'Don't Mess Around With Me'

On the occasion of the release of her new CD, Margalit Tzanani, the defiant woman who helped make Mizrahi music mainstream - and now stands in judgment on aspiring young singers on 'Kokhav Nolad' - says she has had to pay a lot to get where she is

At 6 P.M. on Saturday evening, Margalit Tzanani answers a phone call. For minutes on end she nods her head, repeatedly says "thank you" and asks a few biographical questions. The caller is a fan from Givatayim, who tells Tzanani about her two sons and how much she identifies with her strong personality and frankness. After hanging up, Tzanani saves the woman's number. Now she is in the middle of an interview, but later she will continue the conversation.

During the photo shoot for this article, Tzanani also speaks at length with a fan with whom she has been in contact for several years. Her interlocutors tell her about their lives, about the place she holds in them, and sometimes, she admits, also offer professional criticism. Although there is no special slot saved in her crowded schedule for these conversations, she takes the necessary breaks. After all, she says, "The nicer the request, the more I am captivated by the caller."

Tzanani - "Margol" to you - is not only a stage animal. She is an audience animal: "I'm a private person, but not so private," the 61-year-old singer explains, adding that these relationships are mutual. "When I ask them later, 'Buy my disc, here's my song, here, look at me' - it would be quite obnoxious if I were to turn them away empty-handed. It's not hard for me, it's very fulfilling. It's what I live and breathe from."

Now the main topic of conversation with her fans is "Davka Hayom" ("Today of All Days"), her new album, which came out a month ago.

Five years ago, a survey was conducted among the target audience for a certain soap powder, which Tzanani had promoted in an advertising campaign. The results clearly reflect her public image: "A wise and reliable figure, charismatic, with a sense of humor, whose advice can be depended upon ... characterized by the natural intelligence and streets smarts of an Israeli woman." The advertising bosses forgot that she also "arouses controversy in precisely the right dosage," as demonstrated by the following monologue, which should be read in an angry and defiant tone.

"I love the difference between 'assertiveness' and 'aggressiveness,'" she says, opening with a linguistic issue. "If I'm from Ramat Hasharon [an upscale Tel Aviv suburb] I'm assertive, and if not, I'm aggressive. I'm a woman but you don't mess around with me. I have power and people are deterred by me, and I enjoy that. Nobody will try to belittle me because I'm a woman. Some people don't like that. What's this belligerence, what's this aggressiveness? What exactly is aggressive here? That I don't let them walk all over me?"

Tzanani serves as a judge on the panel of the ongoing television song contest "Kokhav Nolad" ("A Star Is Born"), on which she recently finished her fourth season. "'Kokhav' made me even more focused. You can't ignore it - it's a huge stage. I know I stand out because of the way I express myself, the way I move, and in general because of who I am. I like that very much, you can see my face light up."

When she speaks about the program, which takes up several months of the year for her, and in particular about Gal Uchovsky, another judge who has become a close friend since they began working together, she glows. She speaks about stomach aches caused by the excitement she shares with the contestants, about her surprise at the transformations they undergo and at the "glamour," as she calls it.

"The children serve as cultural emissaries of the mainstream," she says. "I admit that that's nice. The program is very powerful. It penetrates my life, my home."

Regarding the burning issue of who should be given more power, the audience or the judges, she chooses the former. "The audience is no fool," Tzanani explains, although she personally did not vote for the contestant who won last season, Roni Dalumi. "The audience loves things that are pristine, youthful, things that are not second hand or half-baked."

She agrees with the diagnosis that the audience does not choose the best contestant, but is more interested in feeling totally responsible for crowning stars. In the case of Dalumi, she acknowledges: "It crowned a lovely girl."

Tzanani is not necessarily bothered by the instant stardom that comes with success on the show. "I'm not sure that my path was more difficult. It's slower, involves more breaks. There's something to the criticism about the haste of 'Kokhav Nolad,' but it's possible that the winner will start again from zero."

Even before I have a chance to ask, the singer already answers, almost bursts out: "I had a hard time. You want the truth? I've 'been on the map' for years. At first I was not embraced by the establishment at all - I was even unwanted! I'm not a mainstream singer, incidentally, although now I'm part of it. Even now I'm a type of avant-garde."

Megadeth and Metallica

Before the echoes of this speech have died down, Tzanani erupts into the next, which is supposed to prove that she has avant-garde tastes: "What can I tell you? Even when my son listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Megadeth, Metallica - I was embarrassed to tell him that my heart goes out to these things. Gal [Uchovsky] laughs at me and says there have been some other bands since they were in vogue, but I want to freeze time, because that's where the good music is. Really! And since then, it just hasn't been the same!"

