If you’ve grown up as a Sephardic Jew, there’s one singer that you’ve reliably heard at every single wedding, bar/bat-mitzvah, engagement party, Shabbat, or celebration of any kind.
His name is Enrico Macias.
Born Gaston Ghrenassia in Constantine — then in French Algeria — in 1938, the Jewish “Pied Noir” singer has come to embody the bittersweet memories and nostalgia felt by Jews who left their Arab homelands in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In other words, you’re not a Jew of North African descent until you’ve seen your grandmother tearing up to “Adieu mon pays,” (“Goodbye My Country”), Macias’s first hit, written from the deck of the boat carrying him and his family away from their war-torn home.
Macias and his wife, Suzy, fled the Algerian War for Independence in 1961 after his father-in-law, Cheikh Raymond Leyris — also a famous musician — was murdered. Macias’s father, Sylvain Ghrenassia, was a violinist in an Andalo-Arabic orchestra.
Since then, he’s become an international superstar of French music, an “Ambassador at Large for Peace and Protection of the Children of the World” (named by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in 1997), and most recently, a successful comedy actor.
The Forward’s Anne Cohen sat down with Macias at the Gansevoort Hotel in New York City to talk about his upcoming move to Israel, his new movie career and, of course, his favorite songs.
This interview has been translated from French.
Anne Cohen: A movie about your life premiered at the 17th Annual New York Sephardic Film Festival. You also star in “Would I Lie To You 3”, which will close the festival on March 20. How do you like acting?
Enrico Macias: My first movie experience was “La Vérité Si Je Mens 2” (“Would I Lie To You 2”). When they asked me to be in “La Vérité Si Je Mens 3” (“Would I Lie to You 3”) it was like a reward, because it meant that I wasn’t so bad. The movie was a big success in France. Not just for the actors, but for me personally. I’m not a seasoned actor, I did this on a lark. But it turns out I really like acting. Especially comedy acting. Which is funny because I’m not necessarily like that in everyday life. I like to laugh, and I like to make jokes. But in front of a camera, I only have to stare and people laugh.
I think a new, younger audience has joined my traditional fans – and when I saw traditional fans, they also span a couple of generations. It’s great. Young people see me in movies and say “Oh, he’s also a singer, I’m going to listen to his songs.” And that’s how they discover my work.