Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Songs and singers

At the time the Six-Day War [click here to display my recent article on this subject], the Israeli composer Naomi Shemer created a magnificent song, whose English title was Jerusalem of gold, which rapidly become an anthem associated with Israel's recovery of the Western Wall. I've always loved this song, which became for me a symbol of my encounter with Israel in 1989. In Paris, when I was learning Hebrew with the help of a lovely Israeli girl named Mihal, she taught me to appreciate the beautiful metaphors in Naomi Shemer's poem dedicated to the Holy City. Here's a version of this splendid song performed by Ofra Haza:


A few years ago, a special program on French TV celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. A major musical event of the evening was a live performance of Naomi Shemer's famous song. Alas, the French performer selected for this task, a popular jazz-oriented singer named Michel Jonasz, did not speak Hebrew. No problem, he learned the words of the song phonetically! I was disappointed to think that anybody would dare to fake a rendition of this sacred song by mouthing the words phonetically. In my mind (in my ears, too, no doubt), this was akin to getting a computer to churn out the song using a synthetic voice.

Towards the end of her life, Naomi Shemer realized that she had in fact "borrowed" unwittingly the music of her song from a Basque lullaby named Pello Joxepe [Peter Joseph] sung by Paco Ibanez. She was terribly affected by this discovery, even to the point of considering that her terminal illness was a divine punishment for this plagiarism.

Getting back to the theme of phonetic singing, one of the most fascinating cases in France concerned an Israeli fellow named Moshé Brand, born in 1947, who arrived in Paris at the age of 22 and rose to sudden fame under the name of Mike Brant.

At the start of his career, managed by talented producers and musicians, Mike knew so little French that he had to reproduce each song phonetically, but his female fans were scarcely worried about the fact that Mike didn't really understand the sense of the songs he was being told to sing. Unfortunately, at the height of his huge success, he was out of his depth in the constant ambience of adulation and riches into which he had been projected, and in 1975 Mike Brant jumped to his death from an apartment building in Paris.

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