Recently in Marseilles, a DJ put out a
techno dance track that sampled the piano playing and singing
of an older musician born and raised in Algeria. The track became
an underground hit, capturing the attention of PRI
World reporter Marco Werman. So in May 2003, FRONTLINE/World
sent Werman on a journey to this cosmopolitan city, home to
an intriguing blend of Africans, Arabs and Europeans, to meet
the man at the source of this compelling old-meets-new sound,
Maurice El Medioni.
Werman finds El Medioni in a piano bar. It turns out that the
musician is 75 years old and Jewish. His hands race over the
keys like those of a man half his age. He finishes the jazzy
tune with a flourish and a smile. Then he takes Werman with
him to a Marseilles synagogue where he begins to explain his
Jewish and Algerian roots.
Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1928, El Medioni grew up in a Sephardic
community. His father and uncle ran a cabaret nightclub in Oran's
Jewish quarter, not unlike Rick's Café in the film Casablanca.
Taking musical cues from French pop songs and the Jewish/Arabic
Andalusian music around him, El Medioni taught himself to play
the piano at the age of 9. Then as a teenager during World War
II a bar owner hired him to play for the American soldiers who
had arrived to liberate Algeria from German occupation.
Now, seated at a piano in Marseilles, a city he has called
home since 1967, El Medioni plays a jazzed-up "Yankee Doodle Dandy"
for Werman and laughs, remembering the GIs. "They would drink
beer, whiskey, cognac. They were singing like crazies, all together!
It was a wonderful time," he reminisces.
El Medioni absorbed a whole range of musical idioms: Black soldiers
taught El Medioni the boogie-woogie, Puerto Ricans the rhumba.
Every new style that came through the club's doors, El Medioni
would blend with his own "orientale" style. To demonstrate for
Werman, a grinning El Medioni plays a standard rhumba riff, then
one re-made with his Arabic touch. When he was 18, three young
Arab musicians convinced him to accompany their exuberant, energetic
raï music. El Medioni was hooked. He would become famous in Algeria
and later in the nightclubs of Paris, as a pianist who played
These days, El Medioni tours sporadically but once a week hosts
a North African music show on a Jewish radio station in Marseilles.
El Medioni's enthusiam for the music is contagious: as he spins,
several young engineers in the studio begin to laugh and dance.
El Medioni's show is upbeat, but it plays against a backdrop
of tension between Jews and Arabs in France, aggravated by the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are now 6 million Muslims
living in France -- 10 times the Jewish population. Many Muslim
immigrants are poor and resentful.
Recently, vandals sabotaged the radio station's antenna. Werman
asks El Medioni if he's noticed a rise in anti-semitism in France.
El Medioni nods, his smile falling from his face. "Now it's
big anti-semitism. Since two years, since intifada."
El Medioni says hostility to Jews has made him feel closer to
his people, and we see him playing for a group of dancing Jewish
women at a community center, who ululate in North African style
and beam at him. But El Medioni also remains proud of his deep
connection to the Arab musicians of Algeria. He tells Werman
about the group of raิ musicians he played with back in Oran.
He was the only Jewish member in the group, and the Arabs treated
him like a brother. When asked why, he explains clearly, "Because
I like the music, I love the music. I love to play Arabic music.
It's my reason of life."
Werman says that El Medioni's music reminds him of an Arabic
chebbi love song - the perfect soundtrack for immigrant Marseilles.
"As you are lost in the delightful confusion of whether his
music is Arab or Jewish," Werman muses, "you wonder why people
with music and roots so similar, are still searching for a way
to talk to each other."
"Creepy Feeling" performed by Jelly Roll Morton, courtesy of Smithsonian Collection of Recordings
Produced in Association With
PRI's The World
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