Famed Israeli-French Singer Maya Casabianca Dies at 78

The Moroccan-born chanteuse, whose music was also widely popular in the Arab world and the Soviet Union, not only sung duets with the likes of Yves Montand but had performed in Syria

FILE Photo: Maya Casabianca
Yaron Kaminsky

Israeli-French singer Maya Casabianca, who also enjoyed fame in places like Lebanon and Syria, from where she once had to make a daring escape into Israel, died Sunday at 78.

The Moroccan-born chanteuse, whose stardom ebbed once she moved to Israel, was buried at the Kfar Tavor cemetery in the north.

Casabianca had her first success in France, where she performed alongside the likes of Yves Montand and Georges Brassens.

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She also captured the hearts of millions in the Soviet Union. One of her most memorable concerts took place in Moscow at a time when Israel did not have diplomatic relations with the Soviets. In a bold move, she decided to sing “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem.

“The Russians of course didn’t know that I was Israeli; for them I was the French star, and I performed with the Bolshoi,” she told Haaretz in 2001. “Brezhnev, Kosygin and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin were among the audience of 6,000 who came to see me on the final evening, and I, who am very naughty, decided that this was the place to sing ‘Hatikvah’ for them.”

A few days later she was invited to sing to Syria’s political leaders in Damascus – her Jewish identity and love for Israel were still concealed, at the request of her producers. Sure enough, she performed some of her best songs there.

But at a certain point Syrian intelligence discovered her identity and she was forced to flee for her life; she secretly crossed the border into Lebanon, and from there found her way to Israel. Her arrival in Israel forced her to give up a glorious career and huge contracts.

She lived modestly in her later years in Haifa, with only her family, friends and acquaintances enjoying her talents.

Casabianca was born in 1941 in Casablanca as Margalit Azran. Her first record included hits in French including “Romantica” and “The Children of Piraeus.”

Her recording company was determined to make her the next Dalida, the star Egyptian-born vocalist and actress. The company hired her a private tutor and forced her to work for hours on end.

Her 2001 book “He and I” was published in Hebrew and Arabic, the latter by the Culture Ministry’s Arabic culture department. She wrote about her career as a child prodigy and a singer who in the 1960s conquered stages in Paris and performed in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Spain and the Soviet Union. She also recounted her long affair with Egyptian singer Farid al-Atrash, which she kept secret for years.

A huge portrait of Atrash, inscribed “Yours forever,” hangs in Casabianca’s apartment on the edge of Haifa’s German Colony. The apartment is filled with carpets, velvet drapes, elegant furniture, beautiful objects and pictures of her and her love from their glory days.

On the wall are posters announcing her appearances at Olympia Hall in Paris and elsewhere. There are also photos from when she lived with Atrash in his mansion in Hamdoun, Lebanon.

“At the end of the brilliant and glittering concert, with a huge number of fans filling my room, I was handed a huge basket of red roses,” Casabianca writes in her book.

“And a calling card too: ‘From your great admirer Farid al-Atrash.’ The artist, the man I worshipped, became my admirer.”

That helped put Casabianca at the top of the European hit parades. She sold thousands of records in Arab countries, and later continued to perform in various guises, including sing-alongs in a Haifa auditorium.

She also once lived in Paris, but left and returned to Israel partly because her daughter Natalie and her two grandchildren lived there.

Natalie was born in Casablanca; her father was Casabianca’s producer, the director of Radio Monte Carlo and a close friend of Atrash.

As Casabianca put it, “Farid told him, ‘I want to help you develop her talent,’ and the truth is, as soon as he started advising us, every song of mine became an international hit and my name shot to the top.”