Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Artists: Reinette l'Ornaise and Taha Rachid

This is the story of two musicians from the same but very different country. One kept an old tradition alive. The other transformed it and made it something modern.

Chapter One:  Princess becomes Queen

Sultana Daoud was born in the scrabbly hill town of Tiaret into a poor Algerian Jewish family at the end of the First World War. Before she was three the little girl had lost her sight from small pox and seemed doomed to a life of insignificance and anonymity. But Sultana (Princess) loved music. For years, while attending a school for the blind, she sang to herself and friends without arousing much interest. But Sultana’s mother was moved by what she heard and approached a master musician, Souad l’Ornais, who operated a music café in the Jewish Quarter of city of Oran, near the Mediterranean coast.

Souad l’Ornais, was a living master of an old musical heritage often referred to as Arab-Andalusian.  I quote from the French Israeli writer Pierrette Missika: “Arab-Andalusian music, a unique art form, the love and knowledge of which are transmitted entirely by oral tradition, is not played in Morocco in concert halls, but is performed at festivities, often at family gatherings, where the traditional songs are sung. In this living creation, moving like the sands of the desert, the musician is guided by a master or by the musical community which each year is present at Fez or at Oudja.
“The texts, set to music, were written between the eighth and 15th centuries in classical Arabic form. This classical Arabic, hardly understood by the population at large, is still highly appreciated in Moroccan cultural circles. As for mystical poetry, often connected with Sufism, this is sung outside the mosques, inside which is no singing, unlike the case in the synagogues, where piyyutim (liturgical songs or poems) are part of the ritual. Various themes courtly love, devotional celebrations of the Prophet or of Islam, descriptions of the gardens of Andalusia, of Seville, Granada and the River Guadalquevir, or the nostalgia of the expelled Arabs for Andalusia, which parallels the poignant aspirations of Sephardi Jews were treated by the great Andalusian poets, either in classical Arabic (muwasha, a poetic form originating in Andalusia but formulated in classical Arabic), or in the Andalusian dialect of the period, zajal. The Moroccan Ministry of Culture has recorded the whole of the 14 musical modes (originally 24, each corresponding to an hour of the day), interpreted by great masters.”

Sensing grace, l’Ornais, mentored Sultana in learning the Arab-Andalusian tradition, a mix of folk, semi-historical and spiritual songs, enjoyed by Muslims and Jews equally. She mastered several string instruments and continued to sing, and kept the flame of old Bedouin song streams, like rai, alive. Such a powerful student did the blind Sultana turn out to be, that the Grand Master changed her name to Reinette l’Ornaise (Queenie of Oran). The Princess became a Queen.

Reinette travelled to Europe in the footsteps of her Master who had opened a music café in Paris. He encouraged her to return home which she did where she began to make her name. Back in Paris, the old musician and her Guide, was picked up by the Gestapo and exterminated in a concentration camp several years later.

In Algeria Reinette’s reputation continued to grow and she was a regular performer on national radio and concerts across the region. In the 1980’s she was ‘rediscovered’ (horrendously Oriental as that phrase is) by French musical boffins and ended her career and life the toast of concert halls and gala celebrations, at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment.

Chapter 2: Rock’n roll is my soul

About 175 kilometers from Tiaret, the birthplace of Rienette l’Ornaise, is the town of Sig. Several decades after Queenie’s birth a boy child was born into the family of strict and lower class Muslims. Like many others the family answered the call of the French government to come to Europe to keep the factories of a booming post-war economy humming.

Settled in Lyon, Rachid Taha, dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll hero like his idols Elvis, and Robert Plant. While working in a heating appliance factory in the late 1970s, Rachid had hooked up with other Algerian immigrant kids and a few French ones to form a band. Finding there was little hope of playing in French clubs, he set up Les Refoulés ("The Rejects"), a nightclub where he would spin mashups of Arabic pop classics over Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and Kraftwerk backbeats.  Drawing on the traditions for rai and the Arab-Andalusian music Reinette l’Ornaise had kept alive and introduced to Europe, Rachid Taha made sure that his own music was both Arabic and hard rocking. His live shows are something to behold: his long hair twirls like a dervish gone mad and electric guitars scream as mandolutes and ouds  dance delicately above the mayhem.

The Washerman’s Dog is very pleased and thrilled by the two collections on offer today.  Two outstanding artists from the same country and traditions but taking their music in very different if equally exciting directions.

            Track Listing:
1.    Fenit Ouachma Essabern
2.    Aachki Fezine Ensaha
3.    Menzinou N'har el Youm
4.    Aadrouni Ya Sadate
5.    Na Ouelfi, Enhabbek Enhabbek
6.    Selli homomec
Listen here

            Track Listing:
1.    Menfi
2.    Nokta
3.    Ida
4.    Ya Rayah
5.    Bent Sahra
6.    Medina
7.    Barra Barra
8.    Foqt Foqt
9.    Ala Jalkoum
10. Voila Voila
11. Garab
Listen here.

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