Recently she has also learned to like pop, largely thanks to her son Assaf, 30, who during adolescence liked hard rock, whereas in recent years he has written songs for his mother, including the Mediterranean-style pop hit "Az Ma" ("So What").

Tzanani: "Just as I taught others to listen to good Mizrahi music [of North African and Middle Eastern Jews] and nice Mediterranean music, I learned on my own to listen to excellent and well-sung pop. I don't have to be politically correct - that's still not my 'main course.' I don't consider myself arrogant or anything, but from early childhood I've been turning on the radio. I would listen to Ella Fitzgerald and lay on the floor! On the floor! I remember I heard her sing 'Blue Moon'" - Tzanani starts to sing - "Wow, did I tremble."

She also likes Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, and especially admires the latter for the fact that she is completely grotesque, with her extravagant hats and turbans and huge breasts (which Tzanani describes in pantomime), but is apparently unconcerned with her appearance. Whitney Houston ("She sings from her fingernails") and Beyonce ("She sings from her amazing backside"; "She's so good it's satanic, a she-devil") also excite her.

At the age of 19, after the Israel Defense Forces waived need of her services, Tzanani began her career in the musical "Hair," in which she acted alongside Tzvika Pik ("He was a very great star - huge") and Tzedi Tzarfati ("who crowed with me there on the stage"), both of whom now sit beside her on the judges' panel of "Kokhav Nolad."

For her audition for "Hair," Tzanani waited in a line that was two blocks long, with long-haired Israeli hippies in ragged clothes: "And here I am, a Yemenite girl from Netanya, with a mane of hair covering my back, small, thin, gaunt. I figured I might as well do my best." At the audition she sang the song based on the poem "Rak al Atzmi Lesaper Yadati" ("I Knew Only How to Tell About Myself") by the poet Rachel (Bluwstein), which was performed in its most famous version by Chava Alberstein and Danny Granot in the late 1960s.

After each performance, she would return home to her Orthodox family in Netanya. She is the eldest of seven siblings, the daughter of Lola, a housewife, and Shalom, a diamond industry worker, who had a great influence on her. Her father, a member of the Labor movement, also admired right-wing leader Menachem Begin. Alongside the sacred texts in his home were also volumes by Zionist thinkers Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Berl Katznelson, from two ends of the political spectrum.

Tzanani, who declares that she has been a "social democrat" since birth, notes that even as a child she was driven by a "very urgent" sense of justice.

"I used to conduct field trials. I would interfere, stick my nose in. It hurts me when someone is harassed," she explains. "I was a type of class queen - not because of my beauty, but because of my leadership ability and my star quality. In other words, because I stood out."

She says that all her girlfriends would come to her house. "I'm the center of things. Even in a home with many children. The Ashkenazi girls [of European origin] would come and eat at my table. In my house they learned about [Yemenite foods] like jahnun, hilbe, ftut and - write this down! - malawah, kubaneh and spicy zhug ..."

She in turn fell in love with gefilte fish and clear broth with noodles. When she revealed this to her father, he said quietly: "It's tasty, isn't it? But don't tell Mom." She laughs: "That's how I understood that I was my father's daughter."

Four years later, as the local entertainment industry faced a crisis after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Tzanani joined a band that played at weddings, and later the Shokolada and Knufia bands with singer Yizhar Cohen. Her most pressing task, she says, was to become financially secure, which is the reason she chose to sing at private events and family celebrations, although it was considered less glamorous than the entertainment industry.

Flea-market stint

When there was no wedding work either, she worked at a stall in the Jaffa flea market and as a salesgirl at the Mashbir Lazarchan department store. Only after an entire decade of appearances at private affairs did Tzanani record "Na'ari, Shuva Elai" ("My Boy, Come Back to Me"), with words and music by Danny Shushan, which became the title song of her first cassette.

When the recording came out in 1985, Tzanani was already 32 years old, divorced from Mordy Lavie ("My mother's jahnun healed all the pain after the divorce") and was taking care of Assaf, who was 6 at the time.

"I never had a shoulder to lean on," Tzanani said six years ago. "I have a fantasy that my man phones me and says to me: Margol, don't worry, I've got the electricity bills and I'll pay. But I didn't experience even that. It's a combination of fate and my nature, for good and for ill. I'm a frightening woman. Men feel nervous and threatened next to me, and romance flees from such places. Because I'm a rational woman with a sense of humor I survive, otherwise I would be as melancholy as a cucumber in the refrigerator."

And then she appeared on the weekend variety TV show "Siba Lemesiba" ("Reason to Party") with Rivka Michaeli, to whom she is grateful to this day. "Ten minutes on television did for me what 15 years on stage couldn't do," Tzanani once told an interviewer.

