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Although he achieved his greatest fame in France, singing French-language songs in a distinctly French style, singer/songwriter Georges Moustaki was more a citizen of the world -- or, as he often put it, a "citizen of the French language." Christening himself a cultural "mongrel" in his signature hit "Le Métèque," Moustaki's first love was the classic-style French chanson, but he often appropriated bits of world folk musics from Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Brazil (bossa nova and MPB), Argentina (tango), and other parts of Latin America, the United States (blues and jazz), Holland, and anywhere else his travels took him. Simplicity was a hallmark of many of his own recordings; possessed of a soft, warm voice, he often sang with only his own guitar for accompaniment, creating an intimacy that translated to his live gigs as well. A successful artist in his own right, Moustaki initially made his name as a songwriter of some renown, composing material for many of the top French singers of the late '50s and '60s (including Edith Piaf's classic "Milord"). He moonlighted as a poet, actor, novelist, and journalist at various points in his career, and remained one of France's more ambitious artists as his trademark beard and long, flowing hair turned white.
Moustaki was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on May 3, 1934; his original last name was Mustacchi, and his first name Joseph, Giuseppe, or Yussuf, depending on the language. His parents were Greek and lived on the ethnic melting-pot island of Corfu, where he grew up speaking Italian, Greek, Arabic, and French. Sent to a French-speaking school, he developed a taste for French music and literature from an early age, teaching himself the classic chansons of singers like Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet on piano. In 1951, he finished school and moved to Paris, where his sister had already settled, and worked in her husband's bookstore. In the meantime, he took up the guitar and started writing his own songs, attending musical performances around the city whenever he could; he also began covering Parisian culture for an Egyptian newspaper. A chance meeting with the legendary Georges Brassens at the bookstore gave him the encouragement he needed to continue, and he adopted the pen name Georges Moustaki in tribute to his idol. He began performing as a pianist in a small cabaret, and found more and more work around the Paris nightclub scene. He met Henri Salvador in 1954, co-writing "Il N'y a Plus d'Amandes" with him, and had other songs covered by Jacques Doyen, Catherine Sauvage, and Irène Lecarte. As the '50s wore on, his lyrics grew more personal, resulting in "Les Orteils de Soleil" (one of his earliest paeans to the Mediterranean area), "Donne du Rhum à Ton Homme" (adapted from a Caribbean folk song and recorded by Maria Candido), and "Gardez Vos Rêves."
During this period, Moustaki also befriended guitarist Henri Criolla, who introduced him to the legendary Edith Piaf. Piaf wound up recording several of Moustaki's songs in 1958, including "Eden Blues," "Les Orgues de Barbarie," and "Le Gitan et la Fille," and requested more material. Teaming with longtime Piaf composer Marguerite Monnot, Moustaki penned the lyrics to "Milord," which became one of Piaf's all-time classics, as well a major international hit in 1959. Moustaki accompanied Piaf on her American tour, the two having struck up an intense love affair that lasted the better part of a year. He continued to compose songs for Piaf, including "T'es Beau, Tu Sais," "Faut Pas Qu'il Se Figure," and "Un Étranger," but their ultimate split was quick and permanent.
Moustaki spent the first half of the '60s furthering his musical studies, particularly in the realm of classical guitar. He continued to write, and with Piaf's stamp of approval gracing his work, his songs were recorded by numerous French stars of the era: Yves Montand ("De Shangaï à Bangkok"), Juliette Gréco, Colette Renard, Pia Colombo, Dalida, Tino Rossi, and Barbara ("Vous Entendrez Parler de Lui"), among others. Moustaki also made his first recordings in 1960, and released a few singles on the Pathé-Marconi label over the next few years, none of which attracted much attention; at this point, he didn't really consider himself a singer worthy of note, and the label let him go in 1966. Moustaki took a trip to Greece to reconnect with his roots, and also met actor Serge Reggiani, who was keen to start a singing career and convinced Moustaki to write material for him. Hits like "Sarah," "Ma Liberté," "Madame," "Votre Fille a Vingt Ans," and "Ma Solitude," among others, made Reggiani a star and helped Moustaki regain some of his standing. He also continued to write for Barbara, and toured with her in 1968 to perform the highly successful "La Longue Dame Brune" as a duet. One night, when Barbara was too ill to take the stage, Moustaki was forced to give a solo concert, an event that marked the beginning of his emergence as a singer in his own right.
Securing a new record deal with Polydor, Moustaki issued a couple of 45 sides ("Joseph," "Il Est Trop Tard") in 1969, but didn't break through until the release of "Le Métèque" ("The Mongrel") later that year. A wry celebration of his multicultural roots, "Le Métèque" had been rejected by his old record company, but exploded into a major hit when Moustaki got the chance to perform it on national television. The accompanying album, also titled Le Métèque, was quite popular as well, and Moustaki suddenly found himself a singing star. Over the next few years, he released several more albums (including the live Bobino in 1970) that consolidated his success, often covering Greek songwriters (Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis) and already dabbling in Near East exoticism and other international flavors. To his admirers, his persona suggested a borderless utopia of freedom, brotherhood, and harmony (as on his 1971 smash "En Mediterranée"), with a gentle, wistful sense of romance mixed in.
