Streetwise: A noteworthy name

Israel Prize-winner Sasha Argov's songs have become an integral part of the Israeli cultural lexicon.

Rehov Sasha Argov 88 248 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Sasha Argov 88 248
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Sasha Argov, Tel Aviv "You can hear a Sasha Argov song at 50 paces. It has a special beat, a special smooth flow... a unique blend of the Middle East and European sounds," writes Ari Davidow in an article on great Jewish music that surfaced on Google. Yet Argov, the man who wrote more than a thousand songs in his career, including many now considered classics, spent much of his working life as a bank clerk to support his family. The street which bears his name is in a quiet residential area of Tel Aviv, not far from the Kfar Yarok junction. It has some prestigious high-rise buildings and a super luxurious retirement home. It is named in honor of a man considered by many to be the country's greatest popular composer with songs like "Re'ut" - said to be one of Yitzhak Rabin's favorite songs - and "Vidui," set to the words of poet Alexander Penn and considered a great singing challenge for any diva worth her salt. Sasha Argov was born Alexander Abromovich in Moscow in 1914. A musical prodigy, he was already playing piano and composing at the age of four, much to the delight of his pianist mother. By six he was studying music seriously. In 1934, he left Russia for Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv. He got a job in a bank where he spent his days, while the evenings were devoted to composing songs. ABOUT A year and a half after making aliya, he began a collaboration with playwright Gershon Plotkin and the pair produced musical plays, many written specially for kibbutz and moshav celebrations. He also composed for the Palmah and the IDF troupes, as well as for many plays and movies. During this period he composed more than 200 songs. But he never relied on music to support his growing family, his pianist wife Esther, his son Itamar born in 1950, today a trumpet player, and daughter Tali born in 1955, a teacher of the recorder. After his children were born, he left the bank and until his official retirement worked in the Russian bookstore Boleslavski. As an extremely prolific songwriter, Argov set to music not only biblical texts but lyrics of the most popular writers and poets of the day, Lea Goldberg, Haim Hefer, Natan Alterman, Ayin Hillel, Yoram Taharlev and later Avi Koren and Dan Almagor. He was known to be extremely sensitive to lyrics, both their meaning and their rhythm. When I spoke to Itamar Argov by phone, he told me that his father had an intuitive understanding of the Hebrew words although the language was not his mother tongue. "He took well-known poems and translated exactly the feeling of the words to the music he wrote," he said. THE MUSICIAN Yoni Rechter knew Sasha Argov through meeting him at an evening of his songs for which Rechter did two arrangements. He took time off from his current work, writing a symphonic and choral piece for the Israel Philharmonic based on a David Grossman children's book, to answer my queries about Argov, especially in relation to his musical standing. "I think he was a great composer and an honest and true musician," said Rechter, also by phone. "He was trained as a classical musician although I never heard him play classical music. He brought his personality to the music he wrote, something which is hard to define, but based on the Russian and classical tradition in which he was raised. When you hear his music, you don't need to know the man to know he was gentle, a nice person. His personality always comes across in his music." Several well-known singers are identified with the songs of Argov. In the late 1970s Ora Zitner became his principal interpreter and later Matti Caspi recorded two albums of Argov songs. Caspi often appeared on stage with Argov playing the piano accompaniment. In 1988 Argov was awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew music. He died in 1995 and his obituaries appeared in many foreign as well as local papers. For Itamar and Tali Argov, he was a loving father who cared deeply for his family. For the rest of Israel he was a great musician whose haunting music will always have a part to play in the local cultural scene.