Brooklyn musician Laura Elkeslassy creates a modern album inspired by the forgotten Moroccan Jewish history

(New York Jewish Week) – Musicians often draw inspiration from their past. But Brooklyn Jewish singer Laura Elkeslassy has gone back generations to create her new album, “Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile,” taking a dip in the history of her Moroccan Jewish family.

What he discovered were songs by North African Jewish singers, mostly women. “There was a tradition of ‘divas’ in North Africa in the early 20th century. Interestingly, Jewish singers were very much present in the music scene at the time, “Elkeslassy told New York Jewish Week.

“The album looks across time and space to tell a story of political upheaval and exile,” he continued, “ultimately questioning the binary between Arab and Jewish.”

Elkeslassy, ​​37, and her bandmates recorded the album, which is her first, live last June in the streets of Park Slope, at the invitation of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in honor of World Refugee Day. (June 20). “We really wanted to bring music to the community as soon as the city reopened,” she said. “The whole block joined the concert. It was a real community experience ”.

And now, as World Refugee Day approaches again, he will play the songs from the album on Wednesday, June 15 at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.

The concert, co-sponsored by the CBE’s New Jewish Culture Fellowship and publications Ayin Press and Jewish Currents, is emblematic of a wave of Jewish cultural events that aim to move beyond the stereotype of New York’s Ashkenazi Jewish culture. (This writer first met Elkeslassy when she performed at a celebration of Mimouna at Wild Birds, a hip dance club and bar she opened in Prospect Heights in 2020.)

“Laura entertains masterfully,” said Rabbi Matt Green, a rabbi of the Beth Elohim Congregation and co-founder of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. “But she also leaves the public to question their own cultural legacies as they pursue Jewish meaning in their own time.”

Elkeslassy calls “Ya Ghorbati” a “multimedia album” because the project intertwines music, videos and essays on the stories behind each song. The album began as a collaboration between Elkeslassy and Music Director Ira Khonen Temple, who were inspired to develop the project during the pandemic. “For a year, Ira and I researched the material and tested it in my backyard in Park Slope, through heat waves and freezing weather,” he said. “Some neighbors enjoyed the free concerts. Some have cursed their fate of being stuck working at home next to a singer.

Among the singers honored in “Ya Ghorbati” are Zohra Elfassia, revered as the greatest Moroccan diva of her time; Line Monty, which intertwined French cabaret and Andalusian classical music; and Salim Halali, a gay male actor who owned three cabarets in Casablanca and Paris.

“The divas featured on the album were feminist pioneers, finding joy, freedom and power in a sometimes hostile cultural landscape,” Elkeslassy explained. “I was fascinated by the way in which, in their unique ways and with their contradictions, all these artists faced the powerful forces that changed their time and their 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 my parents’ generation ”.

The creation of the album was an opportunity for Elkeslassy to discover the music of her ancestors. “My mother was born in Fez and my father was born in Marrakech,” Elkeslassy said. “My family has been in Morocco for centuries. This is really what I was exploring; I wanted to understand where I came from. “

Elkeslassy grew up in a Maghrebian (North African) Jewish community in the elegant 16th arrondissement of Paris, a place she describes as “very bourgeois, the equivalent of the Upper East Side”.

He left Paris to attend drama school in New York 14 years ago and never left it. “I wanted to come here to refocus on what I’ve always wanted to do, which was art, music, theater,” she said. “The irony is that distance has allowed me to return to my community, to music”.

Elkeslassy grew up listening to Mizrahi tunes in synagogue, at weddings and other celebrations. But when she moved to the United States, she found that her American Sephardic friends of hers had grown up mainly in Ashkenazi communities and, as she puts it, “had no access to their own inheritance.”

His album aims to correct this. “It’s an attempt to give this music back to ourselves,” she said. “Some people know him very well. Some have been disconnected from it, because they grew up in Ashkenazi circles and did not necessarily have access to their own liturgical or musical traditions which are rooted in Arabic music ”.

He also hopes the album will help raise awareness among the American Jewish community about the history and culture of Jews of Arab descent more broadly. “Too often, traditional political and cultural discourse erases that history, particularly in the United States,” she said. “It is important that the Jewish community becomes more aware not only of the presence of Sephardi / Mizrahi Jews, but also of how American Jewish institutions have literally influenced the lives of thousands upon thousands of Jews in Arab lands over the past century.”

Even in France, the Judeo-Arab musical tradition is not necessarily passed down from one generation to the next. When Elkeslassy’s sister was planning her wedding in 2016, Elkeslassy feared that no one would sing “Abiadi Ana,” a song traditionally sung by the bride’s eldest relative during the henna ceremony (a Moroccan marriage ritual). “I remember my grandmother on my father’s side sang it at my cousin’s wedding,” Elkeslassy said. “But when my grandmother died, no one knew the song anymore.”

In fact, no one had sung it at the Elkeslassy henna ceremony the year before, and she was determined to have someone do it by her sister.

Elkeslassy began a hunt to find someone to teach her the ritual melody. Eventually a member of the New York Andalus Ensemble, a local Maghrebi music ensemble that Elkeslassy had started performing with, revealed that she knew the song and taught it to her. Elkeslassy surprised her family by performing henna. “The older generations were all crying,” she said.

“Abiadi Ana” (“I Am Happy”) is now included on Elkeslassy’s album. Soulful and melodic, the song starts slowly and then kicks off with percussion and lots of personality from oud, accordion, violin and bass. Based on the version of the diva Elfassia, it somehow sounds both creepy and joyful.

“Ya Ghorbati” is coming at a time when an evolving understanding of colonialism and race is reshaping the perspectives of many Americans, including the Jewish community.

“It’s not just about songs,” said Edwin Seroussi, a musicologist and scholar of North African, Middle Eastern and Israeli music at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As he explained, Elkeslassy’s design is based on the often overlooked historical contributions of female Mizrahi singers. The project is also emerging at a time of growing awareness in America that Jews are not only from Eastern Europe, a fact much more evident in Israel, whose Jewish population is made up of approximately 50% Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. (In contrast, the Jewish community in the United States is predominantly Ashkenazi.)

“That Mizrahi presence in Israel became very influential in intellectual circles, in politics, etc., and that revolution eventually reached American shores,” he said. “It’s about claiming or claiming their culture as undervalued or ignored. Many American Jews do not even believe that there are Jews who speak Arabic as their mother tongue ”.

Elkeslassy herself sees work as a way to bridge the gap she feels between her Jewish and Arab identities. “That’s a way of saying, you know what? We are also Arabs, actually, and we have forgotten about it, ”she said. She is part of a broader global trend of claiming Mizrahi and Sephardi roots through music, such as Israeli Yemeni sisters A-Wa and Israeli Moroccan singer Neta Elkayam, who has been a major source of inspiration for Elkeslassy.

Following her concert in Brooklyn, Elkeslassy hopes to tour her album more extensively in the US and abroad. But for New Yorkers looking for other ways to experience local Mizrahi and North African culture, Elkeslassy has some tips on where to start. She begins by eating at the Persian Sofreh restaurant in Prospect Heights, attending a performance by the Arabian music group Brooklyn Maqam, and checking out Tunisian belly dancer Esraa Warda. And, of course, she orders a tagine at the Moroccan restaurant Cafe Mogador, which has locations in Williamsburg and St. Marks Place in the East Village.

“When I was living in Manhattan, I established my headquarters there,” he said. “I was like, it feels like home.”

You can book a free ticket to the Elkeslassy concert in Brooklyn at Congregation Beth Elohim on June 15th here.