When I first came to this country, over 40 years ago now, there was a yawning chasm between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Young people, on meeting for the first time, often started by asking “what are your ethnic origins?” Your answer would generally dictate the initial flow of the conversation, and hopefully the interlocutors would gradually get through the ethnic minefield in one piece and, to borrow from the immortal closing line of 1942 movie “Casablanca,” a beautiful friendship might ensue.
But those days have, thankfully, largely been consigned to local social history books and, today, all manners of previously unimaginable interethnic confluences are possible. The proof of the more inclusive pudding is front and center in Mati Seri’s show in this year’s Spring Festival (May 7 to May 14), which will take place in Rishon Lezion Auditorium on May 12. At first glance, the “From Argov to Argov” project has nothing but surname commonality going for it. The Argovs in question are Zohar, who hailed from a Yemenite family and was dubbed the “King of Mizrahi Music,” and Israel Prize-winning Russian composer Sasha. Zohar, a substance abuser, died tragically in 1987 at the age of only 32 – one theory is that he put an end to his own life – while Sasha died eight years later just a month short of his 81st birthday.
In fact, as Seri points out, the composer and the singer didn’t even really share a surname. “Zohar was originally called Orkabi and Sasha’s name was Abramovich.” Even so, as far as Seri concerns, if the feeling is right everything else slots into place.
“You know you don’t sing with the vocal chords. The voice really comes from the heart and, I think, what comes over to the audience is more your gut than your voice.”
That, believes Seri, is something that runs through the work of all great artists and, hence, offers performers generous shared terrain through which to filter seemingly disparate sounds.
Natural synthesis notwithstanding, Seri says he put in a lot of footwork, and researched the singer’s work and life thoroughly. It has been a long love affair for Seri. “I didn’t know Zohar Argov personally. I lived in the United States when he was at his peak. I spent three whole days in the Yediot Aharonot archives – we are talking about 15 years or more ago, there was no Internet then like there is today – and I read every single article about him I could find.”
Seri was clearly as interested in the man behind the iconic voice, as he was in Argov’s hits like “Haperach Begani” (“The Flower in My Garden”) and “Badad” (“Alone”). “I put together a psychological profile of Zohar, and I got a real feel for who he was.” That was in preparation for Seri’s leading role in the theater production The King, a portrayal of Zohar Argov, which enjoyed a successful run at Beit Liessin in Tel Aviv.
Despite also coming from a Yemenite family, Seri says that the other Argov was a constant in his life, from a young age. “When I was a kid there was only the radio, and that’s what you heard, Sasha Argov,” he recalls. “He came from Rachmaninoff and Zohar came from the Levant, from here.”
Although Zohar gained success during his lifetime, lapses into substance abuse, violent outbursts and scuffles with the law notwithstanding, it was after his death that his music eventually found its way outs of the marginalized “cassette singer” category and into the heart of the general public. “Who would have believed, for example, that a song by Zohar Argov would be performed on [TV reality show] A Star Is Born?” muses Seri. The latter refers to “Yam Shel Dma’ot” “(A Sea of Tears”) sung by winner Ninette Tayeb in the final of the series’ inaugural season.
Seri admits, sharer ethnic roots notwithstanding, that it took him a while to warm to the singer’s work.
“Not all his songs are that good, and I didn’t particularly go for him to begin with, but after a while I really took him to my heart.”
Okay, so Seri digs the singer. That still leaves us with the not inconsiderable style-genre divide, between the respective Messrs. Argov.
Seri says that is no longer an issue.
“They are a natural fit now,” he states.
“As soon as you have audiences that like the work of both artists, and sing their songs, the matter of difference between them is dead and buried.”
Naturally, that goes for the brains and heart behind “From Argov to Argov” too. “It all flows through me and, in the end, it wasn’t difficult to fuse their material,” says Seri. “I honestly love the music of both the Argovs, even though Zohar was a performer and not a writer, and Sasha composed but didn’t sing his songs.
Zohar would take a song, and give it his own interpretation and it would come out as if he wrote it. I know it might sound more dramatic if I said that I had to work really hard to bring their work together, but that’s simply not the case. I think people who come to the show get the seamless fit too.”
In fact, “From Argov to Argov” has been doing the rounds for some time, and has accrued a proven track record. “I didn’t push this show out there too hard,” Seri notes. “I was invited to perform it at the Arad Festival a couple years ago, and now at the Spring Festival. I am happy that people of all origins and musical tastes like the work of both this great artists.”
Seri’s show also features continuity slots in which he talks about the songs and about the artists. And, if Seri notes a large Anglo contingent in the audience, he does that in English, which makes “From Argov to Argov” a listener-friendly experience all round.For tickets and more information about the Spring Festival: (03) 948- 8666 and http://www.springfestival.co.il/
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