Forty years of boosting morale

The UN "Singer of Peace" will be honored by the Defense Ministry at his concerts next week in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
To call Enrico Macias a visitor to Israel would be something of a misnomer. Since his first shows here, back in 1965, the Jewish crooner born in Algeria has returned literally dozens of times, both as a paid performer and as a morale-boosting act for Israeli soldiers engaged in each of the wars since that year. It is not at all surprising, then, that the 67-year-old Macias feels close to this country. "It wouldn't be true to say I feel I am almost an Israeli. I feel entirely Israeli," he says, briefly breaking into Hebrew. On his upcoming visit, Macias won't be going anywhere near Israeli military installations. He'll instead be giving two concerts at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium on January 23 and 24. There will be some military presence at the shows, however, as Macias is presented a special commendation by the Defense Ministry for his efforts to maintain soldiers' spirits on the battlefield. Macias was born in Constantine, Algeria, and took up the guitar as a young child. His father was a violinist in the orchestra of Cheikh Raymond Leyris, the celebrated Jewish master of the Maalouf strain of Arab-Andalusian music unique to the environs of Constantine. Macias - then known as Gaston Ghrenassia - showed artistic promise from an early age, and by the time he was 15 he was a regular member of Leyris' ensemble. It seemed only a matter of time before Macias took the helm, but his music didn't initially provide Macias with a steady income and, at the age of 18 he began teaching primary school while continuing to hone his guitar skills in his free time. Five years later, inter-sectarian violence broke out as Algerians struggled to shake of the shackles of French colonialism. With the murder of Leyris, a symbol of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Algeria, Macias realized it was time to get out. Soon after moving to France, he married Leyris' daughter and eked out a living as a musician, establishing himself as a troubadour in the cafes and bars of Paris. Success came quickly to Macias, and his first recorded composition "Adieu Mon Pays" (Farewell My Country) became a hit. In 1963, he appeared on a TV show and played at Paris' famous Olympia auditorium. Beatlemania had hit Europe by then, but Macias maintained his high profile and survived the British pop invasion. Over the past 40 years, Macias has sold millions of records and performed all over the world, including an historic concert in Moscow's Red Square attended by an audience of 120,000. His music incorporates all the cultural influences in his life, from French chanson-style ballads to works seasoned with Arabic and Jewish flavors. "These are the kinds of music I live with, and they represent my roots," says Macias. "I am very connected to my Jewish roots. I have often wondered why Cheikh Raymond was killed, and the only answer I came up with was that it was because he was a Jew. I want to keep the spirit he had alive." He's keeping Cheikh Raymond's cross-cultural spirit alive through peace efforts recognized in 1981 by then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who he awarded Macias the title "Singer of Peace." Three years earlier, Macias had received a singular honor when he was invited by Anwar Sadat to perform in Egypt. "That was one of the most moving experiences of my life," Macias recalls. "Here I was, the son of a Jewish family from Algeria, who had been banned from playing in Arab countries for many years, singing to 20,000 people at the foot of the pyramids." The current UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has also reached out to Macias. "When Mr. Annan asked me to be an ambassador of peace for the UN, I told him I will be very happy to do that but he should know that my heart beats first for Israel," says Macias. "All the Jewish people and Israelis are survivors. We give an example of non-violence to the world. I hope I convey that through my music."