If Jacques Brel or Georges Brassens were the father figures and Barbra was the mother, Charles Aznavour would have been the uncle. At least, that was the case in my own family, since Aznavour, may he live a long life, closely resembled Mattei (Matthew), my Romanian grand-uncle who died before I was born: small, not that good-looking, but cheeky. Due to his nebbish look many people mistook Aznavour for one of our own, a Jew. He only added to the confusion by appearing in several Jewish film roles, as well as passionately singing the Yiddish classic “A Yiddishe Mama.”
He managed to fool my family so well that in the pile of records sitting next to the record player, his 45 rpm records were placed, since the 1960’s, next to those of (the Jewish French singer) Enrico Macias. They were almost new when I later discovered them. His standing in our family diminished when it turned out that he was of Armenian origins.
I must confess that his records stayed virtually unscratched in my hands as well, in comparison to other leading male and female chanson performers. Aznavour remained as he was in the 60’s, right up to the present, including his appearance on Saturday night at the Nokia arena in Tel Aviv. Except for his white hair, he looks exactly the same.
Aznavour was never blessed with impressive showmanship. Early in his career, he pointed out his own shortcomings: his height, his voice, his gestures and his lack of education and culture. Who would have thought that with all these handicaps he would go on to have such a glorious career lasting 70 years, in which he composed roughly 1,000 songs (mainly in French but also in English, German, Spanish and more) and sang with some of the world’s greatest singers, from Edith Piaf to Ahinoam Nini, who sang with him on Saturday.
Now that Uncle Charles remains the last of his generation, he is accorded all due respect. A singer whose voice already sounded old when he was young, he sounds younger than his 89 years would suggest. This doesn’t mean that he’s stayed at his peak performance. Aznavour himself opened his performance by saying that “it’s been a long time since I last performed here but luckily I still have the same rusty voice I had last time I performed in Israel. It doesn’t matter if I miss a note here and there, since many others follow it.” He was light-footed on stage, dancing and even skipping a bit. However, his voice was hard-pressed to dance and skip to the same beat. He ran out of breath during some of his melodies, and even the amplifiers and large band could not quite compensate.
Aznavour always knew, and still does know, how to compose catchy and melodious tunes. He knows how to put words to these melodies, and his songs are always well-rhymed texts. He knows how to perform the small gestures that go together with the songs. In other words, Aznavour writes chansons -- that trinity of words, music and performance. The fourth ingredient was always missing in Aznavour’s songs. It consists of nuances that are harder to define, and he was never good at those.
Aznavour loves stereotypes and love stories that are familiar to everyone. He likes picturesque figures like the dying Italian mother whose sons all sing “Ave Maria” to her (in “La Mama”), the bohemians in Montmartre (in “La Boheme”), or the transvestite in the song “As They Say” (“Comme Ils Disent”). This may be the reason behind his success in transcending French and writing in other languages, and the cause of his great popularity. Sometimes, giving up the nuances works well, as in his song “Yesterday when I was young.”
It seems as if the audience at the Nokia arena did not expect any nuances. In any case, these are more suitable to a concert hall and not a huge sports arena. The main thing on Saturday night was that Aznavour was appearing, at his age and in Israel. Everyone was listening to records of his songs playing in their heads, which they’d heard countless times before, and his performance was merely a background setting to this nostalgic sound track. He sang a few new songs in Tel Aviv, but the audience enthused about the old nostalgic hits written many years ago, like “Hier Encore” (“Yesterday, When I Was Young”).
That’s all forgotten. The main thing is the performance, seeing that he’s still around, that yesterday’s world is still ticking, that the heart is still beating and that we can buy tickets to a performance that was put together well and made of quality material, like a Pierre Cardin shirt.
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