Maurice El Medioni
The legendary pianist with one Western hand and one Eastern hand
A 3 minute read
Performing with Lili Labassi, Canastel, Oran 1956
I was first introduced to Maurice’s music by Ben Mandelson and the good folk at Piranha Records.
Maurice was a total joy to listen to: an eighty-something year old pianist who became alive at the piano, with a driving Latin left hand and a fluttering, Arabic right hand. He was a key figure in the Golden Years of Algerian Music, just before the War of Independence, one of the bloodiest anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century, and is recognised as one of the fathers of modern Algerian music, collaborating in recent years with Khaled, who called him the godfather of rai.
On the road with the Mahieddine Theatre Company, Algeria, 1950s - Maurice in scarf standing on the right
An offer from Josephine of Yad Arts to collaborate with this piano legend led to shows in London, Los Angeles and Moscow, and I had the opportunity to speak with him at length about his life and work.
One day I received a package in the post: Maurice’s personal archive of audio and TV recordings spanning fifty years, and a hand-written autobiography, eighty pages of A4.
At the time I was studying for an MMus in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. I translated his autobiography from French, wrote coursework about him, and essentially fell in love with this gentle genius whose life had seen so much of the 20th century’s defining moments.
He writes his life story in pictures, and through contacts in Paris, Joann Sfar, the wonderful French cartoonist - author of Le Chat Du Rabbin, amongst others - was interested to work on an animated novel of his life. The issue was timing: Joann had just started working on his epic film biography of Gainsbourg, and so the moment was lost.
Maurice is still going strong, having moved to Israel in recent years from Marseille to be with his children. This project is my way of saying thank you to him for those years of inspiration and good music, and for showing me how anyone can age with bags of style and good humour.
Together with BBC Radio 3’s Max Reinhardt, I am collecting essays and articles about his life, to be published along with his autobiography by Repeater Books in May 2017.
Update: see my blogpost about publishing the book, here
The book tells the story of how Maurice learnt to play his unique “orientale” piano fusion style, his experience during WW2 with the Dominican and Puerto Rican GIs, the subsequent golden years of nightlife in Oran, the “Paris of the South”, and horrific years of bloodshed that followed in the Algerian war of Independence, his exile from Algeria, his difficulties assimilating into Israel as an “unwanted” Sephardi artist in the early 1960s, his move to Paris and then Marseilles, and an account of emigre life and nightlife there amongst North African Jewish communities.