Mati Caspi to perform after taking a break in COVID-19

Mati Caspi will perform a small concert in Paris which will be streamed in six other locations around the world.

 MATI CASPI - No qualms about digging into his vast back catalog. (photo credit: TAMAR TAL)
MATI CASPI - No qualms about digging into his vast back catalog.
(photo credit: TAMAR TAL)

Mati Caspi is, without a doubt, one of the stalwarts of the Israeli pop music scene. At the age of 72, he remains a full-fledged pantheon member, and one of the most beloved and admired of our artists for the past four-plus decades.

Sadly, he has been missing from our stages for the past few years, yes, since the pandemic business began. In fact, he has not performed at all since he relocated to Italy, a matter which he will set to rights tomorrow (Tuesday) when he plays in an intimate setting in Paris. The concert, which is an almost entirely solo venture, will be streamed here and at six other locations around the world, including Paris, London, New York and Moscow, at 9 p.m. local time.

For many, Caspi is equal parts genius and enigma. Since he first began writing and performing music professionally, nigh on half a century ago now, he has maintained the highest quality levels across a broad range of styles and genres.

Consider, if you will, his scintillating eponymous debut album which came out in 1974 which included such enduring crowd favorites as “When God First Said” and “How Come A Star.” Both were fueled by lyrics by poet Natan Zach and, in fact, Caspi has made a habit of underscoring his music with texts by renowned poets and other people of letters.

The creative beat just went on and on. His next record, intriguingly also called Mati Caspi, with its now-iconic door buzzer photo cover, came out a couple of years later. But, contrary to his first effort on which he played all the instruments, this time Caspi enlisted the help of some like-minded pals, including singer-songwriters Shlomo Yidov, Avner Kenner and vocalist Gidi Gov. 

The sophomore album also featured a slew of class popular numbers, such as “Hinneh Hinneh” (“Here Here”) and “Brit Olam” (“Everlasting Alliance”). Both, like most of the tracks, used lyrics penned by Ehud Manor with whom Caspi formed a highly successful symbiotic relationship that lasted until Manor’s untimely death in 2005.

Dr. Gali Manor with her father Ehud Manor. (credit: Courtesy)Dr. Gali Manor with her father Ehud Manor. (credit: Courtesy)

HOWEVER, DESPITE his continuing success and popularity, and far from being interview shy, Caspi remains very much an unknown. There is an oxymoronic streak that runs through his persona and personality. He says he loves performing and entertaining his audience, yet his facial expression is largely deadpan on stage, and he is hardly in the Fred Astaire hoofer league. 

That said, he still manages to convey bucketloads of emotion with polished vocals that span an impressive range of octaves, liberally seasoned with heartfelt vibrato. His renditions of, for example, the aforementioned “Brit Olam” are always mightily emotive affairs.

That is a fascinating aspect of Caspi’s professional arsenal right across his expansive reach of styles, genres and ethnic seasoning. That also carries over into his comedic fare, most markedly in his riotous Songs In A Tomato Juice record from 1990.

His interest in the sounds and colors of myriad offshore cultures began long ago, when he was a tiny tot living on Kibbutz Hanita on the Lebanese border. “From the age of around three, every Shabbat, I listened to a radio program called Mishirei Amim (Folk Songs),” Caspi says. “I heard songs from all over the world. That is what shaped my musical personality.”

That has filtered through in all kinds of cross-cultural endeavors that Caspi has crafted over the years, more recently in a bouncy little number called “Im Nirkod” (“If We Dance”), which feeds off a jolly gypsy air from Bulgaria. But, when it comes to embracing and fusing the sounds and sensibilities from the big wide world with his musical genes, Caspi is probably best known for his Latin-oriented work, particularly his Eretz Tropit Yaffa (“Beautiful Tropical Country”). 

This project of the late 1970s got a host of other artists – such The Parvarim duo and vocalists Yehuditz Ravitz and Corinne Alal – onboard the Brazilian train, and had many an Israeli doing the samba.

The infant’s musical belly fires were further stoked by a certain Shmuel Gogol, a harmonica player who made regular visits to the kibbutz and performed at the convalescent home there. The youngster was taken with Gogol’s wizardry and, in particular, a diminutive harmonica which, Caspi later related, “was so small Gogol could just insert it into his mouth and play it without hands.”

After each show, the kid would hang around and observe Gogol, a Holocaust survivor, pack his equipment away. On one occasion Gogol noticed the seven-year-old and asked him if he wanted the tiny instrument. When Caspi nodded Gogol said he could have it when he started learning to play the piano.

That was easier said than done in the days when kibbutzim were run on social cooperative lines, and almost every financial outlay had to be sanctioned by a majority vote of the members’ general assembly. It took a while but approval was granted. A couple more years elapsed before a piano was actually procured and Caspi began his musical journey in earnest. Gogol was as good as his word and, after his very first piano lesson, Caspi duly received the hands-free harmonica.

THE YOUNGSTER made musical strides and when he joined the IDF he found his way to an entertainment troupe, in a comedic musical role. Once again, the diametric contrast with his demeanor is striking, much in the vein of the classic circus clown who maintains a wistful facial expression while he goes through a routine of farcical antics. The end result is pure hilarity.

Once again, Caspi received a push in the desired direction from an established professional. This time it was preeminent pop singer Arik Einstein who served as the facilitator. “I was nearing the end of my army service when, one day, I received a phone call from Arik Einstein,” he recalls. “I was so stunned that I stood to attention,” he adds in his characteristic deadpan way. 

Einstein said he’d gotten wind of a Caspi song “Aluf Mishneh Bemiluim” (“Colonel on Reserve Duty”) – which ended up on Caspi’s debut album – and asked the youngster if he could pop over to the Einstein residence to perform it. 

“I got there as I put the receiver down,” Caspi quips and, after singing the number, Einstein told him he sang the song better than he could. That was a gargantuan pat on the back for the novice performer and firmly set him on his way.

The checks-and-balances element was also a central factor in Caspi’s singular synergy with pianist-vocalist Shlomo Gronich, which spawned the uniquely variegated Behind the Sounds album in 1984. How on earth could that work, I asked Caspi when I Zoomed him to his temporary domicile in Copenhagen, where he is currently researching music of various ethnicities. 

“It’s simple,” he fires back. “Shlomo is crazy and I’m not.” That character divide produced fruitful artistic reciprocity that delivered a landmark album, naturally replete, with comic content, and which was not fully appreciated at the time. 

Interestingly, Caspi has no qualms about digging into his vast back catalog for his stage work, although he says he never compromises on his artistic integrity. “I always try to sing songs as if it were the first time. If I feel I can’t muster the requisite emotion and perform a song properly, I put it to one side until I feel I can do it justice again.”

To that end, his Paris streaming show will feature plenty of his vintage material, with some new numbers thrown in for good measure. 

When it comes to songwriting, he says he always waits for inspiration to strike, after which the music just pours out of him. The muses have an invitation to Paris tomorrow.