Moshe Attias

"Cheikh Mwijo"

The Jewish Music Research Centre announces with sadness the recent passing of Cheikh Mwijo (1937-2020), one of the most distinguished and long-standing Moroccan musicians in Israel. This short note prepared by JMRC Director, Professor Edwin Seroussi, draws among other sources from Dr. Christopher Silver’s impressions following his 2011 encounter, in company with musician and discographer Uri Wertheim, with Mwijo. We are thankful to Dr. Silver for his permission to draw from his text. Our thanks also to Prof. Yossef Chetrit of the University of Haifa for his amendments to a first draft of this obituary.

Chiekh Mwijo, whose proper name was Moshe Attias (Moshe ben Rina and Yaacov Attias) was born in Meknes in 1937 and died on April 30, 2020. He came, as do many Moroccan Jewish performing artists and composers, from a family of musicians going back at least to his grandfather. His father, Yaakov Attias, also a musician, died at the young age of 32. Yaakov was originally from Fez and married Mwijo’s mother in Meknes, and Mwijo spent some time growing up on Rue du Mellah in Fez before settling in Meknes.

Yaakov, a percussionist, performed in the ensemble of m'alim David Ben Haroush together with Mordecai Elmaghribi, the father of Sliman Elmaghribi, another musician of Mwijo’s generation. This ensemble also included Mimoun Turjeman and Yaakov Zerad, as well as Mwijo’s brothers, Mordecai and Levi. M'alim Ben Haroush would eventually also settle in Israel, in Kiryat Haim, where Mwijo would support him during his final days. Mwijo reported to Silver that as a token of gratitude, Ben Haroush left him his songbooks, which had also been handed down to him. 

The songbooks would prove to be the source from which Mwijo drew his rich repertoire. Mwijo, following the long-standing tradition of Moroccan Jewish musicians keeping their cards close to their chests, refused to share them with interested academics or anyone else, for that matter. On the other hand, on behalf of Prof. Yossef Chetrit from University of Haifa he recorded many songs from these manuscripts that Chetrit transcribed for his research on Judeo-Arabic poetry from Morocco. For now, Silver comments, only one musician has mastered those songs since Ben Haroush and that man was Mwijo. It is because he committed the songs in the books to memory – a dramatic turnaround from his earlier years when he could only remember parts of songs – that Mwijo maintained the honorific title of Cheikh, the master, he claimed, of 1,000 songs. 

Mwijo moved to Israel in 1962 at the age 35. The very specific profession he had learned in Morocco, embroiderer of military uniforms, was not needed in Israel. It was at this point that a mythical turn of events took place, which Mwijo related to Silver. Sitting in a café in Haifa one day, Mwijo began to sing and this, he recalled, literally brought the unsuspecting patrons to tears. This event, combined with the lack of employment, mastery of songs inherited from family tradition and his unique voice, launched Cheikh Mwijo’s full-time career in the music industry.

Mwijo began his music career in Israel singing and playing the mandolin, an instrument associated mostly with Algerian music, but he would eventually switch to the kemanja (violin played upright in the North African style). Between 1962 and 1970, Mwijo estimated that he wrote and sold about 40 songs to Sliman Elmaghribi, the young musician whom he knew from Meknes. By 1969, Mwijo had started his own recording career. Zaki Azoulay, a member of the Azoulay Brothers recording company in Jaffa, came to Mwijo in his home with reel-to-reel tape and recorded him. The subsequent release sold very well. Mwijo would go on to record dozens of records and cassettes for the Azoulay Brothers and their Koliphone/Zakiphon label at their studio on Raziel Street in Jaffa. These early recording sessions were all “live to tape,” unlike later multi-track recordings.

 Mwijo never received any royalties for his music, instead he began by earning ten Israeli lira per song (he would share some of this with Sliman Elmaghribi when they performed together) and a lump payment for each record produced. It is unclear what exactly his relationship and financial arrangement with Zaki Azoulay were and apparently, the nature of the producer-artist connection was strained, at best.

