Ya Lalla: A Sonic & Visual Spotlight on
Women’s Resistance and Celebrations of Transmission
The Ya Lalla exhibit, featuring elements from the recently launched online platform https://yalalla.org.uk/, works at breaking the boundaries around perceptions of folklorism in women’s songs, colonialism in rural repertoires and communitarianism of religious minorities. Pregnancy and birth were one of the few powerful tools women wielded in highly patriarchal societies, as they were key in expanding filiation networks. This bound women to the group but curtailed their movement through strict social control.
Their voices, often hidden from colonial authorities during the 20th century and through the French cultural assimilation of Jewish communities throughout North Africa, served as connectors to local cultural specificities.
Stemming from an oral history interview with Mme. Sultana Azeroual, one of the last singers of these repertoires, Ya Lalla: Jewish Saharans Singing to Birth was launched in 2021 as the pilot for KHOYA: Jewish Morocco Sound Archive.
KHOYA means my brother in Moroccan Arabic, and is heard multiple times a day on the street as people address each other in informal manners, it also means jewel in Judeo—Spanish.
In 2012, Dr. Elbaz began organising and classifying the recorded materials from her fieldwork with the goal of creating a searchable database that could be used by scholars and the wider public, and especially by younger Moroccan Muslims and Jews whose grandparents had told them about a vanishing world to which they no longer had access. Her belief was that accessing sounds from that world could bring them closer to a sensorial accessibility of the metonymic semiotics embedded within the sonic. The challenge however in engaging with the collection, organisation and diffusion of sonic materials, including music in rehearsal & performance or in ethnographic contexts, cantillation, religious services, oral histories and sound scraping of daily sonic moments is not just to have a diffuse archive, which is often impenetrable for the user, albeit giving those moments of serendipitous discovery of sonic treasures, but to help make sense of the epistemology of sound within the group whose sounds are being presented. This overarching goal is a thread that runs through Dr. Elbaz’ driving vision in the KHOYA project.
Contrary to a folklorisation of women’s repertoire, her slow process of embedded fieldwork has demonstrated that women’s songs serve core functions which are related to time: lunar and solar, and the relationship of the human to those cycles through the life cycle. Their repertoires are radically local, familial and serve a ritual function within the private sphere, creating soundscapes of inner belonging and sonic inscriptions to genealogy and tradition. The Yalalla platform explores the use of digital humanities to reinscribe the centrality of women's voices to Jewish life in North Africa, and to recreate sonic worlds which have been atomised with the dispersion of these communities in the last century.
This project would not have been possible without the financial support of: