Algerian-born Judeo-Arabic Musician Lili Boniche Dies at 85

Lili Boniche
Lili Boniche

One of the major figures in 1930s and 1940s Algerian popular music, Lili Boniche, died  March 6 in Paris. Boniche was known for mixing mixing rumba, pasodoble, tango, mambo, Arab-Andalusian music and writing songs in he called  "francarabe".

Lili Boniche was born in 1921 to a Sephardic family of Andalusian origin, in the Kasbah of Algiers. He was only 10 years old when he left his family to be trained in the art of playing the ud, the Arabic lute. His teacher was a master of Hauzi, a regional style of Arab-Andalusian music.

By age of 15 he had made his musical debut on Algerian radio. As he developed further he gradually moved away from classical Arabic music being strongly attracted by 40s nightclub styles (typical at that time in regions to the south and east of the Mediterranean coast): jazz, flamenco, mambo and rumba were all featured together with the "established" dances such as the Argentine tango and Spanish pasodoble and brought together with the Algerian song tradition of the shaabi in a swinging and sensuous mixture that enjoyed great popularity.

In bringing this rich mixture of cultural styles into a further synthesis with his own cultural origins Lili Boniche gradually developed a style of his own, which he called "Francarabe".

As a leading figure of Francarabe in the late 40s and 50s, Lili Boniche made a career for himself; first in Algeria and later in Paris where his first recordings were made.

Boniche left for France after Algeria became an independent nation in 1962. He  started a furniture business, although he never gave up playing music and performed at weddings and other events.

In the 90s, the term "world music" was now in place. He made a comeback with his album Alger, Alger, produced by Bill Laswell. With the help of electric guitar and amplification, he attempted to rescue the charm and elegance of this music of a by-gone era from oblivion.

Lili Boniche appeared recently in the documentary Alger-Oran- Paris, which celebrates the Algerian music hall era of the 1950s.