Thursday, July 11, 2013

The life and sudden death of Cheikh Raymond

Cheikh Raymond plays Tâl 'Adâb Bia ('Ma souffrance a trop dure')
Fifty-two years ago, one of Algeria's leading Jewish musicians was gunned down in a street market. The murder of Raymond Leyris, known as Cheikh Raymond, was one of those seminal events that triggered panic among the country's 130, 000 Jews. Within a year all but a few thousand would join the exodus to France. In his blog, Jewish Morocco, Chris Silver tells the story of Cheikh Raymond and his musical collaboration with Sylvain Ghrenassia, whose son, the famous singer Enrico Macias, would later marry Leyris's daughter.  
Nearly fifty-two years to the day, Raymond Leyris, known as Cheikh Raymond on account of his mastery of the eastern Algerian Andalusian musical tradition of malouf, closed his record store at 3 Rue Zévaco for the final time. Within a year, Algeria would gain its freedom from France but at that moment it was deep in the throes of a bloody civil war. With tensions having already boiled over and almost a month after failed talks between the French government and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Cheikh Raymond was trying to do the unthinkable as one of Constantine’s leading professional musicians and a Jewish one to boot: He was attempting to lead a normal life.  After locking up at Disques Raymond, he grabbed his daughter Viviane’s hand and headed toward Place Négrier, home to the bustling Souq el-Assar and adjacent to the city’s Jewish quarter, the Chara.

 Accompanied by his brother-in-law, the three casually crossed the market place intending to lunch with Raymond’s uncle.  Passing midway between the Sidi el-Kettani Mosque on one side and the Jewish tribunal on the other, Viviane noticed a man approaching.  She felt her father’s grip tighten. Within a moment he had collapsed. He had suffered two gunshots to the neck at close range. The assailant escaped. Cheikh Raymond was rushed to the hospital but it was too late. On June 22, 1961, at the age of forty-eight, he was dead.
Cheikh Raymond has long intrigued me. His story, little known outside the Maghreb and segments of France, is riveting. Here are just some of the details. Raoul Raymond Leyris was born in 1912 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, a rarity in colonial Algeria. He was given up for adoption at the age of two and raised by the Jewish Halimi family, who saw to his conversion.

Raymond, as he came to be called, gravitated ever closer to music in his teenage years. He sought out authenticity, spending time in Constantine’s medieval foundouks, where he apprenticed himself to the master musicians Omar Chaqleb and Abdelkrim Bestandji. By 1928, Raymond had begun singing and playing oud with the celebrated percussionist Mohammed L’arbi Benlamri, who would later join his orchestra, and in 1930, he made his debut with Si Tahar Benkartoussa. By the age of eighteen, the musical powers that be had bequeathed him the title of Cheikh.
Sylvain Ghrenassia on violin and Cheikh Raymond on oud.

While paying allegiance to the traditional, Cheikh Raymond managed to do things his own way. Interestingly, he seemed to have never recorded for the larger international record labels. His first recordings were made in 1937 for the Diamophone label, based out of Constantine, but World War II would soon put his recording output on hold. In 1945, Cheikh Raymond formed Orchestre Raymond with the Jewish violinist Sylvain Ghrenassia at his side. By the early 1950s, Cheikh Raymond and Orchestre Raymond represented Constantine’s most sought after Andalusian sound. It was also a fully integrated Jewish-Muslim ensemble. In 1954, at the start of the Algerian War, Cheikh Raymond and Sylvain Ghrenassia expanded their business, founding their own record label, Hes el Moknine, and opening a record store on Rue Zévaco.
In the meantime, Gaston Ghrenassia, Sylvain’s son and the figure who would later come to be known as Enrico Macias, had taken to seeing Cheikh Raymond as an uncle figure, lovingly referring to him as “Tonton Raymond.” The younger Ghrenassia’s musical talent impressed Cheikh Raymond and he invited Gaston to join his orchestra as a guitarist – bucking malouf norms at the time. Gaston made his debut with Orchestre Raymond that same year.

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