Silviu Nansi BrandesBorn: May 1st, 1946, Bacău (Romania)
Nationality: Romanian (1946-1975) / Israeli (1975-)
A couple of years later, when he entered secondary school, Nansi returned to studying music, after he had made an important discovery. “I must have been twelve or thirteen years old, at high school… a boy who was in my class and played some piano, attracted girls like a magnet. Though my lessons had been discontinued for years, I knew I was a much better pianist than him even then. Conquering girls and women has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember… even before I could read or write! Therefore, as an adolescent, I started taking up the piano studies like a madman – because of the girls. They really were my principal motivation to take music seriously. It was not so much classical music, but the entertainment music which interested me. In 1963, with four friends, I founded a group, Roşu şi Negru, in which I played the Hammond organ. Our examples were the Shadows with Cliff Richard… yes, their music was acceptable to the communist party in Romania, because Cliff and his men cut their hair properly! The Beatles, however were banned from the radio because of their hairdo… their music was believed to corrupt the youth. We played to our comrades at school, but gradually we won some fame and were invited to perform in dance halls in Bucharest.”
Nansi Brandes decided to pursue a thorough classical education at the George Enescu Conservatory in Iaşi (Jassy), northern Romania. Starting his studies there in 1966, his main subject was the piano, while he also took classes in harmony, instrumentation, arranging, and conducting. In 1970, he graduated with flying colours. Brandes: “All the while, I knew I wanted to be a pop star and a pop star only. Nonetheless, this classical education was important. In a way, Bach and Beethoven laid the foundations for popular music. The knowledge I acquired about harmony and instrumentation at the conservatory has been helpful throughout my career. For my school band, I already wrote the arrangements – but these were somewhat rudimentary. At the conservatory, I learnt to orchestrate for the full range of instruments. When I left Bucharest to study in Iaşi, Roşu şi Negru was disbanded. In Iaşi, however, I formed a new group with the same name. I invited two guitarists from the nightclub band Gaudeamus, Florin Marcovici and Bondi Stenzler, to join the new Roşu şi Negru. As in the previous band, I was not only the Hammond organist, but the composer, arranger, and impresario as well. Yes, I was quite businessman-like, as far as possible in a communist country! In Iaşi, we made our first studio recordings.”
In 1969, Roşu şi Negru experienced its real breakthrough at the so-called Festival Club A in Bucharest, the first-ever pop music festival in Romania. Brandes and his band won the festival with their entry ‘Cry baby’, while also taking away the trophy for best solo vocalist and best rock performance. Mixing glam rock, jazz, and progressive pop, Roşu şi Negru became Romania’s most popular act. Often, the group performed with additional instruments, like brass and flute, creating a sound not unlike well-liked Western pop acts of the early 1970s, such as Focus and Blood Sweat & Tears. After Brandes had completed his obligatory six months of military service (1970), he transferred Roşu şi Negru from Iaşi to Bucharest. In the five following years, the band recorded three albums, while many of their song creations – such as ‘Soare şi vânt’ (1971) and ‘Cadrane’ (1972) – climbed the Romanian charts. Besides many live concerts across Romania, Roşu şi Negru was often invited to perform on nationwide television, not only with its own repertoire, but as an accompanying band for other vocalists as well.
Meanwhile, Nansi Brandes managed to broaden his professional activities in Bucharest. He has some hit compositions for other artists to his credit, including ‘Povestea’ for Cornel Constantiniu (1973) and ‘Gînduri’ for Aurelian Andreescu (1975); moreover, he wrote a couple of songs for Romanian superstar Mihaela Mihai. More surprisingly, Brandes composed for the theatre, writing the accompanying music to a Romanian staging of Molière’s play ‘The Imaginary Invalid’.