Throughout his long career Mwijo was, above all, a “hidden treasure” within the Israeli musical scene. Unlike most of his contemporary Moroccan Jewish artists, Mwijo remained systematically connected to his community, performing almost exclusively at family and congregational events. Despite having recorded over one hundred albums, live performances remained his primary source of income. In addition, unlike his contemporaries such as Jo Amar and Samy Elmaghribi, who enjoyed both international recognition and popularity among the various communities in Israel, Mwijo remained deeply anchored in the Moroccan-Israeli scene, although he performed occasionally in France and in Morocco. No matter how many grievances he had towards the way the State of Israel treated Moroccan Jews (see more below), he remained a local patriot.

A preliminary, analytical review of Mwijo’s vast repertoire documented for over half a century reveals a unique multifaceted artist. Its content is varied in terms of textual genres and musical styles. Yet, one feature remained constant, and it is his allegiance to Maghrebi Arabic, with a Meknesi accent, as the main language of communication. This very remarkable feature demonstrates his resistance to the Hebrew-centered ethos of the Zionist movement and the Israeli culture that emerged from it. 

Even when he recorded in Hebrew, as he did, the language was profusely peppered with Arabic vocabulary and grammatical formations. By singing in a specific style of Moroccan Arabic Mwijo in fact marked the limits of his potential audience. What is even more remarkable is that the Moroccan audience in Israel today, a majority of whom were not born or raised in Morocco, persisted in supporting Mwijo as their main entertainer in their vernacular language. Put differently, the persistence of a Moroccan Arabic speaking community in Israel that appreciated and supported Mwijo up until his passing challenges narratives of forced cultural erasure by an aggressive Ashkenazi-dominated establishment. 

Mwijo’s repertoire also reveals some of the ambivalent aspects of modern Moroccan Jewish identity. Religious zeal intertwines with modern secular practices, while rooted musical and textual genres interlace with contemporary urban styles from diverse sources. This ambivalence can be actually seen in his portraits as a typical 1960s cosmopolitan young hipster, without head cover in opposition to his later signature appearance with a Western suit (or at times, a Moroccan djellaba) with a Moroccan fez on his head. 

Within his repertoire one finds a remarkable array of songs exalting Moroccan tzaddiqim. As saint veneration was and still is a hallmark of Moroccan religious devotion, hillulot, the yearly celebrations of the death anniversary of saintly rabbis, remained a main stage for Mwijo’s performances in and outside Israel. I met Mwijo for the first time in 1978 at the main hillulah in Israel, the celebration of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai in his tomb in Meron (Upper Galilee) on the Lag Baomer festival (the thirty-third day after Passover).

Although presented in the Hebrew press as a payytan (singer of religious poetry), Cheikh Mwijo rarely recorded piyyutim (for an example see his recording of “Ki Eshmera Shabbat”) nor was he a renowned singer of bakkashot in the Moroccan Andalusian style. On the other hand, he composed and performed numerous piyyutim in Hebrew and Arabic in honor of important Moroccan tzadiqqim. Apart from the great Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai mentioned above, Mwijo composed songs in honor of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, R. Amram ben Diwan and even R. Yossef Shoveli (whose yeshivah is associated with the lore of R. Nachman of Braslav). However, among all these Cheikh Mwijo especially focused on members of the Abuhatzira family, the most prominent dynasty of Moroccan tzadiqqim, starting with its founder, R. Yaacov Abuhatzira.

Silver recounts a story told to him by Mwijo in relation to his famous song in honor of R. Yaacov Abuhatzira. When the Rabbi’s most famous grandson, R. Israel Abuhatzira (1889-1984), aka the Baba Sali, caught wind of this song and of Cheikh Mwijo he invited Mwijo to visit him at his court in the Negev town of Netivot. Mwijo couldn’t immediately make the journey from his home in Kiryat Ata, but eventually did come to pay his respects. The Baba Sali could not understand how Mwijo knew so much about his grandfather. Mwijo revealed to the Baba Sali that he was a Meknesi at which point the Baba Sali exclaimed that everything now made sense, as Meknes was a city of great Torah scholars. To honor Mwijo, Baba Sali asked Mwijo to drink arak from the same cup as Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzira, his grandfather. Mwijo drank dutifully but was forced to hold his nose while doing so, for he hated arak. 

