Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1938: Louisa Tounsia


This week I'm thinking about "Ma Fiche Flous," a double-sided disc recorded in 1938 by Louisa Tounsia.

Make sure to turn the captions on.

Issued by a German label as Polyphon 45.673, it was one of thousands if not millions of records made in North Africa under French colonial administration: indeed the singer's stage name (she was born Louisa Saadoun) is a declaration of Tunisian identity, though whether in revolt against colonialist homogenization or as an appeal to colonialist exoticization I'm not familiar enough with the local historical context to be able to guess at. Regardless, there are very few North African records of the period that sound as thrillingly modern and even, to be just a touch anachronistic, groovy as this one.

The composition is credited to fellow Tunisian Maurice Benaïs, who may also be the pianist who takes a sprightly, almost jazzy solo toward the end. He, like Louisa Tounsia, and indeed like many of the biggest recording stars, live entertainers, and film actors of North Africa and the Middle East in the prewar era, was Jewish. (As an aside, the conclusion should not be drawn that colonial administration was a force for equality of religion: Jewish communities had existed for centuries in the Muslim Maghreb with far less persecution than they ever suffered in Christian Europe. The fifteenth-century expulsion of both Jews and Muslims from Iberia was only one episode in a rich shared culture, including the classical Andalusian musical tradition, and it would not be until after the Holocaust and the establishment of the settler-colonial state of Israel that the Jewish and Muslim worlds in the region would become entirely divorced from one another.)

I am very far from an expert in North African musicology, so I would not attempt to diagnose a genre here, but the lyrics sound to my untutored ear like a mixture, perhaps even a creolization, of French and Arabic (and Berber?). Credit for the lively, slangy translation into English in the video's captions, as well as for practically the entirety of the background information I have, goes to Chris Silver at the former Jewish Morocco blog. And those lyrics are as full of attitude, as funny, and even, in its defense of self-respect, as feminist, as any female blues singer of the period might have sung. The refrain, translated as "if you ain't got no money, then we ain't got words, honey," could be a Bessie Smith or Ruth Brown hit, and although the rhythms are unquestionably North African, there's an undeniable rhythm & blues swing to the piano that demonstrates just how deeply the effects of African-American jazz music were being absorbed into the stream of global popular music.

When I mentioned this recording to some friends a few years back, I said that it reminded me of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say", but other than the rolling piano, constant percussion, and double-sided length (which most Arabic recordings of the 78 r.p.m. era extended to, whether pop or classical), I don't think that's an exact fit. The rock-era recording that keeps recurring to my mind as I listen now is the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" — lean, repetitive, and undeniably funky, with a skeletal rhythm and recurrent tight melodic figures. "Ma Fiche Flous" has a faster, more caffeinated tempo, and like a lot of Arabic music maintains a drone structure that Western popular music, with its traditional emphasis on contrasting sections, would not take on board until the disco era; but the rhythmic contrast between the unvarying percussion and the piano is so deeply funky that the only contemporary US recording artist I can think to compare it to is Count Basie.

Funk, in the vernacular sense of rhythmic slippage within a syncopated beat, has been a feature of North African music as long as it's been recorded. Tunis, as a major port city, naturally absorbed the imported musics of the world, in the same way that New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, or Yokahama did, but of course African polyrhythms did not require interoceanic importation: raqs baladi, or belly dancing, is North African in origin.

All that said, I'm still very much an amateur when it comes to North African popular music; this record is one of the few from the region I've listened to long and deeply enough that it's become part of the fabric of my life. My gratitude is due to Michael Robertson at Gamelan78s for digitizing it in the first place, to Chris Silver for translation and context, and to the internet in general for making discoveries like this possible, unmediated by any reissue label. (Six years after it was initially posted to YouTube, it still hasn't been monetized and is not on label-supported streaming services.) I obviously need to listen to more Louisa Tounsia, as well as to her peers, her collaborators, her predecessors, and on and on and on. I can't wait.