The breakthrough was inevitable: Margol became the "queen of cassettes" - i.e., of Mizrahi music recorded on cheap tapes.

"Shortly before his death, Zohar Argov took me to the Central Bus Station [in Tel Aviv]," she recalls excitedly. "My Assafi was only a little boy. He said to me, Margol! Entire stalls of you alone! Look what you've done to me! Look what you've done! And on all the loudspeakers [the words of my song] 'Avak derakhim be'taltalav ... [The dust of the road is in his curls]. Should I complain about that? I was proud. That was a formative moment in my life."

She recalls that her home phone number appeared on that cassette, and that initially she even arranged her own performances. Shortly afterward, she began to work with impresario Asher Reuveni - a relationship that continued until they parted in 1994. From then, and until about two years ago, she again represented herself, until she began to work with Assaf Atedgi as her personal manager. Atedgi also writes some of her songs, including the first single from her new album, "Etz Yarok Miplastik" ("A Green Tree Made of Plastic"), and has also composed for singers Amir Benayoun and Gidi Gov.

In 1989, Tzanani met Jaroslav Jakubovic and Rachel Shapira. The three of them are responsible for her two most outstanding albums: "Re'ah Menta" ("The Fragrance of Mint," 1989) and "Homot Heimar" ("Walls of Clay," 1990). Shapira wrote the lyrics, while Jakubovic set several of the songs to music, and adapted and produced them. With Tzanani's voice, they created the songs without which she "can't end a performance," such as "Od Yiheyeh Li" ("I'll Have It Yet").

"I asked Rachel Shapira to write me gospel," recalls Tzanani. "And she wrote: 'I'll have it yet, I'll have what my heart tells me.' It's a little high and a little low," she says, before continuing with the song, "'Why not, tell me why not?' It has a rather deceptive loop in it.

"The combination of the three of us seems surprising, but it really wasn't in the end," she says in hindsight. "Jaroslav is now living in the United States and I didn't even manage to meet with him when he was here recently. I want to do something with him at the [Tel Aviv] jazz festival. I must. Atedgi!" she shouts to her manager. "The jazz festival - I absolutely have to [be there]."

'Give me the strength'

During the early days of TV Channel 2, Tzanani hosted two seasons of "Margol," a talk show that was systematically panned by the critics. She didn't get upset, invited critic Meir Schnitzer to her studio, and was even quoted as saying, "I wanted to introduce a new, Mizrahi, feminine dimension - our way of speaking. All kinds of people with round glasses were amazed at me."

After "Margol," she also moderated "In Margol's Kitchen," on the Briza satellite channel, and participated in "Pick Up," "Hashir Shelanu" ("Our Song") and other programs. When she was interviewed, she always described herself in the same way: a girl from a good home, with good Hebrew seasoned with Arabic, Turkish and English that balance out the dryness of the mother tongue; a woman who achieved everything she has on her own; a cleanliness and control freak who lives in an attractive private home in Azur with her only son, and regrets that she didn't have more children, so he would have siblings; a woman who makes statements like "God, give me the strength to shut my mouth," "My mouth is full of swords," or "My independence is not erotically attractive."

Tzanani is aware of every fiber of her image, and repeatedly proves that it is correct: a strong woman who chiseled her way in stone just as she chiseled her public image. For her own purposes only, of course.

After her son produced an entire album for her, and had a hand in two songs in the present one, she admits, "Working with a family member is difficult. There are places where the fight develops immediately. There are things that a boy can say to his mother that he can't say to anyone else. He can say to me, 'Mom, what happened to you, what's that disgusting singing?' He can tell me in the studio what he tells me here in the kitchen. Poisonous things. We're very open with one another. He tells me things that Jaroslav would never say.

"And my child is annoying. It's not easy. We bring it home. He lives downstairs here in his apartment and it's not easy. That's why we don't work together intensively. He gave me two songs and doesn't want to do any more, and says: 'Mom, it's sticky. I don't want to be your writer and don't want to be in your entourage. I don't want to write for my mother!' Yes, being my son is very difficult, in spite of the benefits. I'm an oppressive mother. Do you know what emotional strength I need in order not to call him to check what's going on? I need healing for my soul. I want to fall asleep. He doesn't understand that and I understand that he doesn't understand."

There are things that don't change, even after 30 years. Tzanani, for her part, has continued all these years, in spite of the difficulties and the loneliness, to produce rhetorical "pearls" (indeed, "margalit" means pearl in Hebrew), such as this one, released into the world on the photo shoot for this interview: "That's how it is with big talkers. The greatest talent is to talk and talk without saying anything."