Marco Werman travels around the world in search of fascinating
music and musicians -- a job, he admits, that's "the best on
the planet." A veteran journalist, Werman is currently senior
producer for PRI's
The World, covering music for the program. His story on
Future of Sound," aired on FRONTLINE/World in January
2003. FRONTLINE/World web editor Sara Miles reached him
by telephone in Boston, where he was listening to Algerian pop.
Werman shops for CDs at a street vendor stall in Marseilles.
Tell me about Marseilles. It's vibrant and dirty and a little
wild -- not exactly "old Europe." What drew you there?
I must have a real high tolerance for dirt, because I didn't
notice that. But it's certainly alive. Marseilles is a very
blue-collar city, a city of immigrants. In a lot of ways, it's
the face of France today -- a France where the national dish
is couscous, not steak frites. In the center of the city you
hear Wolof from Senegal, Arabic from all over. There's Congolese
music playing, zouk from the Caribbean, raï blasting out. You
just walk down the street in Marseilles and people are selling
bootleg tapes from all over. I love the mix -- they call it
brassage -- a brewing, a soup that happens when it all
If it's hard to be a Jew in France sometimes and hard to
be an Arab or North African in France, what's it like to be
a North African Jew in France?
El Medioni talks to Werman in a synagogue.
Maurice painted a really good picture for me, first, of what
it was like to be a North African Jew in Algeria. On the one
hand -- this was in the 1950s -- he became a great musician
and one of the very few Jews to be accepted in the world of
Arab musicians. On the other hand, he never talked politics
with his Arab friends.
The French government gave citizenship to all Jews in its
colonies -- which in the North African colonies created great
resentment among Arabs, who weren't granted the same status.
Some of that has carried over to the present. It's weird, because
to an outsider the Jewish and Arab Algerians are hard to tell
apart. The Jewish music, to an untrained ear, sounds like Arabic
music, the foods are the same. Yet they're bitterly divided.
The Jewish immigrants, mostly Sephardic, who first came to
Marseilles lived in the center of the city. They were pieds-noir,
looked down on by the French. Now they've moved out to middle-class
suburbs, and the center of the city is populated by Arab immigrants.
Marseilles has more Muslims and Arabs than any other French
city. It also has a lot of French supporters of [Jean Marie]
LePen [leader of the right-wing political organization the National
Front] angry about immigration. And it's had a high number of
reported anti-Semitic incidents.
Werman interviews a representative of Radio Gazelle, which caters to the North African-Arab community in Marseilles.
There is a strong Sephardic Jewish community, though. We went
to Radio J-M [Jewish Marseilles Radio], a radio station that's
part of a whole complex with a Jewish community center, a synagogue
and a kosher restaurant. There was even a young guy, who takes
piano lessons from Maurice, playing for the yentas having their
You're Jewish, but not observant. What was it like for
you to be in a synagogue in Marseilles?
Well, I'm really not observant -- my mother converted
to Judaism before I was born, and my father was born Jewish
but not religious. I was brought up in Jewish culture, but never
had a bar mitzvah. Before I went to Marseilles, the only synagogues
I'd been inside were Ashkenazic.
Maurice brought me to his synagogue for prayers very early
on a Thursday morning. He started to sing -- I'm telling you,
once you hear North African Sephardic synagogue music, a Jewish
cantor in America sounds, well, there's no other word for it
but Christian. There's no comparison.
It was all men, most maybe 40 or 50 [years old], one boy of
14, then some really old guys, everyone wearing tefillin and
tallis [prayer shawls and phylacteries]. They took the Torah
out of the ark, there was a lot of davening and praying, several
profound moments of silence. Maybe because there's no strata
of observance, no separation between Orthodox and Reform congregations,
there was a real sense of community. It seemed democratic and
inclusive. Even I felt a part of it. One man leaned over to
Maurice and asked, "Can I wrap him in tefillin?"
Werman visits El Medioni in his Marseilles home.
After the service, we all went into this little hall to have
croissants and coffee. I was talking with the rabbi, and he
suddenly said, "Can I wrap you up?" I tried to explain again
that I wasn't observant, that I hadn't even had a bar mitzvah,
that I didn't mind if they wrapped me but I wasn't sure what
it meant. He said, "You didn't have a bar mitzvah? OK, I'll
do one for you right now." So he puts the tefillin on me and
sings a couple of songs -- the Sh'ma, with a beautiful North
African melody -- and that was it. It was intense.
