Some call him the 'Ruben Gonzales' of the Maghreb: born in the Algerian port of Oran into a Jewish family in 1928 Maurice El Medioni has led a remarkable life crammed full of music: he played Jewish Andalous music at coffee-houses and weddings, boogie and rumba in bars & parties, introduced the piano into early Rai music, and became a cabaret star in Paris of the 60s.Most recently, at the age of 77 we've heard him add the nostalgic notes of his oriental piano to the opening track of Khaled's latest, much celebrated 'Ya Rayi' release.
Maurice El Medioni grew up in Algeria, in the colourful port city of Oran, the birthplace of rai and a melting pot of cultures and religions for centuries. When his brother brought home an old piano from the flea market, 9-year old Maurice had taught himself within days how to play popular French songs from the radio. Music has been his life ever since: Only a couple of years later he was playing in tea-houses and at weddings, and when Algeria was liberated from the French in 1942, Maurice ended up playing the piano in bars for the American troops. To satisfy the soldier's requests, he picked up popular boogie, jazz and Latin numbers by watching the black and Latino guys play their favourite tunes. Later, befriending three Arab rai singers, he became part of the emerging urban Rai music circuit, introducing the piano into Rai music and pioneering the melange of hot, urban rhythms with the country roots of rai. Maurice quickly gained popularity in the local scene and soon became the respected pianist for "l´Opéra" in Oran, joining talented musicians from many different parts of North Africa as well as other Jewish artists like Lillie Boniche and Lili Labassi.
This atmosphere of easygoing coexistence between religious communities in Oran was poisoned by the bitter independence war. In 1962, after 8 years of civil war, Algeria finally gained independence from France, but the mood had turned sour: Most Algerian Jews, including Maurice and his family, were forced into exile. "Life was good in Algeria, but when we left, we had to live hand to mouth. It's very tough to be driven from your country when you don't want to leave. It's not like being an immigrant searching for a better life." After his many years at the top of the music scene in his homeland, Maurice adapted quickly and soon became a star in the Parisian cabaret scene, along with Jewish singers like Lili Boniche. As his unique musical style was recognized internationally he was in constant demand, but it was not until 1997 that a recording under his own name, 'Café Oran' was released to huge acclaim (listed by the Rough Guide among the 100 Top World Music CDs ever).
Today, well into his seventies, but still full of energy, Maurice resides in Marseilles. His recordings as well as the rare appearances with his own band feature his unique and inimitable piano style that never fails to charm: while his left hand boogies on the rhythms of the New World, his right hand paints the alluring licks and melodies of the Old. The result is a nostalgic cocktail of Cuban rhythms, French cabaret chic and Oriental mellowness. The swinging melodies rekindle the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Oran of the past, when it was the melting pot for all religions and cultures. Play it again, Maurice!