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.

The Story
Band on stage, Reporter smiles, Crowds dance at a rave

Watch Video 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 Arabic-influenced jazz.

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."


Marco Werman

Peter Pearce

Paul Rusnak

David Ritsher

"Creepy Feeling" performed by Jelly Roll Morton, courtesy of Smithsonian Collection of Recordings

Additional Materials
Getty Images

Special Thanks
Piranha Records

Produced in Association With
PRI's The World

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