Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie

Remembering the Jewish Past through Popular Song in Contemporary Tunisia

Remembering the Jewish Past through Popular Song in Contemporary Tunisia

Ruth DavisSéminaire avec Ruth Davis (University Reader, Université de Cambridge), le 1er février 2016, de 14h à 16h salle 308 à la MAE.

Through the medium of popular song, my lecture explores different ways in which Tunisians have come to terms with the rupture caused by the mass exodus of Jews following independence. It focuses on the new kind of popular song (ughniyya) that was associated with the rise of commercial recording in the early twentieth century; traditional Islamic social taboos against public music making meant that, until World War Two, its practitioners were primarily Jews. Characterised by simple strophic structures, earthy, colloquial language, and the use of melodic modes and instruments from the wider Mediterranean and Levant, the early ughniyya provided the foundation for the future development of Tunisian popular song. In Jewish circles, the tunes were set to sacred Hebrew texts and sung in a variety of religious and celebratory contexts. With the rise of the nationalist movement, however, the cosmopolitan ughniyya was denigrated as decadent and corrupt and, following the mass exodus of the Jews, it disappeared from mainstream musical life. Yet the songs continued to be sung by Tunisian diasporic communities, providing a continuing link with the vibrant musical culture of the protectorate era.

Since the late 1980s, various Tunisian artists and intellectuals have attempted to revive and rehabilitate the popular songs of the protectorate era, considering them a vital component of Tunisia’s cultural heritage. While some acknowledge and celebrate their former Jewish associations, others ignore or actively erase them, presenting the songs as timeless, anonymous rural folklore. The songs continue to be performed in both Arabic and Hebrew versions at the annual pilgrimage to the ‘Ghriba’ synagogue on the island of Djerba, where Tunisian diasporic Jews reunite with Tunisian Jews and Muslims in a nostalgic celebration of their shared Jewish-Arab past.

Ruth F. Davis is Reader in Ethnomusicology and Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge. She has published and broadcast extensively on music of the Mediterranean, especially North Africa and the Levant, focusing in recent years on music and nationalism, cultural memory, intellectual history of ethnomusicology, and sacred and popular music of the modern Middle East. Her book Ma’luf: Reflections on the Arab Andalusian Music of Tunisia (Scarecrow Press, 2004) is the first substantial study in English on a national tradition of Arab-Andalusian music. More recently, her edition Robert Lachmann, The ‘Oriental Music’ Broadcasts, 1936-1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine, with a 2-CD set of digitally restored recordings (A-R Editions, 2013), was awarded an Association of Recorded Sound Collections 2014 Award for Excellence, and her edited book Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015. She currently chairs the International Council for Traditional Music Study Group ‘Mediterranean Music Studies’.