May 23, 2013 – Georges Moustaki was born on May 3, 1934 in Alexandria, Egypt as Giuseppe “Yussef” Mustacchi. His parents, Sarah and Nessim Mustacchi, were Francophile, Greek Jews from the island of Corfu, Greece. They moved to Egypt, where their young child first learned French. They owned the Cité du Livre – one of the finest book shops in the Middle East – in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria where many ethnic communities lived together.
At home, everyone spoke Italian because the aunt categorically refused to speak Greek. In the street, the children spoke Arabic. At school, young Joseph, as he was known, learned and spoke French. His parents were very attached to French culture and put him into a French school, along with his sisters. The young boy was very interested in French literature and song. He listened to Charles Trenet, Tino Rossi or Edith Piaf. As he played the piano, he amused himself by re-creating their songs.
He would later write: “The Alexandria of my childhood was the world in miniature with all races and all religions. I was rarely a foreigner anywhere because I always found some reference to Alexandria in the languages I heard, the smells I breathed or the colours.”
His father, Nessim, spoke five languages; his mother, Sarah, six. At home, the young Giuseppe and his two older sisters spoke Italian, in the streets Arabic, at school French. In his parents’ shop he discovered the literature of André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
At the age of 17, once he had passed his Baccalauréat, he thus quite naturally came to Paris for a holiday, in 1951. After an idyllic summer holiday in Paris, Moustaki obtained his father’s permission to move there, working as a door-to-door salesman of poetry books. He went to live with his sister and brother in law, also a bookseller. He tried to earn his living as a travelling salesman for books of poetry. In his free time, he messed around with a guitar his mother sent him. He also went to clubs, the Trois Baudets, for example. Here he heard the young Georges Brassens one evening when he was just starting out. This had a great influence on Moustaki. By a stroke of luck, the singer turned up one day in his brother in law’s bookshop. He was able to show Brassens his small store of songs, and Brassens encouraged him to persevere.
Stimulated by this encouragement but still lacking funds, the young man, who had decided to change his name to Georges Moustaki, in honour of Georges, he began to knock on cabaret doors for jobs as a singer. He made his living writing chronicles of Paris cultural life for an Egyptian newspaper. Although he was only twenty, he also got married to Annick. His daughter, Pia, was born the following year. But family life was difficult for this debutante artist who was still hesitating between music and painting at this time. The same year, 1954, he met Henri Salvador whom he offered songs to.
“My taste for music came from French songs: Charles Trénet, who dazzled me, and who, a long time afterwards, I told as much; Henri Salvador; Georges Ulmer; Yves Montand; Georges Guétary, Luis Mariano. “I would borrow my father’s long trousers (when young) to go and hear them sing. I even saw Piaf with my mother when I was 13 years old, 10 years before I met her,” he said.
It was guitarist Henri Crolla whom George Moustaki admired fervently, who introduced the young songwriter to Edith Piaf in 1958. His friend’s praise of the young composer was so flattering that Piaf, then at the height of her fame, asked somewhat sarcastically to hear him sing his best works there and then.
“I picked up a guitar and I was lamentable. But something must have touched her. She asked me to go and see her perform that same evening at Olympia [the Paris music hall] and to show her later the songs I had just massacred.”
In 1958 he began writing songs for Songbird Piaf, the most famous of which, Milord, about a lower-class girl who falls in love with an aristocratic British traveler. The music was written in fact by Marguerite Monnot. Moustaki accompanied Piaf on her tours for a whole year, but the relationship was highly charged and they broke off suddenly. Libération described it as a year of “devastating, mad love”, with the newspapers following “the ‘scandal’ of the ‘gigolo’ and his dame day after day”.
After this year of intense experiences, Georges Moustaki returned to a quieter life, studying music and learning classical guitar. He did, however, continue to write for people like Colette Renard, the creator of “Irma la Douce”, Montand or Barbara. From 1960 to 65, he brought out several singles on the Pathé Marconi label, and even an LP, on which there were “Eden Blues”, “Les Orteils du Soleil” and “Les Musiciens”. But at this time Moustaki’s ambition was not to be a singer. Despite this, in 1966 he offered the rough draft of “Le Métèque” to his recording company, which turned up its nose and terminated his contract.
This was the period during which Moustaki went back to his Greek origins. He went to Greece for the first time in 1966 and visited several regions. He met actress Melina Mercouri and became friends with her. Later she was to have the “Métèque” and “En Méditerranée” translated and sing them as hymns of the resistance to the dictatorship of the Greek Colonels.
He also met Serge Reggiani. in 1966. The actor wished to start a true career as a singer, and persuaded Moustaki to write songs for him. Thus, powerful songs such as “Sarah”, “Votre fille a vingt ans”, “Ma liberté” or “Ma solitude” were born. Reggiani scored huge successes with these, which also brought the songwriter to prominence.
