Pierre Bensusan

Press Release

Interview for a Jewish newspaper in Cleveland (OH, USA)

Questions by Ilana Wolpert

Ilana Wolpert:

1. Growing up in a Jewish family in Algeria, were you exposed to much specifically traditional Jewish music (at home, in the Jewish community, synagogue--if you were at all a religious family--or even at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc? If so, I'd love you to be specific about this music, and you can be as technical as you want. I am a trained musician synagogue cantor and will understand about modes and scales, and I have taken many courses in Oriental Jewish music (music of the Maghreb tradition, etc.).

Pierre Bensusan:
I was only 4 when my family moved out of Algeria and went to mainland France, la Metrople as we called it. I do not specifically remember any particular Jewish music around me (please read answer to your second question below), except that my mother was singing lots of songs, some in French, some in Arabic, some in Ladino (the equivalent of Yeddish for sephardic Jews). Later, when I grew up in France, my parents spoke about their childhood and relatives.  I also remember lots of different things related to these 4 first years of my life. Long family gatherings, the beach, the war of Independance, police and soldiers, fear of my parents and sisters, sounds, bullets, explosions, dead bodies, burnings, etc. It was all very surreal. As a child, I was sensitive to any noise, nothing was or wasn't Jewish. This was my context when growing up: life, sounds of the world, lulubies and war were my first surroundings. I knew that on my mother's side, two of my grand mother's brothers were playing guitar and sang Flamenco. They both died in the First World War.  I also was told that my father's grand mother was speaking only Arabic and Ladino. Our city, Oran, is located just across Andalousia, and lots of Spanish people went to work and live in French Algeria, most of them stayed in Oran, Algiers and in the countryside around these 2 main cities. I remember my mother telling us that lots of these Spanish people were antisemitic and also hated the Arabs. I also remember that my parents had several Arabic & Spanish friends, and that they were both speaking the Arabic dialecte and that my father was a good Spanish speaker.

  From what I know, the Jewish traditions of Algeria have a lot to do with Spain, Jewish-Spanish Sephardic culture, (Sepher apparently means Andalousia), and Arabic, Berbere, Kabile cultures which were found in Algeria before the French colonisation. Another important unique and distinctive aspect of the Algerian Jewish community is of political nature. France gave emancipation and French nationality to the Algerian Jews under Napoleon The Third.  That fact has been determining the side that Jews have finally chosen during the war of Independance, and why most of them decided to not stay in Algeria after the Independance. 120 000 went to France, 4000 to Israël and 1000 to North America. That fact + the creation of the state of Israël in 1948 have contributed to undermine even deeper the relationship between the Algerian Jewish and Muslim communities, in Algeria as in France - but this is maybe another story and it has evolved a lot since then.

My father was the grand son of the Dayan (the main raby) of the willaya of Oranie, Michael Bensaïd. I also remember my parents telling me that all the Arabic stores closed in Oran when my Great grand father was burried, as a mark of respect and sadness for the loss of a holy man. Algeria was divided into 6 willayas (or provinces). My grand father on my father's side, was also a very religious man and did oblige his 3 sons to go to synagogue every friday. I believe my father, the eldest of the 3, was torn apart between pleasing his own father, honoring his Jewish culture and going into a revolt against religion, as to him, it also was an obligation and a submission. When I was 11,  preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, I came back from my Jewish class one day and told my parents that I would not return to it, that I was not believing into what the raby was saying, that it made no sense, and that I would appreciate to not be forced to go. I remember the only thing my father said to me, "I will not oblige you to do it if you feel this is not right for you". I had many occasions later in my life, when remembering that moment, to realise what it must have meant to him and how tolerant he deeply was. As a result I didn't do my Bar Mitzvah.

  I have never returned to Algeria since 1962 (the same letters are in Algeria and Alegria!). I went to Tunisia and Marrocco instead, to play concerts. My elder sister went some years ago to Algiers as her husband was a journalist correspondant for the newspaper Le Monde. So, she went to visit our former-appartment in Oran, and was welcomed by a young woman who offered her tea and told her that she had to treat this place again as her home.

