Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ya Mashta: A Moroccan Jewish Henna Song

I helped facilitate a wonderful henna ceremony last week for a mixed Yemenite-Moroccan Jewish couple. One of the things we included was the singing and reading of several chants for the henna ceremony from various Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities. The bride’s mother was particularly moved by one of them and I thought I would share it on the blog.

I call the song “Ya Mashta,” after its opening words — although, as we shall see, there are several versions — which means, “O Dresser.” 

A Muslim woman having her hair braided, Ida Ou Blal
(southern Morocco), circa 1934. Photo by Jean Besancenot.
The mashta or masta (derived from the formal Arabic mashiṭa, ‘hairdresser’) was the woman who was responsible for the bride’s adornments, including her hair, her cosmetics, her jewelry, and of course, her henna. The mashta was already established as a respected female profession in the Middle Ages, for both Jews and Muslims (see, e.g., Shatzmiller 1994, pp. 171 and 354, and the fatwas of al-Wansharisi discussed here).

I have been able to locate several published texts of this song; Joseph Chétrit claims that “it is likely the oldest and most widely-spread Judeo-Arabic wedding song among the Jews of Morocco” (pg. 260). It appears for the first time in a manuscript written by Shlomo Tuv-Elem, a rabbi from Tétouan in northern Morocco, circa 1827. 

It was also published by Ruben Tadjouri in the version of Rabat-Salé in 1923, and of Fes in 1946 by Elie Malka (unfortunately only in translation). Two versions of it as recalled by elderly informants appear in Chétrit’s collection, both from southern Morocco: one from Taroudant, and one from Ighil-n-Ogho (Chétrit 2003; Dar'i 2003).

The longest version being Tuv-Elem’s, I have numbered its stanzas 1-15, using letters A-H to indicate additional or variant stanzas in the other versions. I don’t want to assume that the oldest version is the ‘truest’ (a problematic methodology, which ignores how traditions evolve within communities) and I actually prefer some of the verses of the later versions, but Tuv-Elem’s is the longest and it made the most sense to number it that way. All versions begin with the same opening (with some dialectical variation, i.e. the pronounciation of mashta as masta or even maṣta):

Stanza 1:
Ya mashta, mashti dlalha / l‘arosa rayḥa ldarha
O dresser, dress her hair / the bride is going to her house.

After this opening address to the mashta, the bride addresses her father, asking him why he has abandoned her. In Tuv-Elem’s version, the bride is incredibly dramatic, declaring that she will die alone and far away, unless her father buries her next to his house:

Stanza 2:
Tell my father, tell him / to dig me a grave outside his door.
Stanza 3:
His tears will flow over me / his shoes will step over me.
Stanza 4:
Tell my father, “what a coward!” / For he has pushed his daughter from the house.
Stanza 5:
Tell my father, “you Christian!” / For he has given his daughter to a foreigner.
Stanza 6:
Why, O father, have you abandoned me? / Why, O father, must I die a stranger? / You abandoned me on the mountaintops.

Later versions tone it down a little, the bride instead asking her father to build a house next to hers so that she can remain close to him; they still, however, keep the bride’s complaints that she has been abandoned. 

Newlywed Jewish girl, Tahala (southern
Morocco), circa 1935. Photo by Jean
As Chétrit writes, “[they] reveal the great inner tension that the bride, most often just a girl, is feeling, and the pressures of family and society, explicit and implicit, which slowly come to the surface as a result of this important event in the family’s life” (pg. 276):

Stanza 2A:
Tell my father, tell him / to build his house next to mine.
Stanza 4A:
My gracious father has abandoned me / Because he gave me away and did not keep me.
Stanza 6A:
Tell my father that he will be punished / For he left his daughter on the mountaintops.
Stanza 6B:
O gracious father, you coward / You gave me to the mountaintops.

The bride then tells her father what he should have said, giving voice to her desire to repair their relationship:

Stanza 8
Why, O father, have you abandoned me? / Why have you married me off young?
Stanza 9
You should have said, “this is my daughter, / My little girl will stay with me.”

