Maurice el Medioni grew up in the Mediterranean port city of Oran in what was once the French colony of Algeria; like many other Jews, he and his family were forced into exile when Algeria gained its independence. He is now 77 years old, and still making music his way, mixing boogie-woogie and Jewish and Arabic and Andalusian and Latin styles all together and making them his own.
Roberto Rodriguez’ family came to the U.S. from Cuba when he was nine years old. They settled in Miami, where Rodriguez played drums for his father’s Cuban band. But he had another job as well: playing in a series of Yiddish dance groups. He has continued to explore the connections between Cuban dance music and traditional Jewish music by hooking up with John Zorn and some like-minded lunatics, as well as putting out a couple of solo albums.
So it was pretty inevitable that these two culture-hopping nomads would find each other. But was it inevitable that this collaborative album (Medioni composes, plays piano, and sings; Rodriguez plays drums, arranges, and produces) would be beautiful and passionate and awesome?
At first, you might not think so. Sure, it’s easy to understand el Medioni’s great skill as a piano player—lots of tumbling rai runs, economical yet full of Arab flair and Jewish zest—and Rodriguez’ hard-scrabble Caribbean rumble beneath it all. But it’s all very smooth, very controlled, maybe even a little too perfect, especially on the tracks where el Medioni croons in his raspy old-man’s French. But just when you’re about to file it under “nice try but no”, I urge you to give it another shot.
Suddenly, the genius of their collaboration will become crystal clear. The most dramatic of the pieces here might be “Ana Ouana”, an insistent rumba with a sexy backbeat and a circular melody, but it is really hard to beat the dignified Arabic slow-burn of “Tu N’aurais Jamais Du” or the Afro-klezmer fanfare of “Malika”. The songs are probably longer than they need to be, as the lengthy series of solos do not necessarily build on each other, but none of the notes are out of place—this is quite a feat, especially considering the waterfall of melody that is a typical el Medioni run.
What is Rodriguez doing all this time? Well, he’s guiding a hot but unshowoffy rhythm section, he’s not taking solos, and he’s not calling attention to himself. He has the heart and soul of a collaborator/co-conspirator. He also has the good sense to frame every track as a showcase for the song itself, instead of as a launching pad for jazz odysseys or anything like that. Rodriguez makes sure that el Medioni’s unearthly talent stays firmly grounded on earth; it’s a selfless task, the kind that musicians used to do all the time for each other without batting an eye. (But I wish he had have done more to make sure that the songs didn’t blend together quite as much.)
So while this music is hard to pigeonhole as “Jewish” or “Arabic” or “Latin” or “jazz” or “world music” or really anything, it is still surprising and solid and lovely. An hour of music like that is not something at which to sneeze.