Over the years, Moustaki made many faithful friends of players in the French musical world of the period, such as Barbara. He wrote one of the most beautiful songs in her repertoire, “La longue dame brune” which they actually sang in a duo throughout the singer’s tour in 1968. But when Barbara was due to sing a concert in Mulhouse , she fell ill and could not go on stage. Moustaki took over for an impromptu – virtual debut – performance on a live stage.
After a decade of composing songs for various famous singers, such as Édith Piaf, Dalida, Françoise Hardy, Barbara, Brigitte Fontaine, Herbert Pagani, France Gall, and Cindy Daniel, Moustaki launched a successful career as a performer himself, singing in French, Italian, English, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish, all languages he was fluent in. His songwriting career peaked in those days with songs like “Sarah”, performed by Serge Reggiani, and “La Longue Dame brune”, written for the singer Barbara (Monique Serf).
But in 1969, Moustaki composed the song “Le Métèque” — ‘métèque’ is a pejorative word for a shifty-looking immigrant of Mediterranean origin — in which he described himself as a “wandering Jew” and a “Greek shepherd”. Serge Reggiani rejected it and the record companies refused to produce it. Moustaki then sang it himself, on a 45rpm disc, and it became a huge hit in France, spending six non consecutive weeks at number one in the charts. “A small, subliminal settling of scores became the hymn of anti-racism and the right to be different, the cry of revolt of all minorities,” Moustaki said of the song. It was such a success that he was able to follow it with an LP which was awarded the Prix de l’Académie Charles-Cros the following year. Several songs, of which “Ma Solitude” or “Joseph”, were to be favourites on tours.
He finally appeared as the star of Bobino in Paris in January 1970. He knew how to create a warm, intimate atmosphere with his musicians, and this enchanted the public. At his time he brought out a live album including titles which had never been recorded, such as “Donne du rhum à ton homme” or “la Pierre” by the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis. The following year, in addition to a Canadian tour, he played in a film based on Albert Cossery’s novel “Mendiants et orgueilleux”. He also brought out a new album called “Il y avait un jardin”, my favorite!
And that was it – Moustaki finally had become a singer. In 1972, he wrote the album “Danse” in which there was “Ligne droite”, and two tracks by another Greek, Mikis Theodorakis, “L’homme au coeur blessé” and “Nous sommes deux”, followed in quick succession by a second series of concerts at Bobino in February 72 and a tour in Africa and Canada. The event of the year was no doubt the international festival of popular music in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Fascinated by Jorge Amado’s books and an amateur of bossa nova after Pierre Barouh had introduced it, Moustaki had already been drawn to Brazilian culture. On the occasion of this festival, he met stars of Brazilian music such as Elis Regina, Chico Buraque, Gilberto Gil or Jorge Ben.
In his next album, “Declaration”, Brazilian influences could be heard. Moustaki took “Aguas de março” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and turned it into “Eaux de Mars”. He appeared at the Tokyo Festival and continued his world tour with concerts in Canada and the United States, appearing at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Far from having forgotten his first loves, Moustaki honoured Georges Brassens in the 1974 album “Les Amis de Georges”. He also adapted two Brazilian songs, one by Chico Buarque, “Portugal” and the other by Toquihno and Vinicius de Moraes, “Je suis une guitare”. “Le droit à la paresse”, also much remarked, suited him well. After another concert at Bobino, he went on tour to Germany.
Georges Moustaki’s life was that of a travelling artist, finding his inspiration on every continent, delving within himself and in his roots to find materials for his songs. The years from 1975 to 1977 were devoted to albums : “Humblement il est venu”, “Prélude”, and “Espérance”, but mostly to concerts, which he gave all over the world, from Germany to Japan, from France (with three weeks at the Théâtre de la Ville in 1976 and 3 weeks at the Olympia in 1977) to Cairo, Egypt (3 dates in 1976).
In 1979 he brought out two albums “Si je pouvais t’aider” and “Et pourtant dans le monde”. In November he appeared at the Olympia for two weeks and continued on a European tour for most of 1980.
After his album “C’est là”, in 1981, Moustaki abandoned the south for a while and joined the Dutch group Flairk to record songs on his album “Moustaki & Flairk” (82) and for the tour which followed, including Bobino in Paris.
He changed direction for the next, unnamed album, recorded in May 84 in Paris and Rio. It contains “Pornographie” by Hadjidakis, and “l’instrument du malheur”, which in fact was the accordion, which he had started learning in 1980 with José Rossi. After the Olympia, he went to the island of Reunion for the Festival de l’Océan Indien. In 1985 he left on another long tour (Europe, Chile and Korea). He also took French nationality. He had been Greek until then.