Algeria was were my parents had put all of their economies, not feeling that they should move to France instead. A few years later, they had to flee and by doing so, abandon most part of their wealth behind them and reconstruct their life in the suburb of Paris. I grew up with the idea that Algeria was were my parents and relatives were the most happy and that France was tough and at times racist but equally opened, friendly and tolerant. I also grew up in the hatred of De Gaulle who abandonned Algeria, and also hiding that I was Jewish to not lose my friends at school... I had many occasions since then to revisit all of this and feel where my heart stands.

2. If you were exposed to Jewish music (of whatever tradition, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, whatever), do you feel that influences from these traditions have come into your composition? Do you use them deliberately, or do they "creep" in unconsciously? I know I hear the influence of Arabic music (I am being very broad here), and maybe even some klezmer? But I'd like to hear you discuss it, because I don't want to jump to any conclusions.

PB: I remember Leonard Bertsein trying to respond to the question of identifying what Jewish music could be, and he had a hard time. He proceed by illustrating his comments by naming several composers of Jewish descent whether they were religious or secular people, and tried to identify what and where was the Jewish musical element in their work. To say there is an existing Jewish Music is a mith I believe. For a people to have a music, they need to have a land which you can geographically identify, and in where they've stayed long enough to let the weight of time do its slow osmosis labor. What are we in fact exactly talking about ? Jewish cantor tradition ? That would be in my opinion the closest to a real original and distinctive Jewish musical element, and even there, you can hear the contribution of the Arabic singing tradition mixed with Ukrainian, Baltic, Russian, Eastern Europe, Bizantyne elements + much more other human traditions. Klezmer music is following the same inspirational and contributive elements.  Are we refering to the Jewish contribution to Spanish classical music, to Arabic music, (which Arabic music ?), to Gypsy Music, to the work of lots of composers such as Malher, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Berntein, etc ? Maybe there was a very disctinctive Jewish music during the 13 centuries when Hebrews were living in Israël until the Roman times and until the big dispersion, but wasn't it already the fruit of their stay in Egypt and Babylone, and the bringing and contributions of their neighboars and the people they found on that land when they came ? It would be interesting to hear what music were the Hebrews playing at the time of Ramses the Great.

I believe a crucial element of the Jewish sound is the fact that life in the diaspora has made us extremely receptive to the cultures around us, a bit like sponges, with both the desire to cultivate our will to mix ourselves with our neighbours, to present an image of an approachable and humble Jew to not create fear and myth around us in order to not feed the chronical hatred against Jews, and yet the original, lonesome, removed, hermit almost elements of our individualist Judaism. I sometimes look at me like a cameleon, and this is not necessary good. Even in Algeria, where the Jews have lived long before the French colonised the land, they were playing music which had to do with Arabo-Andalous traditions, Berbere,  Gnawas and Kabyle people, Arabic cultures coming from Spain, just across the detroit of Gibraltar, and from all the Arabic world, Spanish traditions, Gypsy music coming from Gitanos, and so forth. It is as for any human group which has left its native soil, there is a compulsary path where the culture of that group fuses with the new home, as for any natural human adaptation.

What are the Jewish elements there ? have those elements inspired other musical traditions ? I believe it has but would not say that there is a Jewsih sound per say, whereas I know there is a Jewish sensitivity, fruit of all our experiences which come out, at times, a bit as in an atavic manner. We all carry a memory and the path of the life of our ancesters who helped us getting to this point. It's funny in the music how you can quote, melt, fuse various ethnic and identifiable elements and yet appear well in your own skin.

  So to answer to your question, there is not one but several Jewish musics which all belong to Music with a capital M. My compositions reflect my sponge and filtering attitudes, aptitudes and sensitivity. Citizen of the world I feel I deeply am, even more so today, when at this present time of war and fear, one should remember more than ever that we ALL come from many human mixes and geographical sources and commun histories. In my case, the key comes also from all my travels and meetings of so many  - apparently - different people. That has led me to get intimate with individuals from all over the world, beyond cultures and religions. In the word intimacy, there are the words in and time. i>Intime in French means intimate. If the timing is right in the music, or as in everything else , this is when you - really - meet the people.