Mwijo performed other special songs with religious overtones which were not directly related to saintly figures or to paraliturgical occasions. An example is the Judeo-Arabic moralistic song “Ya Sidi, Ma Rit Min Hawa Hani” by R. Refael Moshe Elbaz of Sefrou (1823-1889). This malhun-style song, written in a set ten-line format, was originally set to the tune of its Arab model.

In the 1970s, Mwijo often performed abroad and frequently in France. In this regard, he told Silver another story. One time, while in France, a Moroccan (unclear whether this Moroccan was Jewish or Muslim) invited him to perform in Germany. Mwijo adamantly refused to play in Germany because of the Holocaust – even after an offer of 10,00 Deutschmarks (an extraordinary amount for that time) from his host. After this encounter, Mwijo headed to a casino, pulled the handle on a slot machine and won the equivalent of 10,000 Deutschmarks. This was divine intervention, he argued, and said rhetorically that if this wasn’t a sign (from God) then nothing was. In relation to this story, anti-Semitism was a topic that come up periodically throughout Silver’s conversation with Mwijo and it appears also in some of his texts. 

In spite of the importance of Mwijo’s intra-Jewish repertoire, the lion’s share of his output were Arabic songs on general topics that are very much appreciated in Morocco itself, as the responses to his large number of videos on YouTube show. Musically speaking, the predominant style of these songs, as Mwijo himself recognized, is the Algerian chaabi, labeled by Moroccan Jewish musicians as djiri. His mastery of Algerian music led him to perform with what he defined as “the Algerian National Orchestra,” in France in 1981. 

He preferred the Algerian rather than the Moroccan styles, because they are “more delicate and sweet,” although malhun songs in Moroccan style were an integral part of his repertoire. The songs in the djiri style typically open with an istakhbar, an improvised, embellished opening featuring alternating instrumental and vocal phrases without fixed beat, leading to the song itself and then ending with an accelerated khlas section. One cannot but hear in these recordings the strong influence of Algerian figures on Mwijo’s core repertoire, such as Cheikh Mohammed El Anka.

Yet, in spite of this Algerian-centered tendency, Mwijo’s repertoire diversified in the course of time. He recorded Hebrew songs in an attempt to reach larger audiences. Although he did not belong to the musiqa mizrahit circles, some of his recordings point to a dialogue with the mainstream of Israeli Oriental pop, as shown by love songs such as the Spanish-tinged “Hazarti Elaikh” (I Returned to You), or the immensely popular “Zeh Lo Halom” (It Is Not a Dream, recorded by many mizrahi stars). On the other hand the Hebrew song “Raq Ima Sheli” (Only My Mother) belongs to a quintessential genre of Arabic songs celebrating the revered figure of the mother. 

Notably, Mwijo also composed and recorded a moving song in honor of “the great” Itzhak Rabin, set in this case to a sad Turkish tune. This song in honor of the late leader of the Labor Party and the left-leaning peace camp in Israel contrasts with Mwijo’s militant allegiance to the orthodox, right-wing Sephardic party Shas and its leader, Aryeh Deri. Again, the ambivalence between Israeli patriotism and fidelity to the discrete Moroccan Jewish community is revealed in this song. Paradoxically too, the song in honor of Rabin, an icon of Ashkenazi Israeliness, is one of the most mizrahi songs Mwijo ever recorded.

The relation between Mwijo and Aryeh Deri is telling in terms of Israeli identity politics and the complex relationship between religion, ethnicity and political affiliation. Cheikh Mwijo related to Silver that the friendship between him and Deri goes back to Deri’s brit milah in Meknes in 1959, which Mwijo attended. This is a symbolic early encounter between Deri, one of Moroccan Jewry’s most established and mercurial politicians in Israel, and Mwijo, the popular voice of the community in the Jewish state. In the year 2000, Mwijo penned a song in praise of Deri, after the latter’s traumatic conviction for bribery.

