Enrico Macias, whose real name is Gaston Ghrenassia, was born on December 11 1938 in Constantine, Algeria, into a Jewish family. He had a normal schooling, but also enjoyed music, particularly the guitar. His father was a violinist in the orchestra of Cheick Raymond Leyris, the great master of Maalouf, the Arab-Andalucian music unique to Constantine. At 15, young Gaston was already a member of this prestigious orchestra, and soon became the heir-apparent to Cheick Raymond.
In 1956, he passed his school-leaving certificate and applied for a post as a supervisor in a school. Music did not seem to him to offer many prospects. Because schools were crying out for teachers, he was hired as a primary schoolmaster. He still continued, however, to play the guitar.
But French Algeria was living its last hours, at a time when Catholics, Jews and Muslims cohabited on the same territory. The nationalist movement, the Front National de Libération (FLN), was fighting for independence for this country which had been a French colony since the nineteenth century. War meant guerrilla warfare, murders and assassinations. On June 22 1961, Cheick Raymond was killed in Constantine. Young Gaston realised that exile was the only solution, and that he had reached the end of an epoch.
IN 1961, he embarked on the "Ville d'Alger" for a new life in France, along with his wife Suzy, who was also the daughter of Cheick Raymond. To leave Algeria was a heart-breaking experience for all these people who had managed to build up a life in Africa, even though their true roots were in Europe. Gaston felt the same. On arriving in Paris, he decided to take up a musical career. As a child prodigy of Maalouf music, he had to adapt to French tastes. He attempted to translate parts of the ethnic Maalouf music into French, but was not satisfied with the results. So he built up a personal repertoire based on his own experiences.
He needed to survive, and so he took on several jobs and kept up with the guitar, singing on café terraces, and trying for jobs in cabarets. He was hired by the Drap d'Or in 1962. His first record was the result of a chance meeting with Raymond Bernard of Pathé, who had him record "Adieu mon Pays", which he had composed on the boat taking him into exile. The words went "J'ai quitté mon pays, j'ai quitté ma maison, j'ai quitté ma famille…" (I've left my country, my house, my family and friends). In October that year, he appeared on a television programme, Cinq colonnes à la une, reporting on the French citizens repatriated from Algeria, or "Pieds noirs" ("black feet" - because they wore black shoes) as they became known. This was the start of his fame.
In 1963 he began singing in public and made his first tour as the second act with Paola and Billy Bridge. He ended up starring with songs such as "Enfants de tous pays" or "l'île du Rhône". His daughter, Jocya, was also born that year.
The mouthpiece of the Pieds Noirs
Running against the tide of Beatlemania, Gaston, now called Enrico Macias, was a huge success. 1964 saw the start of a great French and international career. He performed in the first half of the Compagnons de la Chanson show at the Olympia in spring, and then went on tour in France, as well as in Lebanon, Greece and Turkey, where he sang songs which later became hits: "Paris, tu m'as pris dans tes bras" or "les Filles de mon pays".
Although his original fans were the Pieds Noirs who recognised themselves in Macias' songs and saw him as a representative of their community, he also appealed to the general public, and his songs were hummed by everyone. In 1965 he was awarded the Prix Vincent Scotto and composed "les Gens du Nord" and "Non je n'ai pas oublié". The following year, he sang before 120,000 people at the Dinamo Stadium in Moscow, and in 40 other Soviet towns. He also went to Japan, where he was impressively successful. He recorded records in Spanish and Italian. It seemed that nothing could stop him.
The years that followed were an ongoing whirlwind of records and tours, each with its particular novelties and joys. In 1968 he was a huge success at Carnegie Hall, New York, following up with concerts in Canada. He brought out a record called "Noël à Jérusalem". The following year saw a tour in the United States, covering Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles etc. In 1971, he returned to the Olympia in Paris, then went to the Albert Hall in London, and to Japan, Canada, Italy and Spain. He returned to the US for several dates and again appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1972. Two years later, he gave ten shows at the Uris Theater in Broadway, and also at the Olympia for the sixth time since his début.
Sadate and the pyramids
He was awarded a golden disc for his album "Melisa", containing the beautiful song "Malheur à celui qui blesse un enfant". In addition to a series at the Olympia, he made a big tour in Japan, Israel and France, which he repeated two years later in 1978, when he was also invited to Egypt by President Anouar El Sadate. Thus it was that Enrico Macias, the son of a Jewish family from Algeria, who had been banned from Arab countries for many years, sang before 20,000 people at the foot of the pyramids. His message was that of peace, with songs like "Aimez-vous les uns les autres".
The then Secretary General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, awarded the singer the title of "Singer of Peace" in November 1981, after the singer had donated his royalties on "Malheur à celui qui blesse un enfant" to Unicef. This international recognition made the signer's success a personal one too. But he did not stop there and continued to sing wherever and whenever he could, at the Olympia of course in March 1981, and also in Israel and the United States where he was always welcomed with open arms. He brought out two more titles on the Trema label, his new recording company: "Juif espagnol" and "le Mendiant de l'amour".
Although he preached love and peace, Enrico Macias was obliged to recognise that daily events in the world did not follow his precepts. Anouar El Sadate was assassinated on October 6 1981, and the singer composed "Un berger vient de tomber" in honour of the fallen president, a song which the public clamoured for. In September 1982, after another tour of the United States, he performed for a month at the Olympia with his father Sylvain's oriental orchestra.
