By the late 1970s and possibly even earlier, Morocco’s King Hassan II was listening to Raymonde El Bidaouia on vinyl. So enthralled with her records, he invited her to perform at the Royal Palace in Rabat in 1981. Raymonde was to perform together with the late, great Samy Elmaghribi. She and Samy knew each other well thanks to the Azoulay brothers. She wasn’t what Samy expected at first but she and her voice soon grew on him. He was certainly the legend but Raymonde was the rising star and soon they began touring the world together.
On the night she was set to sing with Samy in front the King, Raymonde considered canceling. She was understandably nervous. She had never performed before royalty. To add insult to injury, she felt like a fraud. She had always borrowed lyrics from Samy, Albert Suissa, and other greats. The songs that she did write revolved around drinking and partying. Hardly regal (maybe). And yet, she knew she had to go on. She went on stage and approached the mic. Within moments, the tiny blonde with the outsized vocals blew everyone away. What was supposed to be a warm up turned into a full-blown concert lasting until 1 in the morning and only then did Samy take the stage.
Raymonde Abecassis was born in 1943 in Casablanca and moved with her family to Israel in 1952. Like other Moroccan immigrants, life wasn’t easy for Raymonde and her family. She worked hard and married early. It was only after the birth of her daughter, the Israeli actress Yael Abecassis, that she launched her music career. She set herself apart quickly. She rejected trappings like gold jewelry and traditional dress (unless it was for an album cover or special performance) and instead opted for her signature blonde hair, t-shirt, and jeans. By the 1970s, she was recording hit record after hit record for the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels out of Jaffa. She became known as Raymonde El Bidaouia (Raymonde the Casablanca) in Israel, Morocco, and beyond. Some went as far as to call her Cheikha Raymonde. In Israel, she collaborated with Meyer Elbedawi, Judah Assaraf, Eliyahu Kahlaoui (who has been featured on this blog before), and non-Moroccans like the Egyptian violinist Felix Mizrahi.
By the 1990s, after decades of making music, Raymonde launched her television and film career. Today, she continues to act and has since launched a Moroccan Arabic theater project in Israel. What I love about Raymonde is her voice and her swagger. Raymonde has chutzpah in the best way possible and she laughs in the face of shouma. When a reporter once asked Raymonde why she sings in Arabic and not in Hebrew, she said, “Could I be like Chava Alberstein? No, I am Raymonde.” You can feel all of this drive in her music.
Below is one of my favorite Raymonde songs. It’s titled Tomobil, which means car in Moroccan Arabic. This song is about a number of different things – there’s a meta component at the beginning where her and her partner discuss (argue about) driving to the studio to make a record (taklit in Hebrew), there’s the piece where she’s looking to buy a car but doesn’t know how to drive but above all this the song is self-indulgent, celebratory, and one that only Raymonde could pull off. It’s a record you put on at a hafla or in a smoky bar and turn up the volume. Also, not sure if anyone else hears this but the dialogue at the beginning of this track is vaguely reminiscent of the dialogue at the beginning of Lili L’abassi’s original Wahran El Bahia.
Rumor has it that Raymonde is set to tour again in Israel soon. Take a listen to this so that you can sing along in person next time you see her in concert.
track on subject of drinking (alcohol has been a favorite subject for Moroccan singers – Jewish and Muslim alike – since at least the advent of recorded music). Pay particular attention as Raymonde gives a shout out to the kass (cup) of whiskey.
Author: Chris Silver writes about music, travel and the Jewish Maghreb.