Thursday, July 12, 2012

How a blonde bomb blew away the Moroccan king

We hear many stories of Jewish performers and musicians whose glittering careers in Arab countries took a nosedive when they immigrated to Israel. Raymonde El Bidaouia, by contrast, reached the peak of her popularity in Morocco 20 years after she had left for Israel. Writing for the Moroccan News Board, Chris Silver describes a landmark concert in 1981 when Raymonde performed for the King.


By the late 1970s and possibly even earlier, Morocco’s King Hassan II was listening to Raymonde El Bidaouia on vinyl. So enthralled with her records, he invited her to perform at the Royal Palace in Rabat in 1981. Raymonde was to perform together with the late, great Samy Elmaghribi. She and Samy knew each other well thanks to the Azoulay brothers. She wasn’t what Samy expected at first but she and her voice soon grew on him. He was certainly the legend but Raymonde was the rising star and soon they began touring the world together.

On the night she was set to sing with Samy in front the King, Raymonde considered canceling. She was understandably nervous. She had never performed before royalty. To add insult to injury, she felt like a fraud. She had always borrowed lyrics from Samy, Albert Suissa, and other greats. The songs that she did write revolved around drinking and partying. Hardly regal (maybe). And yet, she knew she had to go on. She went on stage and approached the mic. Within moments, the tiny blonde with the outsized vocals blew everyone away. What was supposed to be a warm up turned into a full-blown concert lasting until 1 in the morning and only then did Samy take the stage.

Raymonde Abecassis was born in 1943 in Casablanca and moved with her family to Israel in 1952. Like other Moroccan immigrants, life wasn’t easy for Raymonde and her family. She worked hard and married early. It was only after the birth of her daughter, the Israeli actress Yael Abecassis, that she launched her music career. She set herself apart quickly. She rejected trappings like gold jewelry and traditional dress (unless it was for an album cover or special performance) and instead opted for her signature blonde hair, t-shirt, and jeans. By the 1970s, she was recording hit record after hit record for the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels out of Jaffa. She became known as Raymonde El Bidaouia (Raymonde the Casablanca) in Israel, Morocco, and beyond. Some went as far as to call her Cheikha Raymonde. In Israel, she collaborated with Meyer Elbedawi, Judah Assaraf, Eliyahu Kahlaoui (who has been featured on this blog before), and non-Moroccans like the Egyptian violinist Felix Mizrahi.

By the 1990s, after decades of making music, Raymonde launched her television and film career. Today, she continues to act and has since launched a Moroccan Arabic theater project in Israel. What I love about Raymonde is her voice and her swagger. Raymonde has chutzpah in the best way possible and she laughs in the face of shouma. When a reporter once asked Raymonde why she sings in Arabic and not in Hebrew, she said, “Could I be like Chava Alberstein? No, I am Raymonde.” You can feel all of this drive in her music.

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