Every Friday night, something uncanny takes place at the Montreal French brasserie, Le Pois Penché. At 7 p.m. sharp, a silky male voice flows through the restaurant’s speakers and guests stop eating. They lift their eyes from the plates and look around. It sounds like someone might be singing live, but it doesn’t seem real. The voice is too clean, too perfect, utterly charming and irresistibly melodious. Somewhere between Frank Sinatra and Charles Aznavour on a good day. In any event, it certainly doesn’t belong in a restaurant. Maybe in a concert hall, or embedded forever on a classic vinyl record. Then, they spot Matt Mardini, the Syrian crooner, strolling graciously around the tables microphone in hand, and they suddenly get the feeling that they might just be lucky enough to be witnessing a star in the making.
Let us go back to 1994 in Aleppo, Syria. Matt Mardini was barely 18 years old and had no clear vision of his future. All he knew was that he didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, a professional lounge and TV singer. For a mysterious, perhaps rebellious reason, Matt had shown such little interest in music that he wasn’t event aware he could sing.
Until the day a member of his church choir called in sick.
The choir director coerced Matt to join the group, suggesting that he wouldn’t even have to sing. He could just stand and fill the empty spot. However, as the show rolled along, Matt couldn’t resist the temptation to hit a note. To his horror, the director called him aside. Had Matt’s impetuosity ruined a sacred performance? What he heard instead would change (or maybe realign) the direction of his life.
Matt was told that he had the best voice in the choir and that he should tackle a song on his own. A few weeks later, he stood in front of the congregation and delivered an enthralling rendition of Silent Night, his first solo performance. He was hooked. The dormant singer in his DNA awoke with a vengeance.
He joined forces with a pianist friend and put together a “dueto” repertoire. Another pianist introduced him to the voices of Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. Matt discovered an instant affinity for the style and vibe of legendary crooners, and kept singing.
Shortly thereafter, he took a path followed by many Syrian young men and went to study business in Lebanon. There, he met a pianist from Aleppo at a local restaurant, who invited him to come on stage and sing My Way. The restaurant owner was so charmed that he offered Matt a contract on the spot, a weekly Saturday night gig, which marked the official start of his professional singing career.
Upon his return to Aleppo in 1998, a vacancy opened at The Aleppo Club, one of the most exclusive private clubs in the city. Packed nightly with the cream of Syrian society, The Aleppo Club featured a five-piece band and two singers: one performed Oriental and Arabic songs, the other delivered English and French hits. When the “Western” crooner was dismissed for being unreliable due a close friendship with the bottle, a band musician referred Matt. But getting into the Aleppo Club was no easy feat. Its audience was picky and knowledgeable. They expected nothing less than star quality. The new singer would have to be approved by a members’ committee. As coincidence would have it, one of said members had heard Matt singing with the church choir back on that fateful day three years ago. The member vouched and Matt was in.
From 1998 till 2004, Matt performed 5 to 6 shows every week, backed by some of Aleppo’s finest musicians. It was a dream musical education. He mastered some of the greatest songs of all-time and began to grow as an entertainer. He also accepted some exclusive private engagements. At that time in Syria, prestigious hotels were a favourite gathering spot for local society. Hotels were reputed to have excellent restaurants and to offer outstanding entertainment. In 2003, Matt was invited to sing at a private party at the Sheraton Hotel, in Damascus. There, a scene was repeated, which would be repeated many times again in his career.
When Matt takes to the stage and delivers the first notes of an opening song, time seems to freeze. For a few precious seconds, the audience pauses all conversation and looks up, mystified by the origin of the delightful voice. Many take a while to realize that the song is actually coming from the singer standing a few feet away, live, and not from a recording.
Such was the feeling experienced by the Sheraton’s manager, who, four months later, contacted Matt and offered him a contract in Damascus. But the timing wasn’t right. Matt had too many good things on his plate, between his evening shows at The Aleppo Club and a daytime job. Fortunately, a year later the persistent manager called again at the right time. Matt was experiencing stagnation. Although he was performing daily for a sophisticated audience, he wasn’t being recognized outside of the exclusive walls of The Aleppo Club. The Sheraton proposed a one-year contract. Matt presented a counter-offer. Why not feel it out first? There was a slight chance that his style would not please the Sheraton crowd, or that the Sheraton would not please Matt. If that were the case, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to be bound by a contract. The manager saw much common sense in the approach and accepted Matt’s open-ended proposal. The young crooner moved to Damascus.
Matt was a hit. He sang for local and international audiences at the Sheraton for eight years. There, he developed a personal entertainment style, defined by a symbiotic connection with his audience. He could feel the crowd, connect to their mood, and adapt. He became highly aware of his role as an “enhancer” of the overall dining and going out experience. Very often, guests were not there because of him, but he certainly was there for them, to bring joy to their lives and help them create unforgettable moments.
Life was good. In January 2011, Matt met a Syrian girl from Canada, fell instantly in love, and was married by the end of August. But, before the end of the year, the first sparks of civil war were in the air. Just before the brutal conflict that still ravages Syria today erupted, Matt made the decision move to Canada and start from zero.
In 2012, Matt landed in Montreal. What to do next? Would a native-speaking English and French public enjoy the accented voice of a Syrian crooner? Unsure, he took a day job, but the pull of music proved too strong. In 2013, he overcame his “accent” fear and started accepting private gigs. Soon, a dream he had begun to foster in Syria reemerged. Back in his country, it would have been quite hard for a “Western” singer to become a star, and Matt had no particular interest in a career singing Arabic hits. In Montreal, however, the door seemed opened to take a chance and to make a name for himself as an international crooner in the purest tradition of the form.
Matt went all in. With a child and another one on the way, and the blessing of his wife, he committed to focus entirely on his musical career, with aspirations to reach a global audience. But his decision was not reckless. While he firmly believed in his talents, his years in Syria had taught him to be a professional first. Drawing from his rich past as a lounge singer, Matt designed a unique and intimate act, which he would bring to selected venues and restaurants, to support his family while he planned for a more ambitious future.
People have preconceived ideas about restaurant singers, musicians who play popular sets, take a paycheck, and go home. A Matt Mardini show is an experience as far removed from that concept as the moon from the sun. The only difference between listening to Matt in a restaurant and paying to see a famous crooner in a grand theater is the size of the venue. A dinner with Matt is like having drinks with a loved one while Dean Martin walks by singing It was a very good year. It is close-up entertainment at its finest. A moment of magic. A highly sensitive performance, in perfect synchronicity with the mood of the crowd, always different, always evolving. A moment that enthralls and enchants even those who didn’t expect to be enthralled and delighted. A night to remember.
Matt Mardini has visions of bigger shows. No one who has heard his voice would be the least bit surprised to find his name one day next to Michael Bublé’s. Until that moment, those of us in the known will keep flocking to Le Pois Penché on Friday nights, to revel in the artistry of the sublime singer standing just a few steps away.