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Promised Land to Land of Promise : Matti Caspi, One of Israeli Pop's Seminal Figures, Finds a New Life in L.A.


The modest ad in a local Hebrew language weekly announced the impending arrival of one Matti Caspi, singer, producer, composer and arranger. As of Jan. 20, it said, Caspi would be available for private and group lessons in piano, guitar, voice and acoustics.

Noam Niv, a Tarzana resident and onetime Israeli impresario, read the notice with incredulity.

"It can't be him," Niv said. "It's as if you were living in some backwater suburb of Tel Aviv, and you saw an ad saying that Elton John was available to teach songwriting."

And yet there he is. Matti Caspi, easily the most seminal figure in 25 years of Israeli pop history, turned up in Los Angeles three days after the Northridge temblor sent lesser stalwarts scurrying across the continent for solid footing.

Here, the man who spent several weeks during the 1973 Yom Kippur War at the front performing with Leonard Cohen--and whose work has been covered by such disparate talents as Herb Alpert and Petula Clark--hopes to open a modest conservatory.

Thanks to deft advance work by a handful of local friends, things already appear to be popping for this doleful and doe-eyed Hebrew vocalist. Caspi's concert schedule in North America is booked for the next six months. Friends are trying to involve him in an Israeli Consulate-sponsored benefit concert for victims of the Jan. 17 shaker.

Caspi, meanwhile, has been looking into composing a joint paean to Middle East peace with a top-flight American performer.

"We waited 50 years for the Handshake," he said. "But sometimes a handshake can only bring a handshake. Creating understanding and reconciliation between people is something else. I want to write a song that lets both sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict see themselves as winners, not as victims."


If he were prone to self-pity, Caspi might tell stories about his own recent victimization. He fled his native country seven months ago after professional and marital difficulties fueled a feeding frenzy within the voracious Israeli press. Distastefully, he acknowledges the role those difficulties played in his departure. But also at play here, he says, is the wanderlust that afflicts so many Israelis at a younger age, generally after they've completed three or four years of army service.

Caspi didn't traipse off to Nepal or Australia after his tour of duty with the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command Entertainment Troupe. By the time he demobilized, he says, he had already become ensconced in the Israeli music scene.

"But now it's my turn to throw on a backpack," Caspi insists.

Although he stayed put after leaving the army, Caspi learned how easy it was to fall out of favor in a market he readily characterizes as "provincial." Unlike a pantheon of Israeli performers whose names have almost completely receded from memory, Caspi paced himself. Working with acclaimed pop lyricist Ehud Manor, he released albums roughly once every three years. He deliberately refrained from becoming a fixture on Israel's sole TV channel.

Caspi never achieved the raging popularity of some of his airwave-saturating colleagues. But he had staying power. His craft influenced virtually everyone who came later, if only by inspiring rebellion.

It was Caspi who, late in the '70s, triggered a sustained Israeli rage for Brazilian music with a radio show of artists, including himself, who performed translated tunes. The radio program spun off into a best-selling stage show, tour and two top-selling records. He did something similar for Gypsy music when, much later, he produced a best-selling collection of Hebraized Romany pieces by another artist. Caspi's wizardry at staging unlikely comebacks garnered further currency after he returned another Los Angeles exile, female pop vocalist Ricki Gal, to the Israeli limelight.

Caspi also made a bid to become his country's answer to Canadian children's performer Raffi. He wrote, produced and performed in a stylish, expensive and critically acclaimed video collection, "Boobah Matti"--"Matti the Doll."

Caspi hopes to further his work with children here by teaching music. Already, his calendar has been filled up by the children of Israeli emigres whose parents could not believe their own good fortune at finding someone of his caliber to teach piano and guitar.

"I prefer teaching children," he says. "It's always more fun to teach someone who doesn't know anything."

A few years ago, while the Intifada raged and front-ranking Israeli performers like Hava Alberstein, Shlomo Artzi and Nurit Galron began for the first time to engage in protest music, Ehud Manor declared that "with the exception of literature, pop music has become the most advanced art form in the country."

Manor has long played Bernie Taupin to Caspi's Elton John. But Caspi does not share his partner's enthusiasm. The country is too young, Caspi says. The globalization brought on first by radio and TV and later by satellite broadcasts, MTV and digital sampling blew it out of the water before it could develop a distinctive sound.

"There is no Israeli music, and no such thing as an Israeli style," he says. "There are only Israeli musicians.

"I'm not sure this is such a tragedy. Music is an international language. If you are competent and talented, you can contribute to it, wherever you come from and wherever you live."

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