Six years ago, Julia Kantor’s longtime synagogue, Ohr HaTorah in Venice, expanded and added a cafe and performance space called Sophos. Kantor, a Sherman Oaks resident and amateur singer, thought it would be nice to organize an evening of French music to support the congregation, where her Russian-born husband Jacob, is a lay cantor.
“I’ve always loved French music,” Kantor, who was born in Ukraine, but studied in France during college, explained. “I’ve always felt like I was French in a former life.”
Kantor’s husband shares her passion for the likes of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf, and was immediately on board. Kantor then reached out to fellow Ohr HaTorah members – pianist Jeff Lams and violinist Endre Balogh. Ohr HaTorah Executive Director Meirav Finley recommended she contact Encino-based Max Cohen, a Moroccan native who had spent 25 years living in Israel. Cohen, 60, had never performed a day in his life, save for a recent sing-a-long at the temple, but Finley had been impressed by his voice at that event.
And so, Paris Chansons was born. (“Chansons” means “songs” in French.)
For the first performance at Sophos Cafe, 150 people showed up. The following show drew an even larger crowd.
“It was a shock to us,” Kantor said. “We had struck some kind of cultural chord. [Apparently] there is an extremely broad range of people from all over the world who have a very deep connection to the songs we perform.”
“I’ve always loved French music. I’ve always felt like I was French in a former life.” — Julia Kantor
Many people, the group learned, had heard those songs as kids growing up in Lebanon, Syria, the former Soviet Union, and even Israel, where many of the pieces had been translated into Hebrew.
With several successful shows behind them, Kantor said she knew she wanted to “take this to the next level” and make Paris Chansons a professional group. She asked Lams, the pianist, who has worked with artists such as Donna Summer and Rita Coolidge, if he would be her mentor. He agreed, and “we spent some time honing the sound and creating charts, so any musician could come in,” Kantor said. They then added drummer Sinclair Lott and bass player Adam Cohen to the ensemble.
Paris Chansons’ first professional gig was at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood in the summer of 2013, and it sold out. The band has also performed at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills and is a regular act at Vibrato Grill, jazz icon Herb Alpert’s restaurant and concert venue in Beverly Glen. A recent tour has taken the group to Phoenix, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Chicago. This fall, Paris Chansons plans to hit New York for the first time.
Making this all the more remarkable is the fact that several members have day jobs. Kantor is a marriage and family therapist who also teaches parenting classes. Her husband provides closed captioning for television shows, and Cohen works in the fabric industry as a sales manager.
Kantor is quick to point out that Paris Chansons, whose shows often include a couple of Russian, Italian or Hebrew songs, and even the occasional original, is not a cover band.
“It is very important to us that we bring something fresh to people,” she said. “They are hearing the song that is very familiar to them, that they have a personal relationship with. But they are hearing it in a completely new way. We might add a gypsy feel to it or a melody line that is unique, or a different vibe.”
Kantor said she and the band thrill to the energy exchange that occurs with the audience when they perform. “When they are up on their feet and dancing and singing with us, it’s so beautiful. Especially in this time of so much division, when I see people from so many different cultures united and we are the catalyst for that, it’s incredibly rewarding.
“People are singing along together and there is harmony and unity,” she said. “Who would have thought that French music is this common denominator that would bring them together?”
Paris Chansons will be performing at the Vibrato Grill on Aug 12.