Pierre B.

PS: I would like to let my friend, Robert Weinstein, from NYC, to complement this view:

Another way of seeing this is that the Jews seem to ask the question, "who am I?" As we were displaced geographically, and religiously as a group, not comfortable with the idea of personified Divinity (Zoroaster, Ram, Krishna, Buddah, Mohammed, Jesus) yet ironically awaiting the appearance of the Messiah, the question persits and I beleive this expreses itself in our art, our relationships, and in our interactions at all levels. Beyond the Jewish religion, beyond a Jewish culture, I've always sensed a Jewish psyche... one that seeks connection with others, that explores with the heart, and mind, that seeks to find the one answer to the one real question: Who Am I ?

Robert Weinstein

Final article by Ilana Wolpert

With his dark skin, black eyes, and head of tousled black curls, Pierre Bensusan looks like he could have descended, as his last name indicates, from the Persian Jews who lived in the famous city of the Purim story. His looks and his name are what made me approach him after one of his appearances at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights and ask him, “Are you Jewish?” The answer was yes.

Bensusan was born in Oran, Algeria, in 1957 to Jewish parents when Algeria was still a French colony. His family moved to Paris four years later in the aftermath of the violence of Algeria’s struggle for independence, and he still lives in Paris when he is not touring the rest of the world performing compelling original songs on his guitar. At age seven he began studying piano, and taught himself the guitar at 11. The diversity of his own colorful musical heritage—the Jewish, the Arabic, the jazz he heard in Paris—has influenced him to explore the musical traditions of other ethnicities. In his melodies one hears the beauty of folk, Celtic, Klezmer, jazz, Impressionist, Brazilian, medieval, Latin and North African musical traditions. He often incorporates wordless vocals (we Jews would call these “nigunim”), performing dazzling, rapid impersonations of instruments in complicated percussive patterns and difficult melodic intervals while accompanying himself on his guitar. The soulful ballads he sings in French are haunting and evocative of faraway places whose names elude one because of the fusion of different musical traditions, although here and there one can identify a fragment of klezmer or a bit of the “sharsheret,” an instrumental recitative that will often begin a piece of Arabic music.

Influences on Pierre Bensusan’s music range from the work of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and other Eastern European music to African-American traditions. He has incorporated elements of soul, gospel, blues and swing into his music. Other spices in his compositional mix evoke, according to Miriam H. Nadel, “desert heat and snake charmers and dusty crowded marketplaces,” likening it to a North African seasoning blend called ras al hanut that can have up to 60 ingredients.

In response to a set of questions I asked him via e mail about how his Jewish roots have affected his composition, Mr. Bensusan told me that what he remembers from the first four years of his life were sounds: explosions from the war outside and his mother’s voice singing Ladino songs. Music was a large part of family life, he said, and thoughtfully added, “We all carry a memory of our ancestors who helped us get to where we are now. It’s funny how you can fuse various ethnic elements and yet appear well within your own skin.” He does not believe there is a Jewish sound per se, and yet he knows there is a Jewish sensitivity, the fruit of our collective experience that comes out at times in an atavistic “bio-genetic” manner. But arriving at a strict definition of that “Jewish something,” he feels, may be a vain endeavor.

Mainly, says Pierre Bensusan, what is Jewish about his music comes from the fact that life in the Diaspora has made the Jews extremely receptive to the cultures around them. “My compositions,” he says, “reflect my sponge and filtering attitudes, my sensitivity to any sound which reflects and evokes a musical universe.” He defines himself as a “citizen of the world” whose extensive travels have led him to become “intimate” with many cultures. “In the word ‘intimacy’,” he explains, “are the words ‘in’ and ‘time’. The word ‘intime’ in French means intimate. If the timing is right in the music, that is when you really meet the people.”

I would say this characterization by a reviewer in The Twin Cities Journal best captures the “Jewishness” of Bensusan’s musical sensibility: “If world music is music that pays tribute to the spirit of a collection of human beings through distinct rhythms, traditional instruments and harmonic colors, Pierre Bensusan can be recognized as one of the most eloquent and diverse world musicians of our time.”

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