In spite of all success, Brandes felt increasingly unhappy about the conditions under which he had to work: “True, under the communists in Romania, bands were allowed to play the wildest possible guitar music, as long as the lyrics were not offensive – that is: offensive to communist ideology. Before each television appearance, all our lyrics were meticulously checked by a party censor. Hilariously, innocent words were sometimes understood as a metaphor for the political situation and in those cases, we were forced to adapt the lyrics. In the course of the 1970s, the Ceauşescu regime became more and more oppressive, curtailing artistic freedom. I felt deeply frustrated about that. What was more, authorities did not allow us to perform abroad. As our music was highly internationally orientated, we received offers to perform in West Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Italy, but time and again, these offers were refused by Romanian party officials. In 1975, we were invited to perform in Bulgaria, but not even this was allowed. For me, this was the final straw… Bulgaria was ruled by communists as well, belonged to the Eastern block – it was a prison similar to Romania. I had had enough: j’en ai marre, ça suffit! I went to the Israeli embassy and asked for a visa for Israel. Now, the Romanian state was paid 5,000 dollar by a Jewish organisation in the USA for every Jew who was allowed to move to Israel – understandably, the authorities in Bucharest were quite keen to capitalize on this goldmine, allowing 200,000 Jews to move to Israel. Nevertheless, all applicants had to wait for two years before the Romanian state would permit them to leave… not in my case, however. Within a month, I had received all necessary papers! Clearly, the communists thought I was a bad example for Romanian youth. The sooner I left the country, the better it was for them.”
Nansi’s immigration to Israel in ’75 was a dramatic case of ‘from hero to zero’. Brandes: “On Sunday, I did my last live concert with Roşu şi Negru in Bucharest, which some 10,000 people attended. Afterwards, I cried, embracing the other group members to say goodbye. My plane to Tel Aviv flew on Monday – and on Tuesday I was working as an anonymous bar pianist in Jaffa. Nobody knew me, nobody noticed me… from a farewell concert with thousands of spectators to zero in a matter of just two days. I told myself to be happy about every little job that came my way – types of work I would not even have considered doing in Romania; playing in nightclubs, for example. The fact that I lowered my expectations and thereby avoided disappointment kept me going. Still in ’75, I had to cease my professional activities for three months to perform military service for my new home country. In spite of this, slowly but gradually, I climbed the ladder… first, I was invited to become the keyboard player in the accompanying band of Shimi Tavori. Thanks to Eldad Shrem, who was extremely helpful in those early years, I became Ilanit’s piano player at live stage shows. In fact, Eldad helped me into the business and I later became one of his fiercest rivals as an arranger… he created a monster! Nevertheless, we have always remained good friends.”
Asher Reuveni, Shimi Tavori’s impresario, much impressed by Brandes’ abilities as a pianist, entrusted him with the arrangement of ‘Moshe’, the song with which Tavori won the 1979 Oriental Song Festival. It was Brandes’ first success as an arranger. From the early 1980s onwards, he became known as one of Israel’s most prolific song arrangers, especially estimated for his ability to score Mizrahi or oriental music. Among dozens of others, Brandes worked with such Israeli stars as Mirel Reznik, Yehoram Gaon, Avi Toledano, Tsvika Pik, Ilanit, Shimi Tavori, Chaim Moshe, Shlomi Shabat, Doron Mazar, and Ofra Haza. Without a shadow of a doubt, however, his arrangements for Zohar Argov (1955-1987), the King of Mizrahi, are his most recognized contributions to Israeli pop music. Brandes arranged Argov’s hugely successful album ‘Up to date’, which included ‘Ha’perach begani’, the winning song of the 1982 Oriental Song Festival and, more significantly, one of the most popular songs in Israel of all times.
Nansi Brandes has very sharp recollections of his first encounter with Zohar Argov: “Again, it was Asher Reuveni who got me the job… he wanted me to arrange ‘Ha’perach begani’ for the Oriental Song Festival. I did not even know who Zohar Argov was. A week before the festival, Asher sent Zohar over to my place in Bat Yam to talk the arrangement through. Now, my Hebrew was still quite lapidary… when Zohar said he wanted us to open with a mawwal, a traditional Arab vocal start of a piece of music, I was sure he meant malawah, a Yemenite fried bread. Therefore, I replied: “If you want to eat, there is a Turkish restaurant downstairs”. After clearing up all misunderstanding, Zohar sang his mawwal. I was riveted to my chair… that was really something! In the arrangement, I combined the three elements of my musical upbringing: symphonic music, rock, and traditional Balkan folk. A week later, we were at the Binyanei Ha-Ouma Congress Hall for the rehearsals. Zohar and Asher came to hear the sixty-four man strong orchestra (conducted by Yitzhak Graziani, BT) playing my arrangement for ‘Ha’perach begani’. When the orchestra had finished, Zohar hugged me with tears in his eyes, saying: “You are God, I swear you are God!” Zohar Argov was a genius, who usually recorded songs in just one take. When asked to do another one, he was able to sing a totally different version just as perfectly. He sure had a remarkable talent for improvisation.”
