The Jewish Singer Who Made Arabic Music Popular in France

Maya Casabianca, the global 'goddess of song,' passed away last week at age 78. Why didn’t Israelis feel a deep connection with the Levantine singer with the deep and powerful voice?

Eness Elias
Eness Elias
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File photo: Moroccan-Jewish singer Maya Casabianca, September 2001.
File photo: Moroccan-Jewish singer Maya Casabianca, September 2001.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

Internationally famous chanteuse Margalit Azran, better known as Maya Casabianca, passed away last week at age 78, after living during the last decades of her life in a small house in Haifa. Her only daughter, Natalie Yishai, put a temporary sign on her mother’s grave bearing her well-known stage name, and decided to issue a statement about her death to the media.

Yigal Bashan passed away not long ago, and then there was Amos Oz,” says Yishai. “And I thought – Maya Casabianca will pass away and no one will remember her. No one will know or say anything about it.”

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But Yishai’s announcement did make a difference, at least a small one. Because of it, many people, like me, decided to look up this person – to understand just who this famous singer was, the one who hobnobbed with the rich and famous in France and had a secret, years-long affair with Farid al-Atrash, one of the great Arabic singers of all time. Why has she been forgotten in Israel?

In the 1960s, Casabianca was a huge star who performed on the world’s biggest stages – at L’Olympia in Paris; in front of Soviet leaders at the Bolshoi in Moscow; with Syrian rulers in the audience in Damascus; before the shah in Iran. She lived in Paris and hung out with the likes of Georges Brassens, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Sacha Distel. All told Casabianca recorded more than 300 songs in Arabic, French, Turkish, Farsi and later in Hebrew, and topped the charts alongside Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, back in the day. She made such a contribution to French culture that she received an entry in the encyclopedia of the most influential people in France.

A selection of Maya Casabianca's songs

“She was a goddess of song,” says Yishai. “At that time, a powerful female voice was needed, and that’s exactly what she had.”

Casabianca was born in Morocco in 1941, the youngest of five children. In the early 1950s, she moved to the nascent state of Israel with her aunt (her father’s sister) and uncle. They lived in a transit camp at first and later moved to Haifa. At some point, the family found it too hard to get by and decided to move to Paris, where additional relatives were living.

“Her name then was Margot Elmakayis – she’d taken her aunt’s surname,” Yishai explains. “She was about 12 or 13 when she started singing for the family in Paris. Jacques Canetti, who was Yves Montand’s producer, lived in the same building and he heard her sing. He went to see who this girl was and signed a big contract with her on the spot.”

Casabianca’s story sounds a bit unreal, especially since it is hard to confirm certain details about her life. It’s unclear whether it was really Canetti or another producer who first discovered her, but she definitely was discovered at a very young age by a top producer with the Philips record company, and it's true that Canetti was the one who really nurtured her career and made her an international star.

Casabianca was one of the first to bring Arabic music to France, including its songs in her repertoire – for instance, Egyptian singer Farid al-Atrash’s “Ya Gamil Ya Gamil,” which she sang in different languages.

In her autobiography, “He and I” (2001), which was published in Hebrew and Arabic by Israel's Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport’s Department of Arabic Culture, she goes into great detail about her love affair with the legendary Al-Atrash.

File photo: Undated portrait of singer Farid al Atrash.Credit: AFP

Initially, Casabianca developed a close friendship with him, then they became lovers who even lived together in his mansion in Lebanon and in her apartment in Paris. The relationship lasted almost until his death in 1974.

“What ended her career to one degree or another was her decision to sing ‘Hatikva' in Moscow during the Soviet embargo on Israel,” says Yishai, referring to her mother’s performance at the Bolshoi shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, with high-ranking Soviet officials in the audience. She had already sung Shoshana Damari’s “Simona from Dimona” in French and Hebrew before making the bold decision to sing Israel's national anthem.

Not long after that, when Casabianca was performing in Damascus, she suddenly discovered that Syrian intelligence was following her and she ended up having to flee to France via Cyprus.

“It was in the midst of all this that she met my father,” says Yishai, who was born in France in 1968. Her father Pierre was her mother’s producer and the director of Radio Montecarlo. Pierre died when Yishai was just a toddler, and living with her mother in Israel. Yishai can’t say what prompted her mother to make aliyah, but she does remember that her mother had to travel frequently to different places to perform and make a living.

Maya Casabianca performs in the 1979 Song Festival

“My father’s death was a very big crisis for her,” she says. “So much so that my aunt returned to Israel and moved in with her. My mother couldn’t live cope with the two roles at once, being a singer and being a mother. It was too complicated.”

By singing Israel's national anthem “Hatikva,” Casabianca apparently committed a subversive act that reverberated widely. She proudly displayed her Zionism and solidarity with Israel – and paid a heavy price for it.

“In a way, she laid down her life for Israel when she sang ‘Hatikva’ there, after the war,” Yishai says. “I don’t know why she did it. The victory in the war must have sparked a feeling of patriotism in her. But she never got anything in return. For example, when they were deciding who should sing ‘Hatikva’ for the big show for Israel’s jubilee year, my mother expected that she’d get a call, that it would be the perfect gesture to close that circle. But the call never came.”

Why didn’t the general Israeli audience, not to mention the country’s cultural commissars, feel a deep connection with the Levantine singer with the deep and powerful voice?

Yishai: “She brought something different. Nobody wanted to hear Arabic. Everyone just wanted to hear music that essentially consisted of songs of war and songs of peace – songs in Hebrew that would bolster the country after a crisis. There was no room for any other style of music.”

Yishai herself acknowledges that at the time she felt embarrassed by her mother’s French-Moroccan style, especially when it came to her clothes and her extroverted behavior: “I didn’t like it. It didn’t fit the Eretz-Israel character of the time,” she admits.

FILE Photo: Maya CasabiancaCredit: Yaron Kaminsky

Casabianca tried to make a go of it as a singer in Israel too. She took part in the 1979 Song Festival, with the song "Hayom Efshar Lashir" (“Today We Can Sing”) but placed close to last. A few years later, she competed unsuccessfully in the tryouts for the Eurovision Song Contest, and in 1987 released an album: "Maya Hozeret Habayta" (“Maya Comes Home”).

“But it didn’t go anywhere,” says Yishai. “That was the hard part for her. She wasn’t earning anything except for the little she got from giving voice lessons. It’s true that she met Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Moshe and Ruth Dayan, but she didn’t get any recognition as a singer. Mother was very disappointed because of that. It was very hard for her.”

Still, Yishai says, summing up, “Ultimately, the most important thing in her life was her family – us and her grandchildren. She was so very happy with them. They lit up her world.”

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