The father then responds by explaining that thus is the fate of fathers and daughters, but he reassures her that life will go on and describes her future married life; the versions recorded by Tadjouri and Malka add an ending from the groom’s perspective, reassuring the bride that she is loved and supported:

Stanza 10
Thus it befits the father of daughters, / thus it befits he who raises them, / until one comes to take them away.
Stanza 11
The house of daughters is a festive house; / once full, in an instant it becomes empty.
Stanza 12
One washes and the other folds; / one packs, and bakes bread / the other greets the visitors.
Stanza 12A
How happy you are, O mother / one washes and the other folds.
Stanza C
O lady, I am your servant, / and if you would accept me,
Stanza D
Get the witnesses and I will declare myself to you, / O girl with the sweet eyes.
Stanza F
O bride, do not cry, do not wet your eyes with tears; / as for the rabbis, they will take you by the hand.

Jewish girl with facial ornamentation
in ḥarqus and kohl, Dadès.
From Robichez' Maroc Central, 1946.
Tuv-Elem’s version ends with 3 stanzas not found in any of the other versions, where the mother describes the bride’s beauty as superceding all the mashta’s cosmetics, including henna, ḥargus [or arqus, a soot ink used for facial decoration], kohl, and swak [walnut bark used to dye lips].

I love that the song begins with an appeal to the mashta to adorn the bride, and ends with an acknowledgement that she is beautiful as she is. As a henna artist, I always say my job is to bring out the beauty you already wear:

Stanza 13
O farmers, plant corn / my daughter is beautiful without henna; / O farmers, plant cucumber / my daughter is beautiful without hargus.
Stanza 14
O farmers, plant beans / my daughter is beautiful without kohl; / O farmers, plant chives / my daughter is beautiful without swak.
Stanza 15
O farmers, plant figs / my daughter is beautiful without bakhoor [incense]; / O farmers, plant cilantro / my daughter is beautiful without a fancy scarf.

A beautiful song! While the imagery is perhaps a little strange to us, and its ritualized display of emotion a little stiff or awkward, I have no doubt that it often helped the family express real feelings of pain, sadness, and hope. Some sources seem to indicate that the central part was actually sung as a back-and-forth by the bride and her father; other sources indicate it was the mashta herself who sung it while she was hennaing the bride or combing her hair.

And of course, the question on all your minds: what did it sound like? I was very lucky and able to find two sources for the music — Tadjouri transcribes the first verse with musical notation, and I also found an actual sound recording, courtesy of the digitalization project of the National Sound Archive of Israel. Yay!

Tadjouri's transcription of Ya Mashta, 1923.

Tadjouri’s transcription describes it as a “slow and melancholic” tune, in the minor key so common in Moroccan Jewish music. Since I am not a musicologist (or even a musician!) I can’t say much more than that. If any musicians would like to reconstruct Tadjouri’s version of Ya Mashta, I’d be happy to work with you!

The sound recording was done by Issachar Ben-Ami in Grand Arénas, a transit camp for North African Jews in the south of Marseilles, in 1965. The singer is a woman named Aisha Dahan, and as far as I can tell the tune is similar but not identical to Tadjouri’s. She has a few extra verses that I can’t quite make out, but the general structure of the song is the same; in the middle she stops singing to explain to the interviewer that this song is sung while the bride is crying as she leaves her parents and her home, and so it is as if she is going to a far-off country.

Listen to it here (or on YouTube):

Most interestingly, ten years later, Ben-Ami published a long and meticulous article documenting the wedding traditions of Moroccan Jewry, and although he doesn't mention any song starting with "ya mashta," he includes a song which is almost identical to two of the verses that Aisha sings in this recording. He writes (1974, pg. 64):

[In the Souss], while the tamzwarat [bridal attendants] comb her hair, the bride cries: 
‘O thankless father!
Why have you given your daughter
To the top of the mountain?
Why did you not say
My daughter is young
She will stay close to me!’
Her father responds to her, while crying:
Give the girl to her cousin,
She will come back and return to her mother.’

I suspect that those lines are actually part of Ya Mashta as transcribed from this recording! How wonderful — I love retracing the steps of established scholars back to their research.

