date: Thu, 8 Sep 1994 12:36:31 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: German spin on "Bay mir bistu sheyn"
This is just a side note on the discussion of the song "Bay mir bistu sheyn." In the early 1970s, while I was studying & working in Europe, a German informant in her mid-20s told me the following, prompted by my asking how it was that she was familiar with this song: She claimed that the song was "really" "Bei mir bist Du schoen", and that the song had to do with American (male) military personnel stationed in Germany, singing to/about German women they were meeting there. The pronunciation sheyn ([ej]), and not [oe] (i.e., the mid, front-rounded vowel) had to do with Americans' inability to pronounce front-rounded vowels. According to the informant, there was no Jewish and/or Yiddish connection to this song. Thus, she explained, even when German performers--who presumably "could" pronounce [oe] "if they wanted to"--would preserve the "imperfect German" of the Americans when performing this song.
Sad news from Mali is the announcement today of the death of guitarist Ali Farka Touré. A long bio is provided here in English by Radio France International.
If you don't know who Zoot Sims is, you won't care about this post: move along, nothing to see here. If you do you might enjoy this:
Stan Getz, through much of his career, was known to be one of the more unpredictable personalities in the jazz world. Asked to describe his sometime rival, Zoot remarked, "Stan Getz is a nice bunch of guys."
When asked by a fan how he could play so well when he was loaded, he replied, "I practice when I'm loaded.
Zoot was standing out in the alley back of a club between sets where he was playing when a bum came up and said, " I only need seventy five cents more to buy a drink." Zoot reached in his pocket and gave him the money. After the bum walked away up the alley, Zoot ran after him, stopped him and said,"Wait a minute. How do I know you're not going to go around the corner and buy a bowl of soup?"
On a tour of Europe with Chet Baker, Chet wanted Zoot to meet the son of Benito Mussolini, who happened to be Italy’s best jazz artist. Chet prompted Zoot to please say something nice when being introduced to him. While shaking the hand of the infamous leader's son Zoot said, "Sorry to hear about your Dad."
Now that the results of the normblog Greatest Songs of Rock 'n Roll poll are out, here, for the record, is my selection:
Good vibrations – Brian Wilson (Smile version)
Astral weeks – Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
Tangled up in blue – Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
I want you – Bob Dylan (Barb Jungr version – the most erotic version)
Story of Isaac – Leonard Cohen
RESPECT – Aretha Franklin
Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
The Weight – The Band
Reach out, I’ll be there – The Four Tops
Stand by me – Ben E. King
Looking at the final 98, I guess if I were doing it again, I'd have some agonising decisions, but I can live with this list.
A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry
Enriched by the short intros to each poem, sometimes critical, provided by Milosz.
Isaac Deutscher: The Non-Jewish Jew
This was a great help in kickstarting the escalator post and is worth reading even if you aren't interested in escalators.
Louis & Allen Ginsberg: Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son
This collection of letters illustrates superbly the tensions that inhere in two types of reconciliation: the parental desire to judge and protect; and the filial desire to plough one's own furrow while seeking parental approval for the results.