In 1963, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia won seven Oscars. Launching its actors to stardom, including Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif who played Prince Ali Ibn Kharish at the age of thirty. The latter incarnated the West’s vision of the Middle East which was simultaneously elusive, refined and elegant. His fiery stare, impeccable mustache and immaculate haircut had something to do with it: the Egyptian actor was a sex symbol of an era passionate for James Bond and OSS117 spy adventures. In the Jordinian desert, he fascinated an audience that was in search of an escape and the thousand and one nights. This appetite for a colorful and fantasized exoticism, was also prominent in France’s music of the sixties. The country that welcomed Omar Sharif’s first feature films outside of Egypt (Goha, La Châtelaine du Liban) produced a delirious amount of music of Latin or Middle Eastern inspiration, grouped behind the genre named “typical” .
This “typical” production is enough to scare away the most motivated and adventurous of listeners: overabundant and often blurry versions, anonymous performers (often accompanied by the same arrangers) and only a few noteworthy songs. Venturing into the moving waters of orchestral music undoubtedly causes disappointment, but here and there, springing up in the middle of a vast ocean, one can find a few cha-cha-cha pearls played in a Cuban or Middle Eastern style. The French equivalent of Exotica records (Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Martin Denny etc.) for North Americans who were fantasizing about Hawaiian Tikis and the Pacific Islands, the oriental cha-cha-cha fueled dreams of the Middle East and Northern Africa. To rum-based cocktails sipped in a Polynesian setting, the French were to prefer couscous and mint tea. Carrying them across the
Mediterranean to nearby Maghreb and even further on to the more mysterious Anatolia. Orientica in short.
The context is somewhat paradoxical: decolonization, especially of the Maghreb was not an exactly smooth process. After Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, Algeria acquired its independence in 1962, leaving a gaping wound, still partly open, on both sides of the Mediterranean. Pied-noirs returning to the regions of Paris and Provence with a mixed culture (dishes, humor, etc.). The Cuban missile crisis took place that same year, a paroxysmal moment in the Cold War. Europe was split between two camps. “When will the Russians throw nuclear warheads at us”? But there was also reason to rejoice and be optimistic: the economic growth and baby boom. Reconstruction was in full swing. French families were dreaming of tourism and airplanes. A method of transportation that was still reserved for the elite was developing rapidly. The French sky had been opened to competition. Caravels, the first mass produced civilian twin-jet planes had entered the airspace. The French were discovering Italy, Spain by car and starting to dream of far more distant regions.
Records thus offered the average person an easy escape with an extra few puns in there and a little ole-ole, making the product all the more attractive. On Saturdays, young adults took part in ballroom dance parties (dancing the cha-cha-cha, bolero, foxtrot, tango), although physical distances were chaste the spirits were more mischievous than they appeared. Sundays were then spent at the airport, listening to the Boeings chanter là-haut (Boeings singing in sky). The Loukoum – Cha Cha au Harem compilation offers a tender vision of pre-sexual revolution Gaullian France. Including all the stereotypes on exotic countries; culinary specialties (couscous, Turkish coffee, baklava, etc.), sensual oriental dances, exaggerated accents, bewitching chants performed on minor Hungarian scales by European instruments accompanied by percussion of an unknown origin.
Aside from being a simple postcard, this music embodied a form of innocence and naiveté, both touching elements to access in these cynical and judgmental times. Catchy and tastefully arranged, the genre’s best tunes contain a delightfully old-fashioned charm. Bob Azzam, an Egyptian singer of Lebanese origin, made it popular in 1960 with Mustapha and Fais-moi du Couscous, Chérie (Make me Couscous, Darling). The musician who started his career in Italy in the late fifties really came to fame in France thanks to these two songs. About twenty LPs were to follow, not all as successful, maybe due to his sometime lack of mastery in terms of quality and productivity. Léo Clarens the French-born Caliph of Francophone oriental Cha-Cha-Cha is omnipresent in this compilation, under his various stage names. Born Louis Tiramani Coulpier in Marseille in 1923, the clarinetist formed his first orchestra at the start of the Second World War. Stranded during part of the war in Algiers, he ended up being promoted to conductor of the 2nd Armored Division! When Paris was liberated, he went to the capital looking for work. There, he recorded his first records (covers of American standards) for the Philips label in the 1950s thanks to the famous Jacques Canetti, one of the greatest French artistic directors of the 20th century. Apart from his recordings under various pseudonyms (Kemal Rachid, the Kili-Cats), the Marseille musician became a popular arranger, in particular for Michel Sardou. He also assisted Paul Mauriat for many years. Later on working with Laurent Voulzy and Jean Jacques Goldman in the seventies and eighties.
Léo Clarens was not the only one to give in to oriental cha-cha-cha. A number of musicians threw themselves to the task, most often with mediocre results, but with a few nice surprises such as Benny Bennet or Los Cangaceiros. Benny Bennett is an American musician of Venezuelan origin who lives in France. He recorded many albums and 45 rpms mainly for Vogue in the late fifties and early sixties. A jazz drummer, he discovered Cuban music through his first wife Cathalina. From then on, he recorded mambos, calypsos, boleros and cha-cha-cha including their oriental variations with the excellent Couscous and Ismaëlia. Los Cangaceiros were a Paris based band led by Yvan Morice. They released four albums in the early sixties some of which were also published in the United States, as well as a dozen 45 rpms. Under his real name, Yvan Heldman became a prolific lyricist for films such as Le Vicomte Règle Ses Comptes (1967). We can thank him for the classic Dick Rivers Le Vicomte song. The omnipresence of percussion and drums on Oriental Express gives us some indication of Roger Morris’ favorite instrument: the drums. However, literature and the internet are stingy with details on his career. At most, one can find out that the musician published half a dozen EPs, mainly for the Homère label, as well as two albums, one typical of the early sixties (Surprise Party 2) and a second, Library at L’Illustration Musicale. Raymond Lefèvre’s career was much better documented! Present on this compilation thanks to his reinterpretation of the Lawrence of Arabia theme written by the great Maurice Jarre (father of Jean Michel) in a Bolero style,he was a soundtrack regular. Composing over 700 arrangements, he was especially well known for his participation in Dalida’s Bambino and for the Gendarme of St Tropez soundtrack.
On that note, it’s time to sit back and relax in your lawn chair, smoke a hookah (to keep the clichés going) and discover Loukoum – Cha Cha au Harem!
Translated by Amelie Rousseaux