Maurice El Medioni, Algerian Jewish pianist, has died at the age of 95

Maurice El Medioni, an Algerian pianist who blended Jewish and Arab musical traditions into a singular style he called “Pianooriental,” died March 25 in Israel. He was 95 years old.

His death, which occurred in a nursing home in Herzliya, on Israel's central coast, was confirmed by his manager, Yvonne Kahan.

Mr. Medioni was the last representative of a once-vibrant Jewish-Arabic musical culture that flourished in North Africa before and after World War II and drew proudly from both legacies.

In Oran, the Algerian port where he was born, he was sought after by Arabs and Jews to play at weddings and banquets, in the years between the war and 1961, when the threat of violence and Algeria's new independence from France pushed Mr. Medioni and thousands of other Jews flee.

With its boundless octaves, its almost microtonal shifts in the style of traditional Arabic music, its brash rumba rhythms learned from American soldiers after the 1942 Allied invasion, and its roots in the Arab-Jewish musical heritage called andalous, Medioni he had honed a distinctive piano style by the age of twenty. The singers he accompanied often alternated phrases in French and Arabic in a style known as “Françarabe.” His uncle Messaoud El Medioni was the famous musician known as Saoud L'Oranais, one of the main practitioners of andalous who was deported by the Germans to the Sobibor extermination camp in 1943.

Medioni's style remained buried and almost forgotten for four decades while he plied his trade as a men's tailor. He kept it alive in private, performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs after being forced to flee to France, until he released a breakthrough album, “Café Oran,” in 1996 at age 68. This led to a belated second life as a so-called world music star: concert tours in Europe, appearances in documentary films and an important role as mentor to a new generation of Israeli musicians eager to reclaim the musical legacy of their Sephardic heritage. In 2017 he published an autobiography, “A Memoir: From Oran to Marseille (1938-1992),” which reproduces Mr. Medioni's italic scribble, with a translation from the French.

Mr. Medioni has “come to symbolize something, the last of his generation,” said Christopher Silver, a specialist in the North African Jewish musical tradition who teaches at McGill University.

“Maurice is a compulsive and naturally hip musician, always seeking other music and musical styles,” wrote British radio broadcaster Max Reinhardt in the memoir's introduction, “part of a group of Muslim and Jewish musicians who quite naturally in the 1940s and 1950s forged a new music together in North Africa.”

Two events were decisive in the formation of Pianoriental, and both occurred early in the life of Mr. Medioni, who grew up poor: “a shared bathroom for our entire floor on which there were six apartments”, wrote Mr. Médioni in his memories. – in the Jewish quarter of Oran, or “Derb”.

The first was his encounter with American soldiers in the occupied Oran area on November 8, 1942, when he was 14 years old. “From the moment the Americans arrived in Oran, our family's lifestyle changed completely,” Medioni wrote. GI introduced him to an upbeat boogie-woogie style that upstaged the French pop songs he'd been upstaged to.

The intelligent young teenager quickly became indispensable to Americans, taking them to bars and brothels. “I would go through the nine bars of the piano,” Medioni told an interviewer in 2015. “When one of the pianos was free, I would play all the American hits that I had learned, and that attracted the soldiers,” he recalled of being awed by black American jazz musicians who he saw perform: “I saw them improvise. I was amazed,” he said. “When I came home I tried to reproduce what they did.”

The second decisive event occurred in 1947 when three young Arab musicians entered a bar where people were drinking and all started singing and playing together. “Thus was born the first modern Arabic music group, a group that would make me the most popular Jewish boy among all the Muslims in the entire province of Orani,” he wrote in his memoirs. Medioni's synthesis between jazz, boogie-woogie and andalus and Arabic rai and chaabi were born, two forms of popular Algerian street music, in some cases characterized by long narrative songs.

“There are few people who try to play this oriental piano,” Mr. Silver said. “Medini is doing it very well, with his left hand and with his right hand. He is trying to update, modernize and maintain oriental or Arabic music.”

Maurice El Medioni was born on 18 October 1928 in Oran, in what was then French Algeria, to Jacob Medioni, who ran Café Saoud with his brother Messaoud, and Fany Medioni. His father died when he was 7, leaving his mother in poverty to raise four children: three boys and a girl.

His musical gifts were evident early on; Almost entirely self-taught, he honed his skills on a piano that his brother brought home from a flea market. The war aggravated the family's difficulties and all Jewish children were expelled from schools in Oran by the French authorities. “We were short of everything,” Medioni wrote.

The American invasion in 1942 was “a liberation for all the Jews of North Africa,” he wrote. And by the mid-1950s he was not only a successful tailor among the Muslims of Oran, but also a much sought-after musician, as was his brother Alex: “All the Arab orchestras wanted to work with me,” he wrote. “'These are our guys,' that's what they said.”

But as Algeria's war of independence intensified, one of his original Arab musical partners was killed by Algerian revolutionaries, and Mr. Medioni stopped playing at Arab celebrations.

In the spring of 1961, he and his young family boarded a ship for Israel, then left six months later for France. Years of struggle followed, when he founded tailoring shops, first in Paris, then in Marseille. But he continued to play at weddings and galas with the stars of the North African Arab-Jewish music scene that existed before the war and was now transplanted to France. They included Lili Boniche, Line Monty, Reinette l'Oranaise and Samy Elmaghribi.

In the late 1980s Medioni recorded himself on a cassette in his living room in Marseille and sent it to a producer at Buda Musique, a specialist record label in Paris. That was the beginning of his rebirth. After the album “Café Oran”, in 2000 there was a concert at the Barbican in London with Mr. Boniche; a tour with a well-known British Klezmer band, Oi Va Voi; and an album with a Cuban percussionist in New York, Roberto Rodriguez. He played a leading role in “El Gusto,” a 2012 documentary and album project about the reunion of an orchestra of Algeria's older Jewish and Arab musicians.

In 2011 he moved to Israel from Marseille with his wife Juliette (Amsellem) Medioni, to be close to his children. He continued to record and perform, most notably with the Mediterranean-Andalusian Ashkelon Orchestra.

His wife died in 2022. He leaves behind his children, Yacov, Marilyne and Michael, and five grandchildren.

Mr. Medioni was acutely aware that he might well be the last of his kind. In a 2003 interview in the appendix of his memoirs, he told British musician Jonathan Walton that he doubted Andalous would survive him.

“He won't,” he recalled saying. “Maurice Medioni is telling you that it won't be like this. Only people who have a bit of nostalgia and young people who love their parents will listen to it from time to time”.

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