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Nansi Brandes managed to keep finding enough work as an arranger, in spite of the changing market, mainly thanks to his ability to modernize – in ’85, he was one of Israel’s first producers who bought a computer. Besides his work as a studio arranger, Brandes developed a string of other professional activities. He wrote the soundtracks to three motion pictures, ‘Abba Ganuv II’ (1989), ‘Neshika bametzach’ (1990), and ‘Tipat Mazal’ (1994), of which the two last-mentioned titles won the Ophir Award, the most important film prize in Israel. Moreover, Brandes accompanied many artists in live concerts as a pianist and musical director. Between 1985 and 1995, he was the chief conductor of the Big Band of the Israeli Air Force. Nansi about this orchestra: “No, it was not a marching band… we played big band music in the style of Quincy Jones. It was a new challenge for me, as I had never really explored jazz before in my life. I had a wonderful time with the band, participating in many manifestations, including a TV gala on the occasion of the fortieth birthday of the State of Israel in 1988”. Occasionally, Brandes also composed songs, but his focus was always firmly on arranging and orchestrating.
In 2001, Nansi Brandes made the most striking of career moves: he became a stand-up comedian. “In reality”, Nansi comments, “it was less striking than you would think at first sight. My friends have always said I am a fool. In Romania, on stage with Roşu şi Negru, I made jokes about Nicolae Ceauşescu in between songs. One of Ceauşescu’s sons was a fan of Roşu şi Negru and he often warned me that I was living on the edge, as he could not protect me once the communists would want to punish me for these remarks. Later, when I was a musician or MD for Ilanit and other singers, I liked to perform all kinds of practical jokes on stage while seated at the piano. I readily admit to being flamboyant: I just love being on stage and entertaining an audience. At one point, I decided that this was what I wanted to do professionally. In fact, now that I am successful in this corner of the business, it is a dream come true for me.”
Nansi’s approach as a performer can perhaps best be described as ‘comic musical theatre Las Vegas style’: for his shows, he prefers working with a full orchestra and classically educated singers, with which he does parodies of operas and classical symphonies. In between the different music pieces, he entertains the audience with stand-up comedy. In addition to his work on stage, Brandes is a well-liked guest in Israeli chat and comedy shows. A full thirty years after leaving the country he was born and raised, Brandes also managed to make a comeback on the Romanian market with translated versions of his Israeli stage shows.
Silviu Nansi Brandes in the Eurovision Song Contest
What was more, after Avi Toledano had won the Kdam, the Israeli Eurovision pre-selection in 1982, with the song, he went on to represent Israel in Harrogate (England) and finished second behind runaway winner Nicole from West Germany. “I could have killed Nicole”, Brandes laughs, “for, when I heard ‘Ein bisschen Frieden’, I was convinced that was the winner… les jeux étaient faits. We were happy to be the best of the rest. To my surprise, the orchestra musicians in Harrogate had been looking forward to rehearsing with me, because my name was spelled Nancy Brandes in the official programme and all of them expected to work with a female conductor. Of course, it was a good joke. Everyone has always called me Nansi, but to avoid confusion and to make my name sound somewhat more masculine, I decided to add my Romanian first given name Silviu – though I have never used it in daily life. That is the reason why I was introduced to the audience as Silviu Nansi Brandes in the two Eurovision finals in which I participated.”
Did Brandes find working with a foreign orchestra challenging? “No, not at all. True, in 1982, I did not have much experience as a conductor on stage, but I had been writing and recording orchestrations for years already – starting with Roşu şi Negru before I left Romania. Moreover, at conservatory, I studied classical conducting; in short, nobody had to instruct me on how to work with the orchestra of the BBC in Harrogate. When working with an orchestra, I always start by making the musicians feel at ease by making them laugh. Even in Munich, I managed to get some laughs from these Germans, who are not exactly known for their sense of humour. It requires some intelligence to use the right jokes at the right time, but I think that is one of my qualities!”