You became a man. So are you going to shul regularly now?
No -- but, you know, if I could find a Sephardic temple in
Boston, I might go.
Maurice El Medioni seems to be a sponge for musical influences
-- from Puerto Rican rhumba to boogie-woogie to raï. How would
you describe his particular sound? What's the special quality
you respond to in his music?
What I love about Maurice is that he isn't really polished.
You feel that if you walked into a Holiday Inn in Algiers you
might hear someone like Maurice. He's sort of like Thelonius
Monk -- much more interested in the spirit than in getting it
perfect. When he's sitting down at the piano, he's just banging
away. He loves putting flourishes on, but he's not so anal that
everything has to be dead-on. I like that looseness at the edges.
The reporter and musician take a walk through the city streets.
It's why Maurice is so open to different sounds. He's like
someone who walks up to a huge buffet and says, gee, that looks
good. And that, and that, and he starts to taste everything.
You've called this story "the Jewish-Algerian Buena Vista
Social Club." What do younger musicians you talked to think
abut Maurice? Who plays with him? Who's going to carry on from
A while back, I was reporting a story on a little graphic
studio called Tous des K that does a lot of album covers for
Marseilles hip-hop and ragga people -- ragga is kind of a cross
between hip-hop and reggae. This guy Didier, one of the founders,
was shocked that Maurice, who in his eyes is one of the great
treasures of Marseilles, hadn't been written about much except
by foreigners like me.
But he is known by musicians. Aleph Beat, a Marseilles deejay,
participated in a contest last year where several deejays were
able to choose from a menu of samples. He chose a sample of
Maurice singing and playing a piano riff and made sort of a
techno thing, with a lot of drum and bass. It was called "Laissez-moi
me griser," or "Let Me Party Down." It was a huge hit. Aleph
came back and asked Maurice for more. Maurice really loved it.
So he plays with interesting people who know him. Frank London,
the trumpet player from the Klezmatics, introduced him to a
world music record label in Berlin. A select number of people
around the globe know him and want to gig with him.
But as for his own style of music, nobody's following in his
footsteps. I got the sense that Maurice is a bit sad about this.
Maurice was unique to begin with, and he's kind of alone in
this. He's one of the last guys.
He seems pretty happy with his work.
El Medioni broadcasts his weekly radio show at Marseilles' Jewish radio station, Radio JM.
Maurice loves playing music, and his joie de vivre is real.
From the time he was a little kid and his brother gave him a
used piano from a flea market, he's been able to hear anything
and play it back for you, adding a bass line with his left hand.
It's a great gift. It was amazing to have this command performance
from him in his living room. He's a charmer. Maurice just sat
down and talked and played for me, told me his story from his
The last day we were there, he wanted to go to the beach with
me and his wife. The second I got in the back seat I felt I
was in Miami Beach again with my grandparents, being dragged
someplace. Packing everything up, the old people bickering in
the front, wishing I was somewhere else, then we were on the
beach. Food and sand. Substitute Cubans for Algerians and you
could be in Miami.
Do you think music can make a difference? Maurice says he's
a Jew who hangs out with Arabs, and they like him, but they
still don't like his people. Do you believe that music transcends
culture and politics -- you know, if we listen to the same thing,
we'll all be friends?
El Medioni plays for a Jewish group at a community center in Marseilles.
Sometimes I do feel the problems are so intense, that's just
corny: Music doesn't make any difference.
But it's like food. You can find falafel all over the Mediterranean.
Jews make it, Greeks, Moroccans, Lebanese, and everyone argues
about whose is better, which is the real kind, the kind with
parsley or with coriander, the Greek kind or the Turkish kind.
But to an outsider, it's all falafel.
If you listen to the music of Jews and Arabs that came out
of Andalusia and Spain, it's the same. Maurice calls it andalu,
Arabs call it chabi, and they can split hairs and argue
and say how different it is. But these people come from the
same place, and there are still only 12 notes in the chromatic
scale. An outsider couldn't tell the difference between North
African Jewish and Arabic music. It all comes from the same
Aren't we all just people, can't we all get along? Are you
kidding me? Apparently we can't. But the reassuring thing about
music is that it allows you to keep the light on the things
that make us alike.
Visit PRI's The
World for Marco Werman's radio reports, including features
El Medioni, the Marseilles-based band Massilia
Sound System and design house Tous
des K, which designs album covers for various world musicians.
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