Ya ghorbati fi buldan y nass.
O my exile in the land of others.
Jama imen idjuz igoul hadi brania.
Where they look at me and think: she must be a stranger.1
For a Jew to sing about exile is not unheard of, but the lyrics above—from Line Monty’s 1971 song “Ma Guitare et Mon Pays”—do not refer to exile from the land of Israel. They speak, instead, to the singer’s longing for her birthplace of Algeria.
Since before I can remember, my family has felt that same longing. My father left his native Marrakesh for France when he was eighteen, in 1963; in 1964, at the age of seven, my mother left Fez for Israel. They lost more than a country when they left; Arabic, their native language, was buried. So when my father arrived in France, he cut his name in half, shrinking it from Elkeslassy to Lassy.
My family’s exile is just one story among the many marked by the historical rupture that occurred between Jewish and Muslim communities in the 1950s and 1960s, after millenia of shared history and culture in the Middle East and North Africa. After the turbulent decades following French and British decolonization, the creation of the State of Israel, and the rise of Arab nationalism, it seemed that a Judeo-Arab identity had become impossible.
But for my family, and for many families who share stories like ours, Arab-Jewish identity persisted: in our homes, our celebrations, our rituals. Confined to the private sphere by the demands of our adopted lands, Arabic language and culture continued to blossom in our music and our liturgy.
This split between public and private has left me wrestling with difficult questions. Where did the old world go? What was it like? How did the rupture between Arab and Jewish worlds come to affect us collectively and individually?
As I often do in the face of such questions, I turned to music. In collaboration with music director Ira Khonen Temple, I unearthed material from a broad swath of music composed and performed by Jews in North Africa. From this library of songs, Ira and I built a repertoire for performance. We wove together liturgical material with folk music and cabaret, wedding songs traditionally sung only by women with holy songs traditionally sung only by men. We were particularly attracted to the voices and stories of women and queer folks of the time.
As I delved deeper into the archive, I was astonished by the range and vibrancy of the voices that leapt out at me. I was fascinated by how, in their own unique ways, and with their own contradictions, all of these artists dealt with the powerful forces that changed their time and careers: patriarchy, colonialism, the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalisms. I was curious to understand how those forces had shaped their lives. And with them, the lives of their generation and of my parents’ generation.
Our excavations gave birth to this project, Ya Ghorbati: an invitation to a musical journey across North Africa to (re)discover—à la redécouverte de—Sephardi divas from the early twentieth century through the 1960s.
This folio presents our interpretations of songs by great Maghrebi artists like Line Monty, Zohra Elfassia, Habiba Msika, and Salim Halali—performed outside the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in June 2021.
The singers featured in this collection were extraordinary cabaret performers, pop stars, iconoclasts, and folk innovators of twentieth-century Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia:
Line Monty weaved together classical Andalusian music with French cabaret to create her own signature variation of the Francarabe style.2
Zohra Elfassia, a virtuoso of Malhun,3 was revered in Morocco as the greatest diva of her time.
Habiba Msika was a superstar of 1920s Tunis; she exercised her revolutionary aesthetics in the music scene and in the theater.
Salim Halali was a legendary gay performer, the owner of three cabarets in Paris and Casablanca, and a specialist in Chaabi, a form of North African pop music.
While digging into the stories of these divas, I also uncovered the work of artists in my own family history, particularly the poems of my great-great-grandfather, Shlomo Abitbol.
Ya Ghorbati is dedicated to these divas, and to the musicians and poets in my family whose stories I discovered along the way. It is an attempt to bring what was made private back into the public sphere, opening a door to the past—and, I hope, to new possibilities for the future.
Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile
Concert at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, June 2021
Music Direction | Ira Khonen Temple
Executive Production | Laura Elkeslassy & Ira Khonen Temple
Laura Elkeslassy | Vocals
Ira Khonen Temple | Keys & Accordion
April Centrone | Percussion
Eylem Basaldi | Violin
Yoni Battat | Oud & Guitar
Zoë Guigueno | Bass
- Translation and transliteration of lyrics throughout the folio were provided by Adil Abara, Yohai Cohen, Ira Khonen Temple, Laura Elkeslassy, Mehdya Fassi, Youssef Fassi Fihri, Asaf Calderon, Joseph Elkeslassy, Juda Oliel, Mady Lassy, and Raymond Lassy.
- A genre of music that mixed French and Arabic lyrics and became popular in the late 1930s.
- Based on classical Andalusian music, Malhun developed in Morocco and is sung in dialect.
- El Hamamsy, Walid, and Mounira Soliman, eds. Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook. New York: Routledge, 2013.
- “The French-Arabic Song Repertoire.” Institut Européen des Musiques Juives.