The journey of the Jewish-Algerian Gaston Ghrenassia began in 1961 when he was 23 years old. Like many Jews during the Algerian War of Independence, he left his home in the city of Constantine after Cheikh Raymond, his father-in-law and music teacher—and a famous Jewish maluf musician—was murdered by the Algerian liberation movement FLN. He left for France with his wife, Suzy, and he’s never returned to Algeria, in part because of his pro-Israel stance.
In France, Ghrenassia used the stage name Enrico Macias and it didn’t take long until he became the voice of the so-called Pieds-Noirs, the French Algerians. His songs, like “Adieu mon pays,” give expression to the painful yearning for their country of birth. Macias also created a new style of music by mixing oriental, Sephardic melodies with French chanson, and so helped many of his fellow expatriates to bridge the cultural gap between their old and their new homes.
Over the course of his five-decade career, Macias has released more than 15 studio albums, including the recently released Les Clefs (The Keys), featuring twelve new songs. The title suggests that Algeria remains at the center of Macias’s music—the opener, “Les Clefs,” focuses on the keys to his house that he left back in Algeria as a young man, a painful symbol of a farewell. After the country gained its independence, the French left in huge numbers, with many Pied-Noirs massacred under the Évian Accords, and as many as 150,000 Algerian Jews left for France or Israel. By 1963, less than 1,000 Jews remained. But “Les Clefs,” a light pop song that integrates elements of Spanish, Italian and French musical tradition, thereby evoking a Mediterranean feel, suggests Macias still holds hope. “One never looks back,” he gently sings. “Time passes but never wipes out our most beautiful memories.”
On the new album, Macias collaborated with some great names of French pop and chanson. Among them are Da Silva, Marc Estève, Bruno Maman, Claude Morgan, Art Mengo, Didier Barbelivien, Frédéric Zeitoun, and the Cap Verdean composer Téofilo Chantre. The different musical vision of those songwriters gives the Les Clefs album a diverse feel, but Macias’s beautiful, smooth voice ensures the listening experience is never chaotic. Despite his 77 years the singer comes across as a very contemporary, almost youthful chansonnier. Even songs like “Chanter pour toi” or “Pour ma belle,” dedicated to his wife Suzy who died in 2008, don’t sound sad, old and bitter; instead they are like a dance of a young couple: careful and light, but with an intense longing.
Of course, there you will find an oriental element in each of Macias’s songs. But with “À la grâce de Dieu” he really returns to his roots in traditional maluf music. Still, even here he turns against musical purity and mixes modern elements of French chanson into the song. That makes it a strong statement for building bridges between the East and the West.
At the end of the album, Macias “visits” his motherland once again. Whereas in the opener he left the place of his youth behind, with the dreary “Venez” he makes a return. Macias sings with a very soft, almost broken voice, and the string section in the background emphasizes his seemingly futile thoughts of nostalgia. “Come and I will enchant you. I will tell you of my summers at my home in Tipaza. Come and I will carry you away to my Mediterranean Sea to its blue waves of its eyes.”
Even if Macias never returns to Algeria, people throughout the Maghreb love his music, and thus he has transcended the political by artistic means. That is also the message of “Les Clefs,” in which he succeeds in taking the listener across all borders, across time and space, to his real home, which is music.