In 1983, Avi Toledano penned the Israeli entry again, a most pleasant sing-along in the best Israeli Eurovision tradition: ‘Hi’. The Yemenite-Jewish singer Ofra Haza (1957-2000), who later won huge international acclaim with ethnically inspired music, interpreted it and managed to earn Israel another second place in the Eurovision Song Contest which was held in Munich (West Germany). The fact that the festival was held in Germany added some extra edge to the determination of the Israeli delegation to obtain a good score. Brandes: “A couple of days before the contest, we visited the concentration camp of Dachau, the oldest of the German death camps from the days of Nazi rule. Ofra, who was moved to tears when hearing about the horrors which had passed there, confided to me when we walked out the camp gate: “Nansi, with the history of anti-Semitism in this country, the symbolic value of winning the festival in Germany would be massive.” As I could feel her emotion, I was close to being reduced to tears myself. Ofra Haza, la pauvre, she was a great artist and I feel privileged to have worked with her. Quite contrary to Harrogate the year before, we were indignant when we lost the festival with a couple of points to Luxembourg. Just two countries did not give Israel any votes: Cyprus and Turkey – it was so obvious they ignored us for political reasons… it was immensely frustrating!”
Not for the first time in Eurovision history, the Israeli delegation was surrounded by top-notch security personnel. Nansi: “I could understand it was wise to have a guard with us, given the political situation in the Middle East, but the guy who was sent by Israeli’s embassy in West Germany really took things slightly too seriously. He was a paranoiac who kept telling us all kinds of false rumours about impending danger… of course, this did not help us feeling at ease in Munich. Can you imagine: during the broadcast, at the point when I was about to be introduced to the audience by the German host, he grabbed my arm and whispered: “When you hear a gun, please remember to fall flat on the floor immediately.” Just seconds later, I took my bow with a smile… and of course nothing happened.”
Silviu Nansi Brandes never returned to the international Eurovision stage, although he came close on several more occasions. He composed ‘Nagni la balalaika’ for Doron Mazar, who finished second in the 1986 Kdam behind the duo Moti Giladi / Sarai Tzuriel with their song ‘Yavoh yom’. “I could not help but feeling hugely disappointed once again”, Brandes says. “My song had the potential to be a hit in the whole of Europe, while ‘Yavoh yom’ was a hideous creation which finished near the bottom of the scoreboard in the Eurovision final.” In 1989, Brandes co-wrote the arrangement to the Israeli entry ‘Derech ha’melech’, but composer Shaike Paikov chose to conduct the Eurovision orchestra himself. Brandes: “The original idea of the arrangement for this song was mine, so I should have conducted it. Shaike made things worse by claiming I had not been involved in writing the arrangement at all. Having said that, I am not the kind of person to be down-hearted for too long – and the song did not do well anyway!”
Nansi Brandes wrote the arrangements to many Kdam entries, but, unless a song he orchestrated actually won, his participation did not involve any conducting, because, usually, the Kdam organization in the 1980s and 1990s opted for backing tapes instead of a live orchestra. The 1991 edition of the pre-selection was one of the exceptions, but two of the involved conductors – besides Nansi Brandes also Kobi Oshrat – confirm the orchestra did not play live: to avoid sound problems, all arrangements had been pre-recorded a couple of days before the actual broadcast. With a play-backing orchestra in front of him, Brandes decided to add a little spice to his conducting performance: “It was not live anyway, so I allowed myself to behave as a true showman by clapping my hands during the chorus of ‘Hava nagila’ by Uri Feinman, which came second. Being aware there were some close-ups of the orchestra, I felt I had to do something special for the Israeli audience. Television is all about being noticed… and why not clap and dance along to the music? True, I did not do this when I represented Israel in the international contest with ‘Hora’ and ‘Hi’: quite differently from the Kdam, Eurovision was something sacred and I did not want to make the impression of not taking representing my country seriously. Moreover, a European audience would not have understood me, whereas the Israeli TV public which watched the Kdam knew my style and character.”
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