Lili Boniche

About Lili Boniche

"The Crooner of the Casbah," Algerian-born Lili Boniche emerged as one of the premier cabaret acts in postwar Paris, honing an utterly unique fusion of North African folk, French chanson, and Latin jazz rhythms he called "francarabe." Born in Algiers on April 29, 1922, to a Sephardic family of Andalusian descent, Boniche was a nine-year-old lute prodigy when a chance encounter with Algerian Haouzi master Saoud L'Oranais led to an invitation to join his group on tour -- remarkably, Boniche's parents consented, and their child spent the next three years traveling across North Africa under L'Oranais' tutelage before returning home in 1935 to study Arab classical music. At 15, Boniche convinced Radio Alger to award him a weekly live showcase, and he also became a fixture at local social events, over time shifting away from the Arabic shaabi tradition to write original songs informed by jazz, flamenco, mambo, and rhumba. After relocating to Paris in 1947, Boniche landed a residency at the prestigious cabaret Le Soleil d'Algérie, where his devout fans included future French president François Mitterand. A year later, he made his first recordings for El Dounia, most notable among them the francarabe anthem "Mektoub" as well as his cover of Charles Aznavour's "La Mamma."
In Paris Boniche also married, and his new wife soon convinced him to abandon his music career and return to Algiers -- there he became a successful businessman, at one point owning and operating four cinemas, but lost his home and fortune in 1962 when he and other Algerian Jews were expelled in the wake of the battle for national independence from France. Boniche returned to Paris, launching an industrial catering business and tentatively resuming his performing career at bar mitzvahs and weddings. He maintained a low musical profile until 1990, when promoter/producer Francis Falceto tracked him down and organized a series of Japanese and European comeback tours that capitalized on the growing commercial vogue for what was now dubbed "world music." Producer Bill Laswell agreed to helm Boniche's first-ever studio LP, 1998's Alger Alger, while a subsequent appearance at the famed Paris Olympia theater was the basis of the live effort Il N'y a Qu'un Seul Dieu. Matthieu Chedid, Smadj, and Manu Katché contributed to 2003's Oeuvres Récentes, while Laswell returned to the fold for Amir el Gheram a year later. Boniche was also featured in the documentary Alger-Oran-Paris, which spotlighted the Algerian music hall culture of the pre-independence era. He died in Paris on March 6, 2008. ~ Jason Ankeny

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