In the same way that hooligans were traditionally pictured as having L.O.V.E. tattooed across one set of knuckles, and H.A.T.E. across the other, listening to his music you might imagine that veteran Algerian pianist Maurice el Médioni would have B.O.O.G.I.E.W.O.O.G.I.E. on his left hand and R.A.I. on his right. Or possibly R.U.M.B.A. on his left and A.N.D.A.L.O.U.S. on his right.
Of course, the dapper 79-year-old gent, who kept up a day job as a tailor until his retirement in 1990, would sport nothing so vulgar. But these are the stylistic ingredients in the mélange of influences that inform the seductive, vibrant compositions and playing of El Médioni: a syncopated walking bass with the left hand, the right picking out liquid, oriental melodic lines.
Famously, El Médioni picked up these influences and developed his style in the cafés of the Rue de la Revolution in Oran, the northwestern Algerian port city on the Mediterranean Sea. A prodigy, Maurice had started playing at the age of nine when his older brother bought a dilapidated instrument from the flea market for 200 francs (delivery thrown in). After just eight days, Maurice was playing with both hands.
So when the liberating armies arrived in 1942, El Médioni was already a veteran of countless weddings, bar mitzvahs and baptisms, where he entertained the guests with Tino Rossi and Charles Trenet songs. The soldiers found the young maestro amusing. “The American and English soldiers said, ‘Let him play, let him play!’” explains El Médioni, relishing the story more than 60 years later. “And that’s how I learned all the popular soldiers’ tunes. English ones. American ones. Each would teach me. They’d say, ‘Do you know “Deep In The Heart Of Texas”?’ And I would play it. And the next day I’d be playing and an Englishman would go, ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.’ I learned all those.”
As well as picking up barroom songs, El Médioni was also exposed to brand new musical experiences. “One time, when I was playing, I saw a black soldier was watching me and he said to me, ‘Hey! Mind if I play piano?’ ‘Why not? Sure.’ And when he sat down at the piano he played boogie-woogie. I was knocked out. I went home that night and until midnight, one in the morning, I taught myself to play it. I had discovered a music that absolutely absorbed me!”
It’s small wonder El Médioni embraced with such gusto the new musical influences brought by the Allies when you consider that, as a Jew, he was already suffering the humiliations of the Vichy regime. In October 1940 Algerian Jews had lost their French citizenship and less than six months later, racial laws started to be implemented.
“I was sent back from school simply because I was a Jew. I could not go to school anymore. It was forbidden for Jewish doctors to practice, the same for lawyers. And so when the Americans arrived and gave us back our freedom, for us it was a new life.” El Médioni believes that if the liberators had not come when they did, his fate could have been far grimmer. “There were stars of David ready in all the town halls. They just had to put the stars of David on us, just like in Europe. And they could deport us all just like the Jews in Europe to be exterminated. That would be our fate. Personally I believe that November 8th, 1942, for us, was like a new date of birth. From that exact moment our lives had new breath.”
A sense of new life infuses El Médioni’s recordings and concerts and he exudes an air of easy bonhomie. An entertainer for 70 years, he knows his art, but he still takes enormous pleasure in his work and with the great singer and guitarist Lili Boniche now retired from playing, El Médioni with his “piano oriental” style is the flag-bearer for the Oran school. Ten years on from rediscovery with the critically acclaimed CD, Café Oran, which featured Frank London and David Krakauer, there’s a new El Médioni record in the shops. The idea be