Frontline World

FRANCE: Play it Again, Maurice, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Play it Again, Maurice"

Selected by dj Cheb i Sabbah

In the Mix

Historical and cultural context

North African music, France and Algeria




PRI/ The World's Global Hits - Marseilles
Learn more about Marco Werman's role as radio reporter for The World on public radio and listen to streaming audio of bands he discovered while reporting from Marseilles.

Interview With Marco Werman: In the Mix
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 Iceland, "The 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.

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 comes together.

El Medioni talks to Werman in a synagogue.

El Medioni talks to Werman in a synagogue.
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?

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.

Werman interviews a representative of Radio Gazelle.

Werman interviews a representative of Radio Gazelle, which caters to the North African-Arab community in Marseilles.
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.

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 luncheon.

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.

Werman visits El Medioni in his Marseilles home.

Werman visits El Medioni in his Marseilles home.
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?"

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?

The reporter and musician take a walk through the city streets.

The reporter and musician take a walk through the city streets.
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.

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 him?

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.

El Medioni broadcasts his weekly radio show.

El Medioni broadcasts his weekly radio show at Marseilles' Jewish radio station, Radio JM.
He seems pretty happy with his work.

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 heart.

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.

El Medioni plays for a Jewish group at a community center in Marseilles.

El Medioni plays for a Jewish group at a community center in Marseilles.
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?

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 source.

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 about Maurice El Medioni, the Marseilles-based band Massilia Sound System and design house Tous des K, which designs album covers for various world musicians.

back to top