At this period in the middle of the eighties, he broke with his recording company, Polydor, and it was therefore Blue Silver which brought out his new album, “Joujou”, in 1986. A few heavyweights lent him a hand, Maxime Le Forestier to write “une Cousine”, the Spaniard Paco Ibañez for the music to “l’Espagne au cœur”, and accordionists Joe Rossi and Richard Galliano. That year, Moustaki inaugurated a new type of tour: tours of Paris. His started in the Salle Gaveau classical concert hall and ended at the 19th arrondissement parish hall, with a series of 19 concerts. This tour allowed him to go back home to his flat in the Ile Saint-Louis in the centre of Paris every night.
He appeared again in Paris at the Théâtre Dejazet at the end of 1987. A live double album came out in 88. The following year he published “Les Filles de la Mémoire”, prefaced by the great Jorge Amado. The book was translated into Greek, Italian and Spanish.
Return to the Mediterranean
After the release of a collection, “Ballades en ballade”, containing a large number of his productions with Polydor, Georges Moustaki recorded a new album in the studio in 1992, entitled “Méditerranéen”. Maxime le Forestier signed “Chanson de Jerôme”, Joe Rossi “Nini” and “Boucle d’oreille” and Areski Belkacem, Brigitte Fontaine’s partner, “Méditerranéen”. A newcomer to the Moustaki galaxy, François Rauber took over arrangements. In March 93 Moustaki performed in three concerts at the Casino de Paris and then went off on tour as usual.
After a series of concerts at the famous Paris jazz club, le Petit Journal Montparnasse, in 1995, Moustaki returned with a new album in 96, “Tout reste à dire”. The title may seem surprising for a man of his career in songwriting. But this great traveller was still swept by inspirations: “As-tu brisé un coeur?” is a Sufic poem by Turk Yunus Emre. He also sings “Demande de réparation pour dommages de guerre”, to lyrics by Dan Ben Amots, accompanied by Nilda Fernandez. There is also Enzo Enzo’s liquid voice accompanying him on “Des mots démodés”. Yet again, Moustaki used sounds and words from other worlds, like “Ave maria no morro”, sung in Portuguese.
Moustaki’s true passion is the relationship he has built up with his public throughout his travels. Tours occupy most of his time. If he still pops up in Paris (Casino in January 97 or the Petit Journal Montparnasse in February 98), it is only so that he can return all the better to faraway lands where, in his own words, “he can rest”.
On November 23 1998 Moustaki brought the house down when he performed in Warsaw, delighting fans with a concert lasting more than two hours. Needless to say, the French singer received a standing ovation at the end of his mega-show!
Following the publication of his memoirs “Fils du brouillard” in January 2000, Moustaki brought the house down when he performed in Paris at the legendary Olympia on June 6th. He continued his tour throughout 2001, performing at a series of major summer festivals including the famous “Francofolies” in La Rochelle and “Les Vieilles Charrues” in Brittany.
In December 2002, at the age of 68, Georges Moustaki released his first generic collection in the form of a boxed set of 10 CDs. Having spent the last 40 years singing about life’s pleasures and joys, he can now take stock of his life’s work : here we find a unique brand of nonchalance, a strong love of love, as well as collaborations with marvellous musicians which produced so many classic songs. There was a surprise release in November 2003 : that of a new album simply called “Moustaki”, which included the studio version of the first song he ever composed, “Gardez vos reves”, and a first-time own recording of the song which made his name, “Milord”, first written for Edith Piaf, and here discreetly inserted at the end of the CD, without a word on the cover. Jean-Claude Vannier, well-known for his Serge Gainsbourg arrangements, adds a contemporary touch to the album.
After these album releases, Georges Moustaki took the opportunity to tour again in 2004 : France, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland (where he paid tribute to deceased friend Serge Reggiani), Germany, Tunisia and Algeria.
His singing career ended in 2009, when emphysema made it impossible for him to carry on performing.
Georges Moustaki died from the disease on May 23, 2013 and France lost one of the greatest poetic singer/songwriter chansonniers that ever walked its land. He was 79. A few months earlier Moustaki told French radio station RTL that he wanted to be buried in Alexandria, his birthplace. “There is a cemetery that is the cemetery of free thinkers and it is there that I want to rest for eternity,” he said. He however is buried in Paris’s most famous cemetery “Pere Lachaise” amongst many other free thinkers like Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, just a couple of yards from his one time paramour Edith Piaf.
In a tribute Juliette Gréco said: “He was an absolutely charming man, a gentleman, a fine man. This was an elegant man with infinite softness, and of course, talent. He was like all poets, there was something different about him.”