The events of 1492 are surprisingly present for Maurice el Médioni. Up until his mother’s generation, the family still spoke the languages of El Andalus (Arabic and Spanish) in their home in Algeria. Some part of Maurice el Médioni was left behind in Spain when the Jews were expelled, just as 460 years later, he would leave something of himself behind in Algeria.
A Jew growing up in French controlled, Arabic Algeria with a family still mourning the loss of their Spanish homeland, the young Maurice El Médioni was a sponge for the exciting sounds and cross rhythms of the legendarily diverse port of Oran. When the Allied forces landed in the war, he absorbed jazz, boogie-woogie and Latin music at first hand.
“I think exile plays a role in musicians coming together, they seek each other out, to feel supported and loved, and not abandoned.”
“The different cultures in my music come from my love for all kinds of music, I have played all the kinds of music that I love — pre-war French chanson, Argentinean tango, Brazilian bossa nova, boogie-woogie, Tzigane [gypsy] music, Klezmer, Flamenco and so on. I love Cuban music which links to another style I adore — Andalucian music. I have played a lot of Rai, but it’s not my favourite style…”
And this fascination with Cuban music above all would lead him to ask the director of his record label, Akbar Bokowski of Piranha, to see if he could set up an album of Cuban interpretations of his music. ” Then Akbar came to see me in Hanover and said to me ‘we must make your new album, I have found a Cuban musician who has listened to your tracks and he would be very happy to work with you and make something special.’ Akbar organised a meeting between Roberto Rodriguez and I in Paris, and things started moving forward. Eventually, we met up in the studio in New York and spent 10 days together working on the music.”
Roberto Rodriguez knows a thing or two about displacement himself being a Cuban musician living in New York. As a nine year old, the Cuban émigré would arrive in Miami and discover Jewish culture through playing Bar Mitzvahs and by working for a Yiddish theatre. As an accomplished adult musician, he was approached by John Zorn, and then recorded a couple of albums where Jewish and Latin influences came together. The relationship with Maurice El Médioni proved not only fruitful but has developed into a deep friendship based on shared experiences.
“Leaving behind our country made us suffer a lot, and the Arabs were sorry to see us go. I’ve kept in touch with my Muslim musician friends and we call each other and write to each other to this day.”
The album that they created begins with an ode to the city of Oran, which Maurice’s family had made their home. “Oran was a cosmopolitan city where Muslims, Jews and Europeans lived intelligently together, everything was going well until 1st November 1954, when the Algerian rebellion started. From the 1st Nov 1954 until 5th July 1962, there was war, between the FLN and the French army. The European population (the majority of whom were Jewish) suffered terribly: attacks, killings, people were beaten up, there were bombings, grenades were thrown into cafes. It was a time of pure fear — hell.”
Like ancient Andalucia, where Christian, Jew and Muslim lived in peace, Oran had been a place of almost mythical tolerance. “Yes, the Jews and the Arabs lived together, they understood each other well, they respected each other, but in 1948 following the first Israeli-Arab conflict, things changed a bit, it’s hard to understand.” Eventually, Maurice and his family would have no option but to flee their beloved home and make a new life in France.
“Khaled and I are not of the same generation but people talked to him about me, they told him ‘we know a Jewish pianist who can play raï like nobody else.'”
“Arriving in Paris in 1962, I continued to play music, accompanying famous Jewish singers who had also had to leave Algeria. Leaving behind our country made us suffer a lot, and the Arabs were sorry to see us go. I’ve kept in touch with my Muslim musician friends and we call each other and write to each other to this day.”
This most recent project comes at a good time for this almost octogenarian pianist. Khaled’s last album featured Mauruce’s playing on one of the most memorable tracks and reawakened interest in this singular artist. “Yes, Khaled and I… I am one of those who brought a modern touch to Rai, and also a ‘Latin’ feeling. In the 1950s, I was considered to be one of the pioneers in Oran. Khaled and I are not of the same generation but people talked to him about me, they told him ‘we know a Jewish pianist who can play raï like nobody else’. Khaled and I both really wanted to meet each other, and eventually when we did it worked out wonderfully for both of us, I am very happy he considers me to be a nice guy!”
“I’ve always loved the way Maurice plays. He represents the times when music was pure and there was no war between Jews and Arabs, when we met to make music and share things.” Khaled
With an artist of Khaled’s stature seeking him out and singing his praises, the wise musician seizes the moment and gets to do his dream album, this is exactly what has happened here and we are all the beneficiaries.
When artists from different styles get together, you can usually tell what the motivation for the recording was. Often it is the mythical cross-over record, with watered down elements and trendy production techniques leading to records that date fast and reek of insincerity. Conversely, there are artists with such genuine passion and understanding of other musical traditions that when they make a recording it opens up a whole new world and often says more about the two fused traditions separately than many canonical recordings do. Descarga Oriental. The New York Sessions (Piranha) is one such recording.
UK CONCERTS in March 2006:
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