Lili Boniche ‘Anthologie’ (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) 5/5

This is one of the great discoveries of recent years and a wonderful mixture of the French chanson tradition and the disparate North African musical influences that have come together when various populations migrated to France during the 1950s and 1960s. It was in fact a popular song tradition that was referred to as ‘Francarabe’ and Lili Boniche was equally adept at singing either Arabic (his native tongue) or French.
Lili Boniche was an Algerian male singer with the voice of a crooner who was born and raised in Algiers at a time when French colonial rule was in the ascendancy. While this has undoubted negative political and social aspects, from a cultural point of view it was the ideal pretext for musical exploration. This superb anthology of Boniche’s recordings lovingly put together by his daughter, Karina Feredj, and French Ethio-musiclogist Francis Falcetto, is a trip down memory lane that covers the period 1958 through 1960 in some detail and then goes on to examine Boniche’s music in the 1970s with some unreleased songs dating from as late as 1998. Musical delights simply unfold from one song to another, the latinisations of ‘Bambino’ in a definite mambo style contrasting with an Arabic language version of Charles Aznavour’s ‘La Mamma’, retitled ‘Ya memma’. A pared down instrumentation on one of Boniche’s most revered songs, ‘Elli Ghir’ revealed what a delicate voice he possessed, yet what an emotive one at the same time. This song smoulders along for a good nine minutes. Traditional instrumentation features prominently on ‘Amir le Gheram’ with the wailing voice of Boniche over layers of percusison and strings. By contrast, the Arabo-Andalusian tradition is evoked on ‘Mazalet Medjetch’ which develops into a beautiful percussive driven piece complete with flamenco guitar. At just under seventy-five minutes, there is absolutely no filler and some glorious songs that feature the lovely piano of Maurice El Médioni who became something of a belated world roots star in his own right a few years ago. Extensive bi-lingual inner sleeve notes in English and French make this one of the year’s essential releases. Lili Boniche passed away in 2008 at the age of eighty-seven, but thanks to this superlative compilation, his music will live on for some time to come. Tim Stenhouse

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