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From chazzan to worldwide Arab-Andalusian music star

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Samy El Maghribi and Cantor Salomon Amzallag “were one and the same person,” who captivated audiences both secular and religious. (Photos: סמי אלמגרבי ז”ל Facebook/oudcompetion.com) 

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Samy El Maghribi (Salomon Amzallag)

Singer-Songwriter, Cantor, Poet, Oud Player (April 19, 1922 – March 9, 2008)

By night, Samy El Maghribi was dubbed the Moroccan Charles Aznavour – with a pop singer’s global reputation. By day, he was Salomon Amzallag, the first Moroccan cantor at Montreal’s famed Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue. Known as Shearith Israel, on St. Kevin Street in Montreal since 1960, it’s Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, established in 1768. Cantor Amzallag served there from 1967 to 1984.

Two cantors have since sung from the Spanish & Portuguese bimah, including Yehuda Abittan and present-day chazzan Daniel Benlolo, who was one of Amzallag’s students.

Amzallag was Benlolo’s mother’s cousin, and so the Montreal synagogue became their family’s new home.

“He’s the inspirational reason I became a chazzan and his shul was where I received my training,” Cantor Benlolo said. “He was a wonderful mentor. Over the years, I have been privileged to serve Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations in Ottawa, New York, Atlanta and Caracas, to name a few. Two and-a-half years ago, I was pleased to return home to Shearith Israel to work and live in Montréal.”

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Amzallag was born in Safi, a city in western Morocco. His family moved to Rabat in 1926. Growing up, he taught himself to play the oud, a short-neck, lute-type pear-shaped string instrument that dates to Assyria.

Early on, young Samy familiarized himself with Arab-Andalusian music, attending the Conservatoire de Music de Casablanca. Starting at age 20, he studied with many of the great Andalusian masters of his time.

Christopher Silver, an assistant professor of Jewish History and Culture at McGill University, has called him “a mid-twentieth century Moroccan superstar.”

 “From his debut in 1948 through his professional zenith in 1956, he was a ubiquitous presence on radio and in concert,” Silver wrote in a recent issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

As radio spread across Morocco, El Maghribi’s live performances on radio and constant playing of his records on air “helped cement his status as the nation’s voice during a formative political moment.”

His popularity spilled over to commercial advertising: El Maghribi became an official spokesperson for Coca-Cola in Morocco. “His spoken dialogues and musical hooks for the soft drink company were played in heavy rotation on Radio Tangier International over the next several years,” wrote Silver. During this period, he became the sound of brands like Gillette, Palmolive, Canada Dry and Shell Oil.

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A popular entertainer, El Maghribi built a world-wide fan base and reinforced his Arab-Andalusian musical heritage with performances in Caracas, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York, as well as playing for Moroccan fans in Oujda and Rabat. Listen to his music here.

Yet, he was committed to his cultural roots and to the sacred liturgical genre, said his daughter, Yolande Amzallag, who helped create Fondation Samy El Maghribi.

Samy El Maghribi and Cantor Salomon Amzallag “were one and the same person,” Yolande Amzallag told the Morocco World News at the foundation’s 2015 launch, “despite the fact they performed in different settings whose integrity was never challenged by the apparent dichotomy between the sacred and the secular.”

Her father’s allegiance to God was matched by his allegiance to art, she went on, “and he aspired to spiritual elevation both as an artist and as a practicing Jew.”

Samy El Maghribi is seen performing at a concert. >>>Click here to view the video<<< (Photo: YouTube/Luther Lutherking.)

After he retired, Amzallag moved to Israel and founded Merkaz Piyyut Veshira, a centre for Sephardic music from where, from 1988 to 1994, he was pedagogical director, according to his biography.

He also co-founded and performed with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra. In 2006, the orchestra won the country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize.

In November 2008, a few months after his death, El Maghribi was posthumously recognized by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who awarded him the Commander of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite medal for Meritorious Service to Morocco.

His wife, Messody Cohen-Amzallag, died in Ashdod on April 5, 2015. The couple’s children created the foundation “to perpetuate their teachings of respect for tradition, openness to others and generosity through the love of music. 

(An earlier version of this article first appeared in Canadian Jewish Record, July 20, 2020.)

UNDER THE RADAR – 30 Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians is available from Amazon.ca in paperback and E-book versions.

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

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