In this Hebrew song (as usual, mixed with many “intra-communal” expressions in Moroccan Arabic), titled “Blessed Be You Rabbi Aryeh,” Mwijo utilizes rhetorical techniques similar to that of his songs in honor of tzadiqqim. He mentions, at length and in minute detail, the Deri’s achievements as well as grievances against the state’s approach to all Moroccan Jews since their massive immigration. Deri is portrayed, as he was by his supporters of the Shas Party, as an innocent victim of a corrupted establishment that “punished” him for daring to challenge its hegemony. 

Mwijo is remarkably comprehensive in his list of grievences, and included lines mentioning the ma’abarot (1950s transit camps for new immigrants), the involuntary cutting of payot (sidelocks), the abusive use of disinfectants, the kidnapping of babies, forced secularization, unemployment, economic stress, social discrimination and more. One of the key lines states, “In our generation, you made a revolution and thanks to it we have returned to our heritage,” and in the refrain Mwijo promises no less that messianic redemption: “Aryeh Deri will return [from jail] and Messiah will come.”

It is no wonder then that, immediately after Mwijo’s passing, Deri immediately released the following tribute: “[Mwijo] recruited his artistic gifts to advance the status of the Oriental Jewry in general and the Moroccan Jewry in particular. From a belief in the need to raise the spirit of the Oriental Jewry he supported and strengthened the Shas movement from the day it was established. I personally owe him deep thanks for this warm support along the path, with special songs that he composed and sang, expressing his great sympathy for the path that I set out with pride, and touching piyyutim.”

Another song with charged political content that put Mwijo at the center of a public controversy was “Arusiyyat,” meaning “Russian women.” A report in the NRG website from January 1, 2006, reports on Mwijo’s ferocious text against the Russian Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel after the breakup of the Soviet Union: “They brought the whores and the beggars to Israel, they came here and open stores for the selling of pig and dog meat.” Furthermore, Mwijo accused Russian women of “kidnapping his brain” and taking money from him until, in a tongue in cheek turn of events his wife caught him in the act, forcing him to appease her with a monetary present and ten kisses. The text of “Arusiyyat,” keeping in mind the issue of Moroccan-Israeli men’s attraction to extremely attractive Russian immigrant women was but one topic related to this charged ethnic and cultural encounter from the 1990s, generated diverse and emotional reactions. 

Singer and composer Kobi Oz claimed, in defense of Mwijo, that there is no need to take the song seriously, as “he is just joking and does not mean what he says.” Oz further defined him as “a folk clown, he sings as he speaks, without censorship.” Another important Moroccan Jewish singer, Haim Oliel, on the other hand, accused Mwijo of including the same stereotypes about Moroccan Jews in his song that they suffered from in Israel, and hoped “that the song will be forgotten.” In fact towards the end of the song, Mwijo adds a characteristic balancing and conciliatory message, stressing the contribution of immigrant Russian “engineers” to Israeli society. Whatever position one assumes in respect to this particular song, it certainly shows that Mwijo’s art remained deeply embedded in the concerns, including the anxieties, of his audience.

A thorough evaluation of the Cheikh Mwijo’s work will have to wait for a more detailed future assessment. Aspects of his activities that will need to be covered include, for example, the network of musicians in which he functioned. In general, his recordings show an intimate approach featuring small ensembles consisting of family and close associates. Only occasionally the arrangements are more orchestral and sophisticated, as in one of the takes of the hit “Zeh Lo Halom.” 

Many names were associated with him in various collaborations, such as the great Algerian pianist and composer Maurice Elmediouni (Mwijo recorded a mixed Arabic-Hebrew version of Elmediouni’s hit “Ana Nahibak”) or his lifetime partner on the stage, the ‘oud player Nino Bitton, who later in his life become a “guru” for young musicians interested in Moroccan-Andalusian music in Jerusalem.

Still, Mwijo remained, by his own choice, on the fringes of several of the major developments of Moroccan music in Israel. A rare appearance with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra Ashdod, during the 2011-12 season, was an exception to the rule.A full discography is also a desideratum that will allow tracing in depth his stylistic development and diversity.