Georges Moustaki

Born : 1934/05/03 in Alexandria (Egypt)
Dead : 2013/05/23 in Nice (France)
Country : France
Language : French
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Chanson

Revealed in 69 with his song "Le Métèque", Georges Moustaki is obviously not just a singer. His career as a songwriter brought him into contact with the greatest French singers, long before he became one himself.

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Revealed in 69 with his song "Le Métèque", Georges Moustaki is obviously not just a singer. His career as a songwriter brought him into contact with the greatest French singers, long before he became one himself.

Yussef Mustacchi was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on May 3 1934. His parents, Nessim and Sarah, were Greek and came from the Island of Corfu. They had a bookshop in the cosmopolitan city where many 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.

Once he had passed his Baccalauréat, he thus quite naturally came to Paris for a holiday, in 1951. After returning to Alexandria to ask his father's permission to remain in the French capital, 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 and still lacking funds, the young man, who had decided to change his name to Georges Moustaki, in honour of Georges, his master 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. 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.

The great adventure

It was guitarist Henri Crolla whom George Moustaki admired fervently, who introduced the young songwriter to Edith Piaf in 1958. This meeting was to develop into an affair between them. Piaf asked Moustaki to write songs for her. The greatest of these was no doubt "Milord", although the music was written in fact by Marguerite Monnot. The young man followed Piaf on her tours for a whole year, but the relationship was highly charged and they broke off suddenly.

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.

"Avec ma gueule de métèque…"

1969 was the decisive year that revealed Moustaki to the public at large. "Le Métèque" came out as a single, and 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".

Passion for Brazil

And that was it - Moustaki finally became 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.

Side-tracked north

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 Rggiani), Germany, Tunisia and Algeria.

2005: "Vagabond"

It was doubtless during this tour that Moustaki was inspired to write his new album, "Vagabond" - a suitable title for a singer born in Alexandria to a Greek-Jewish family, who grew up speaking Arabic before eventually moving to France and launching a career that took him to the four corners of the world!

The album "Vagabond", released in September 2005, was mostly recorded in Rio de Janeiro, and featured a number of tributes to the late Brazilian star Tom Jobim, who had been a close friend of Moustaki's. Working with Paula Morelenbaum (one of Jobim's former backing singers) and Philippe Gérard, Moustaki recorded a reworking of "Les Eaux de Mars" (the French adaptation of Jobim's "Aguas de Março" which Moustaki had already immortalised in French) and the song "Tom." Francis Hime, Milton Nascimento's arranger, also collaborated on the album.

Musically speaking, many of the songs on "Vagabond" were coloured with Brazilian influences. But thematically speaking, Moustaki's songs did not revolve around Brazil, the singer preferring to explore more universal human themes. On the title track of the album, "Vagabond", for instance, Moustaki delved into male-female relations via the Greek myth of Ulysses and Penelope. Given his eternal reputation as French lover and Don Juan, it came as no surprise to find that love and passion were also major themes on the album, Moustaki celebrating everything from summer romances to filial affection.

At the age of 71, the inimitable "Métèque" hit the road again for an impressive concert-packed tour, playing dates in Spain (October 2005), Beirut and France, where he brought the house down in Paris at the Théâtre du Rond-Point (27 – 31 December 2005).

At the end of 2006, Georges Moustaki reached a new level of fame when his name was included in the Who's Who section of Larousse (the famous French dictionary). This inclusion appears to be further confirmation - if any were indeed necessary! - of Moustaki's official status as a legendary figure of French chanson.

2008: "Solitaire"

After a two-year absence from the recording front, Moustaki re-emerged with a new album in May 2008. His new album went by the name of "Solitaire" which was, in fact, a rather ironic title given the number of duets and collaborations on it. Moustaki enlisted the services of Vincent Segal as producer on his new opus. (Segal, a neighbour and recent friend of Moustaki's, also happens to be the cellist half of the famous French double act Bumcello). "Solitaire" found Moustaki teaming up with various figures from France's new music generation to record duets with Vincent Delerm ("Une fille à bicyclette"), the Francophile American singer Stacey Kent ("Les Restes"), China Forbes, the lead singer of Pink Martini ("Donne du rhum à ton homme" and "Ma solitude") and Cali, a singer with whom Moustaki says he shares many political and social ideals ("Sans la nommer.") Moustaki's new album received rave reviews from the critics.

Moustaki went on to perform two high-profile shows at the Olympia, in Paris, straight after the album's release. He flew out to perform a series of concerts in Canada in June and then returned for more shows in Europe, sticking to his usual hectic schedule which sees him perform an average of sixty shows a year.

But in early 2009, just as he was starting out on a new series of concerts in Spain, Georges Moustaki was obliged to cancel his tour when respiratory problems prevented him from singing. Two years later, he announced that a serious bronchial disease meant he would never sing live again.

Diminished but still active, Moustaki set to work drawing, painting and writing in his apartment on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris. In February 2011, he published "La Sagesse du faiseur de chansons", a collection of his thoughts, reflections and memoirs. 

The illness that was dogging him, emphysema, made him move to the south of France to escape the Parisian climate and pollution.
He succumbed to the disease on 23 May 2013 in Nice. He was buried according to the Jewish tradition at the Père Lachaise Cemetry in Paris. Personalities from the arts world and numerous unknowns came to pay him their last tribute. Personalities from the arts world and numerous unknowns came to pay him their last tribute. The crowd sang several of his best-known songs ("L'ambassadeur", Il est trop tard"), making the event particularly moving.
May 2013

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