This story begins with a pig in a poke. One day in the early 1950s, Rafael Azoulay, a cloth merchant who had immigrated from Morocco, bought a sealed container in the Jaffa flea market. When it was opened, a treasure was found, one that dictates family's history to this day.
The container was full of phonographs - Made in U.S.A. Azoulay's sons, David, Zachi, Meir and (the now late) Nissim began to produce, manufacture and distribute records under various labels: Ron Li, Azr, Zakifon and Koliphone. They were the first to document the initial steps here of singers such as Filfil al-Masri, Zahra al Fassia, Joe Amar, Aris San, Trifonas and Zvika Pik. They issued something close to 800 records. In the 1950s and '60s, the Azoulay brothers provided the music sought by the large-scale immigration from the Arab countries; today their endeavor has turned into rare documentation of the first days of Mizrahi music in Israel. While the family continues to run a store and a recording studio, it was a pair of DJs, Uri Wertheim and Ofer Tal, who undertook to preserve this tradition, producing a record under the inspiration of a Filfil al-Masri song.
Wertheim says the Azoulay brothers "in a totally unintentional way" have documented musical treasure. The DJ duo discovered Zahra al Fassia, for example, in the late 1970s, thanks to poet Erez Biton, who wrote a poem about the court singer from Morocco who became a tenant in a poor neighborhood in Ashkelon but her recordings from the 1960s exist thanks to Koliphone, says Wertheim.
Wertheim discovered the Koliphone world when he began working as an intern at Sigma studios, which belong to Meir Azoulay. He was a student of sound and one of his first assignments at Sigma was to move music on reels and records to a computer. "The first one who stunned me was Aris San," he recalls. "Songs such as 'Sigal,' 'Tel Aviv,' 'Im ata tsa'ir balev' [If you are young at heart]. I knew them as music for folk dances and suddenly, in the studio, I began to listen to them differently, and it was wow! I began searching for more such things."
He goes over and plays the first record of "Tslilei ha'oud" (The Oud Sounds), the next thing he encountered. The project has evolved into continuous research, which he calls "collective research" and invites anyone who has records or stories connected to the company to contact him to develop the information he has gathered. The goal is to collect and preserve as many company recordings as possible for the history of music in Israel.
"I knew the name Tslilei ha'oud. It is a name that every child knows," says Wertheim. "I knew there were such things, but I did not listen to them attentively. When I ran into it while working, I discovered the sound was superb, or at least very special. There are drums and electric guitars just like I love."
He found a mysterious quality in the music's eastern sound. "For an Ashkenazi who has not heard mizrachi music at home, listening to these scales is like listening to "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. All the advanced rock groups at some point were into oriental scales, and here it is most authentic. These are people had those scales in their heads, their hands, the throat. They just took electrical instruments, and it sounded so Yemenite." He adds: "These are things that exist in our collective knowledge but that we do not really recognize."
Wertheim says this music intrigues him. "I am not doing it from a haughty position, not at all. Sometimes I listen to Umm Kulthum, to music from Africa and from South America. Ofer and I and a few other friends listen to music from all over the world and relate to the way it sounds. True, there is something more mysterious and exotic if it comes from a distant place. But these things are from here, from Jaffa. The store is a quarter of an hour's walk from my home."
These are the roots of the Israeli music industry, he says. "If I am a musician, these are my roots, and they are no longer restricted to ethnic groups and origins." Ofer Tal has a different perspective. He says he comes from a background of collecting records, but if Koliphone has a record that does not interest him musically, then it won't be interesting to him, in contrast with Uri. "I am into music, nothing else," says Tal.
"Musically, it is a pleasure to hear, and it's from us. When I come across an interesting African or a calypso record, it sounds exotic to me. This, too, sounds exotic to me, because I am not Moroccan. It is interesting music, it has a beat, it is usually happy. And if its from our [people] then, personally, I am more attached to it. In contrast to the rhythm bands of the 1960s and 70s, which occupied a place among the mainstream because they played Western music, mizrahi music existed as a parallel scene," says Wertheim. In terms of sales and success it was not marginal. "The artists and the records sold well," says Wertheim. "They appeared all the time - and never made it to the mainstream."
The Azoulay brothers' store is still on Raziel Street in Jaffa, opposite the clock tower. Only a few pinkish cassettes up front hint at its past. In the store there is mainly Jewish religious music. David and Zachi Azoulay, the owners, are not interested in being interviewed. "They are very non-establishment," explains Wertheim. "They always printed, produced and distributed by themselves. They would like a movie on the company, but want to do it by themselves. As far as they are concerned, they are still struggling for a livelihood."
Fire gutted the company's offices in the 1980s, including many of the records' master copies. At that time the trio of brothers split. David and Zachi stayed with the record company, and Meir became the owner of Sigma studios. When they find in the market a record they do not yet have on a CD, they buy it," says Wertheim. "Today they are trying to recollect their own material."