As I mentioned, when I lead henna ceremonies, I have guests and family member read interpretive translations of traditional songs while I am doing the henna, and Ya Mashta is always a popular one. My 21st-century version, a poetic interpretation of Ya Mashta combining verses that I like from all the versions, is as follows:

Braid her hair, adorn her well,
For she is entering her own house.
Tell my father, tell him —
To build his house next to mine.
Tell me you won’t abandon me,
You won’t leave me or push me away.
How happy you are, O mother,
That we are sharing this together.
Don’t cry, sweet girl, don’t fill your eyes with tears —
We swear, we will take you by the hand.
Beyond the henna and kohl, my daughter,
Your beauty shines through.
Beyond all that, my daughter,
Your beauty shines through.

I acknowledge that it is probably better classified as a contemporary poem inspired by Ya Mashta, but I think it captures the spirit. I would love to try to learn the original to be able to sing it at henna ceremonies and continue this beautiful tradition. Musicians and musicologists, if you want to collaborate, gimme a call [email]!


Edit: the phenomenally talented Spanish-Moroccan-Israeli singer Mor Karbasi read this post and loved it so much that she recorded a new cover of it! What an extraordinary rendition… Great work, Mor! Please check out her work for more amazing contemporary and traditional Sephardic music.

Ben-Ami, Issachar. Le mariage traditionnel chez les Juifs marocains [The Traditional Marriage among Moroccan Jews]. Studies in Marriage Customs, ed. by Issachar Ben-Ami and Dov Noy. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1974.
Chétrit, Joseph. Shirei haḥatuna miYehudei Tarudant [Wedding Songs of the Jews of Taroudant]. In Haḥatuna hayehudit hamesoratit baMaroqo [The Jewish Traditional Marriage in Morocco], ed. Joseph Chétrit, University of Haifa, 2003.
Dar‘i, Yehuda. Haḥatuna hayehudit baqehilot kefariyyot: minhagei nissu’in b’Ighil-n-Ogho [Jewish Marriage in Rural Communities: wedding customs in Ighil-n-Ogho]. In Haḥatuna hayehudit hamesoratit baMaroqo [The Jewish Traditional Marriage in Morocco], ed. Joseph Chétrit, University of Haifa, 2003.
Malka, ElieEssai d’ethnographie traditionnelle des Mellahs: ou croyances, rites de passage, et vieilles pratiques des Israélites marocains [An attempt at a traditional ethnography of the mellahs: or beliefs, passage rituals, and old customs of Moroccan Jews]. Rabat: Imprimerie Omnia, 1946.
Shatzmiller, MayaLabour in the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden: Brill, 1994.
Tadjouri, Ruben. Le mariage juif à Salé [The Jewish Wedding in Salé]. Hespéris 3, no. 3, 1923.


Unknown said...

I'm just wondering, how well has the traditional culture of Jews in 'oriental' countries survived in Israel? I'm asking because I've read or listened to several Middle Eastern Jews complain about how much was lost in Israel due to their culture being stigmatised and branded as backwards by Ashkenazi Jews. I watched an interview where an Iraqi Jew named Loolwa Khazoom even stated that Zionism is about 'the destruction of Jewish identity' because it was about gathering Jews from all around the world, erasing their cultures and making them become like Europeans.

How much of this is true? Because after these stories I'm pleasantly surprised to see such traditions being upheld in this Yemenite-Moroccan wedding.

Noam Sienna said...

Cy — a great question! First of all, I should note that this wedding was taking place in Canada, not Israel! But overall I would say that the situation is not one of "survival" but rather "renewal" or "reconstitution." There definitely was a long period during which non-Ashkenazi culture was stigmatized and seen as backwards, primitive, and un-Israeli. While I might not agree with Khazzoom's exact phrasing, her point is well-taken: for many years there was a heavy bias against Diaspora culture, particularly that originating from the Jewish communities of the Arab/Muslim world (although to be fair, traditional Yiddish and Ashkenazi culture didn't do so well either). Henna ceremonies, like other practices, were curtailed or abandoned and many elements of traditional knowledge were lost.

So the fact that young Jews (whether in Israel or the Diaspora) are choosing to celebrate their heritage is wonderful! Unfortunately the henna ceremony has become an excuse for a party and the importance of the henna has generally been lost; nonetheless there are some (such as my clients described here) who are attempting to recreate a ceremony which is meaningful to their contemporary context but which draws on and celebrates the richness of traditional Diaspora culture.