In between bringing out albums ("Deux ailes et trois plumes" in 83, "Générosité" in 84), singles ("L'enfant de l'amour" in 83, "Je n'ai pas vu mes enfants grandir" in 85) the official song for the French football team for the Mexico World Cup in 1986, "Vivas les Bleus" and tours throughout the world, Enrico Macias was awarded the Légion d'honneur, by French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius in March 85.
It was in Israel and Turkey that his new single, "Zingarella" was a huge success in 1988. That year he gave galas in these countries but also in Korea. Then he returned to the studios and brought out "Le vent du sud" a few months later, followed by the usual Olympia series (October 19 to November 5 1989). After a tour in Japan and Turkey, he brought out a new album "Enrico" in 1991, on which there was a duet with Ginni Gallan: "Un amour, une amie".
In April 1992 he tried acting with a play adapted from English called "Quelle nuit". For the next three years, apart from one album dedicated to his wife Suzy, he sang virtually everywhere in the world, from the United States (93) to Brazil (94) or Japan.
Although Macias is universally recognised as one of the pioneers of mixed music, this did not stop him from singing a homage to Johnny Hallyday, the home-grown French rock star, to a reggae (!) tune written by the inevitable Didier Barbelivien: "Et Johnny chante l'amour". Then it was back to the Olympia series from November 2 to 19, 1995, after a break of six years.
His attachment to universal values such as peace and solidarity between peoples brought him a prestigious nomination in 1997, that of "Ambassador at large for peace and protection of children" by Kofi Annan, the UN General Secretary.
Return to childhood inspirations
The end of the nineties is witnessing the growing success of music from widely varying horizons. World music has attained respectability and the public is avid for new discoveries in this area. Thus, Enrico Macias had no hesitation in playing a concert in homage to Cheick Raymond, his early master, at the Festival of the Printemps de Bourges in April 1999. He has become determined to bring this Jewish-Arab culture back to life through its music, for it was this that forged a bridge between Jews and Muslims in the past.
Despite such a prestigious career, it must be said that Enrico still, for French people, represents the culture of the Pieds Noirs, one that is slowly disappearing as the men and women who were born as French people in Algeria gradually die. This cumbersome image is no doubt what prevents Macias from appealing to a younger public, and at the same time his repertoire has hardly changed. The homage to Cheick Raymond will perhaps enable him to explore a new artistic vein which will give him new inspiration.
In March 2000 Macias announced his desire to return to his homeland and play a series of concerts for Algerian fans. However, given the volatile political situation in Algeria, his bold project soon whipped up a storm of controversy. The Jewish singer declared his tour was motivated by a profound desire for peace and many saw the Algerian president's support as a sign of the country opening up after many long years of repression. Much to the disappointment of Macias's Algerian fans, however, the tour dates were finally postponed for security reasons, but the singer remains firmly committed to the idea of returning to perform in his homeland one day.
Meanwhile, this turbulent episode in Macias's career motivated the singer to team up with Florence Assouline and write a book about his experiences. "Mon Algérie", published by French editors Plon in October 2001, was marketed as a "veritable love story between one man and his homeland".
In the beginning of 2003, Enrico Macias released "Oranges Amères", his latest album produced by his son Jean-Claude Ghrenassia. Featuring the singer’s come-back to the eastern sounds of his early career, the album also proposed lyrics conveying a pacific message. Also entitled "Oranges Amères" and penned by Marc Estève and Art Mengo, the first track set the subtle mix between tradition and modernity that ran throughout the rest of the album.
For the first time in six years, Enrico Macias embarked upon an enthusiastic tour around France to present his new songs to his faithful public. Starting with the Olympia from March 1st to March 9th, he also took part in many summer festivals including the Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix in July.
Along with many other public personalities, he participated in the Women’s March "Ni putes, ni soumises" (Neither a whore, nor a submissive housewife) in order to demonstrate against the rise of sexism and poverty within the French inner cities.
As sales of the album "Oranges amères" topped the 100,000 mark, Enrico kicked off a major autumn tour which included a date at the Zénith in Paris on 15 November. Around this same period Enrico also released a double live album entitled "Live à l'Olympia 2003," which featured a selection of recent hits and old favourites.
Enrico kept up his hectic live schedule, performing an impressive number of concerts in successive months. Meanwhile, his acting skills were also in demand when he found himself offered the lead role in the French TV film "Monsieur Molina." The film, in which Enrico played a local judge, was made in November and December 2005 and broadcast in April 2006, just a few days before the release of his new album.
Enrico’s new album, "La Vie populaire" tapped into much the same vein as his last ("Oranges amères"), being greatly influenced by the Arab-Andalucian music he had grown up listening to as a youth. "La Vie populaire", produced by Enrico’s son, Jean-Claude Ghrenassia, featured contributions from a number of well-known songwriters (Jean-Pierre Sluys, Marc Estève, Jean-Loup Dabadie, Kent and Frank Monnet) and composers (Benjamin Seilles, Theophilo Chantre, Art Mengo and Thierry Stremler). "Serrements de coeurs" was chosen as the first single release.
In reviving traditional Arab-Andalucian sounds and making them accessible to younger audiences, Enrico has played an important role in handing down part of his personal history – as well as the history of the Jewish community in North Africa – to the next generation.