Publishing The Autobiography of Maurice El Medioni

On music, karma and keeping on keeping on

Year: 2016

A 5 minute read

It has been thirteen years in the making, but it is with immense pleasure that I can say that UK publishing house Repeater Books will be publishing the autobiography of Maurice El Medioni at the end of this year. For those who don’t know, master pianist, Algerian pop song writer, and the author of Ahlan Wa Sahlan, the song without which no North African wedding is complete to this day.

Maurice's ode to his beloved hometown, Wahran/Oran

I’ve already written about how I met Maurice and his life-enhancing music and larger than life personality elsewhere: this post is about karma, and what happens when you don’t give up on something you believe you just have to do.

After two years of performing and touring with Maurice, in the USA, Russia and across the UK, I had formed a strong bond with and admiration for Maurice. It is not easy to see why - everyone who meets him falls in love with him, his easy-going humour, his love of music that keeps him full of vitality well into his 80th year.

I was at SOAS, the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, pursuing a Masters in Ethnomusicology. Maurice was to be my dissertation: a look into the long-forgotten world of pre-independence Algerian cosmpolitanism, when nightclubs on the Canastel, on Oran’s northern beachfront, rivalled anything the Cote D’Azur had to offer.

I say ‘pursuing’, because in truth, the Masters was fast running away from me: I was running a band that was getting ever busier, starting our first international tours and about to be signed to an iconic record label. That year, we were shortlisted for two BBC World Music Awards, and my young musical imagination was ablur. I was keen to study, and fascinated in the subject, but I took some courses in the wrong order, and was asked by the University to turn down an international summer tour in order to be present for my exams. I asked if there was another option, and there wasn’t, except to pay another year’s fees - some £3000 - which I didn’t have. To this day, I don’t why the University didn’t try to do more to help a student who had the good fortune to have their extra-curricular life turning out well.

This was just the administration: the music department were different. When I showed the handwritten manuscript that Maurice had sent me to my then supervisor, Keith Howard, he was keen to put it together as an academic book for publication. We invited Maurice to SOAS to give a lecture, recorded it, and typed it up for the book. But when the terms of the book came through - a unit price north of £50 and if we wanted them to print any photographs in the book at all or accompanying an CD, we would have to raise the money ourselves - I felt there must be another way. After all, Maurice’s life had so much colour and joy in it, to publish his vivid recollections as drab text without so much as a single picture or sound snippet seemed like an insult to his memory.

By now we had a good team of supporters who wanted to be involved and help getting Maurice’s memoirs published: Christophe Borkowsky, owner of Pirnaha Records and Publishing, Maurice’s record label; Ben Mandelson, world music producer who had helped shape Maurice’s comeback; Max Reinhardt, BBC Radio 3 presenter and curator; Helene Hazera, Radio France International journalist and North African cultural expert; Josephine Burton, producer and cultural doer who had first put me together with Maurice when she was Director of Yad Arts, and whose insight had given me so much over the years.

Maurice writes of his childhood in the derb, the Jewish quarter of Oran, as a beautiful, unpretentious stream of images. It seemed to me that the book could work incredibly well as a graphic novel: Waltz With Bashir had just come out, and showed how what a potent form for historical storytelling it could be. We got in touch with Joann Sfar, the bestselling French graphic novelist and author of Le Chat Du Rabbin. He was a perfect fit with the story, and might have taken it on if he wasn’t just about to start shooting Gainsbourg - a big budget, big deal in French cinema about an even bigger figure - as his directorial debut.

So now, I am frantically looking again at my translations in advance of the publishing deadline, wondering what everything meant and using the Francophone part of my brain which has been left untroubled for the best part of ten years. Vive Maurice!

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