Enrico Macias was born Gaston Ghrenassia in 1938 to an Algerian Jewish family in Constantine, Algeria. His father, Sylvain, was a violinist in an orchestra that played mainly Arab-Andalusian music, or maalouf, led by Cheikh Raymond Leyris, a master of Judao-Arab-Andalusian music. Gaston had played the guitar from childhood and, despite qualifying and working as a schoolteacher, also joined the orchestra, and, on July 29, 1961, married Suzy, Cheikh Raymond’s daughter.
The Algerian War of Independence was raging, and Macias, deeply affected by the assassination of his father-in-law by (as was assumed) the FLN (National Liberation Front), went into exile in France with his wife, eleven months before the war finally ended in 1962. He has never been allowed back.
Upon arrival, he settled first in Argentueil, then Paris itself, eking out a living by playing in cafes and bars and attempting to translate the maalouf numbers he knew into French whilst building an entirely new French/ Arab repertoire.
Fortune struck, however, when he met Pathe executive Raymond Bernard in the Drap d’Or and, in 1962, cut his first disc: Adieu Mon Pays, a song he had composed on the boat. Such was its success that he was invited to appear on a special edition of Cinq Colonnes a la Une, an iconic television programme of its day, devoted to Algerian ex-patriates. He changed his name to Enrico Macias (a combination of a childhood nickname and the mispronunciation of his surname by Pathe’s receptionist) and his career took off.
At the height of ‘ye-ye’, the rock-influenced French pop of the time, his special brand of subtle harmony, woven in musical arabesques around his voice, caught on, and he soon began to aquire a reputation as “le Pied-Noir de la chanson” (‘the Pied-Noir of song’), ‘Pied-Noir’ being the nickname given, for reasons that no-one seems to quite agree on, to people of French and European origin whose ancestors had emigrated to the French North African ‘protectorates’ of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. In this, he is in good company: actor Daniel Autueil (Jean de Florette), Albert Camus, Marcel Cerdan (Edith Piaf’s most famous lover) and Yves Saint-Laurent were, or are, all Pieds-Noirs.
Carving a niche between ‘ye-ye’ and traditional French chanson, Macias became ‘la porte-parole d’un peuple deracine’ (‘the mouth-piece of an uprooted people’), and cultivated a style drenched in what one famous French history of chanson* calls ‘l’amour, le soleil, l’amitie et la joie de vivre’ (‘love, sun, friendship and joie de vivre’) – which despite being a far cry from some of the darker reaches of the genre, obviously ‘cut it’ with audiences; triggering as it did strings of hits, and international tours to places like Israel, Greece, Turkey and Moscow, where he performed to an audience of 120,000.
In 1968 he performed to a sell-out audience at Carnegie Hall, going on to tour America and become one of the few French artists to conquer the United States, which propelled him to international fame.
A tireless campaigner for Arab/Israeli peace, in 1978 Macias was invited to sing before President Sadat at the Pyramids. Although banned from Arab countries for many years, he is popular with ethnic audiences in the Middle East and North Africa, and, after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 , performed Un Berger Vient de Tomber (A Shepherd Has Fallen).
He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1988, and, in 1997, named by Kofi Annan UN Roving Ambassador for Peace and the Defence of Children. Upon being refused entry to Algeria for a series of concerts in 2003, and again in 2007, on account of his support for Israel, he wrote a book, Mon Algerie, dscribed as a “veritable love story between one man and his homeland”, and has never been allowed back since. In 2003 his son, Jean-Claude Ghrenassia, produced his concert at major Paris auditorium Le Zenith, and also an album, Oranges Ameres (‘Bitter Oranges’).
Copyright July 2015 Pat Harvey
* Cent Ans de Chanson Francaise Brunschwig/Calvet/Klein Editions du Seuil, 1972
DANIEL PAGEON researched, wrote and presented programmes on the French Chanson for the BBC for over 15 years. He is now writing a book on that subject.
I remember Enrico Macias vividly from his first appearances on French television in the early Sixties. His Chansons were full of nostalgia for the lost country. He left Algeria in 1961, less than a year before the war of independence finished when a settlement was agreed at Evian in 1962. Enrico was a big hit with the “Pieds-noirs” (They were the descendants of the first white settlers who were nicknamed “black feet” as they were wearing black shoes.) who had been repatriated to mainland France or had fled back to safety during the long years of the war of liberation. His appeal grew larger in France and I certainly was impressed by his numerous attempts at reconciliation in his Chansons. His fame shot up as he toured the world, including Egypt, the Middle-East and Israel. Part of his Algerians past, he was in favour of French Algeria, and his support for Israel meant that he has not been able to go back to what he calls “mon pays”. He has reiterated his support for Israel, but he also insists that the Palestinians should have their own independent country. His work in favour of peace and brotherhood and for the defence of children was recognised on two occasions by the United Nations, in 1980 he was awarded the title of Peace Singer and he was made a Messenger of Peace by Kofi Annan in 1997 to promote peace and the defence of children. Enrico Macias still tours the World with the same message, and still hopes he will be able to go back to Algeria. He feels that it is not only a personal matter but that Algeria should open its doors to all its Algerian children, the Pieds-noirs, the Jews, the Harkis and their descendants. (The Harkis were the Muslims who sided with France and had to escape to avoid death.)