In 1971, Moustaki acted in the film Mendiants et Orgueilleux, and also recorded its title song. He mounted several international tours during the early '70s, one of which took him to Brazil; fascinated by Brazilian popular music, he delved heavily into bossa nova and tropicalia on his next album, 1973's Déclaration. It featured "Eaux de Mars," a French version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Aguas de Março," which proved to be the first of a number of Brazilian adaptations Moustaki would record over the years. 1974's Les Amis de Georges was a tribute project devoted to the songs and musical admirers of Georges Brassens. Moustaki continued to tour the world and record strong LPs through the remainder of the decade: 1975's Humblement Il Est Venu; 1976's Prélude, a collaborative effort with Argentine tango genius Astor Piazzolla, which featured an ode to "Alexandrie"; 1977's Espérance, which contained the popular, Brazilian-flavored "Bahia"; and 1979's Si Je Pouvais T'aider, among others. (Many of Moustaki's albums bore only his name, and fans differentiated between them by referring to the first tracks.)
In 1980, Moustaki took up the accordion, and debuted it on the 1981 album C'est Là. The following year, he teamed up with the Dutch band Flairck for a fully equal collaboration, Moustaki & Flairck. His 1984 solo album featured "Pornographie," the latest of many Manos Hadjidakis adaptations. Moustaki focused mainly on touring during the '80s, fueling his image as a globetrotting cosmopolitan, though he did consign himself entirely to Paris for a series of concerts in 1986; he also published several books, both fiction and non-fiction, starting with 1989's Les Filles de la Memoire. He finally made a high-profile return to recording with 1992's guest-laden Mediterranéen, and took home the Prix National de la Chanson that year. He followed it in 1996 with Tout Reste à Dire and continued to tour steadily, both in France and around the world. Reportedly suffering from emphysema, Georges Moustaki died in Nice, France on May 23, 2013; he was 79 years old.
Georges Moustaki (born Giuseppe Mustacchi; (May 3, 1934 – May 23, 2013) was an Egyptian-French singer-songwriter of Italo-Greek origin, best known for the poetic rhythm and simplicity of the romantic songs he composed and often sang. Moustaki gave France some of its best-loved music by writing about 300 songs for some of the most popular singers in that country, such as Édith Piaf, Dalida, Françoise Hardy, Yves Montand, Barbara, Brigitte Fontaine, Herbert Pagani, France Gall, Cindy Daniel, Juliette Greco, Pia Colombo, and Tino Rossi, as well as for himself."Georges Moustaki, composer of Edith Piaf hit song, dies". BBC News. May 23, 2013. Retrieved May 23, 2013. "Golden era of French popular song closes with death of singer Georges Moustaki". The Irish Times. May 25, 2013.
Early life in Egypt
Georges Moustaki was born Giuseppe Mustacchi in Alexandria, Egypt on May 3, 1934. His parents, Sarah and Nessim Mustacchi, were Francophile, Italo-Greek Sephardic 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.
Moustaki's father spoke five languages whereas his mother spoke six. The young Giuseppe and his two older sisters spoke Italian at home and Arabic in the streets. The parents placed Giuseppe and his sisters in a French school where they learned to speak French."Recuperating cosmopolitan Alexandria: Circulation of narratives and narratives of circulation" by Deborah A. Starr, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Cornell University, 23 May 2005 "Georges Moustaki: A Ptolemean Greek" ["«Ζορζ Μουστακί: ένας Πτολεμαίος Ελληνας»], interview to Kathimerini, 10 July 2001 (in Greek)
Life in France
At the age of 17, after a summer holiday in Paris, Moustaki obtained his father's permission to move there, working as a door-to-door salesman of poetry books. He began playing the piano and singing in nightclubs in Paris, where he met some of the era's best-known performers. His career took off after the young singer-songwriter Georges Brassens took him under his wing. Brassens introduced him to artists and intellectuals who spent much of their time around Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Out of gratitude, Moustaki adopted the first name of the only musician he called “master”.
Moustaki said that his taste for music came from hearing various French singers – Édith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Henri Salvador, Georges Ulmer, Yves Montand, Georges Guétary and Luis Mariano – sing.
Moustaki was introduced to Édith Piaf in the late 1950s by a friend whose praise of the young songwriter was so flattering that Piaf, then at the peak of her fame, requested somewhat sarcastically to hear him sing his best works. "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 the Olympia music hall and to show her later the songs I had just massacred."
He soon began writing songs for Piaf, the most famous of which, Milord, about a lower-class girl who falls in love with an upper-class British traveller, reached number one in Germany in 1960 and number 24 in the British charts the same year. It has since been performed by numerous artists, including Bobby Darin and Cher.
Piaf was captivated by Moustaki's music, as well as his great charm. Piaf liked how his musical compositions were flavored with jazz and styles that went beyond France's borders. Moustaki and Piaf became lovers and embarked on what the newspaper Libération described as a year of "devastating, mad love", with the newspapers following "the 'scandal' of the 'gigolo' and his dame day after day".
After a decade of composing songs for various famous singers, Moustaki launched a successful career as a performer himself, singing in French, Italian, English, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish.
Moustaki’s songwriting career peaked in the 1960s and 1970s with songs like “Sarah,” performed by Serge Reggiani, and “La Longue Dame brune", written for the singer Barbara (Monique Serf).
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 hit. "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.
Moustaki's philosophy was reflected in his 1973 song “Déclaration”: “I declare a permanent state of happiness and the right of everyone to every privilege. I say that suffering is a sacrilege when there are roses and white bread for everyone.”
Moustaki became a French citizen in 1985.
In 2008, after a 50-year career during which he performed on every continent, Moustaki recorded his last album, Solitaire. On it, he recorded two songs with China Forbes.
In 2009, in a packed concert hall in Barcelona, he told the stunned audience that he was giving his last public performance as he would no longer be capable of singing because of an irreversible bronchial illness.
Moustaki married Annick "Yannick" Cozannec when he was twenty years old and she was twenty-five. Their daughter, Pia, was born the following year. They lived in an apartment at rue des Deux-Ponts on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris for many years, before his lung illness forced him to leave his beloved Paris to seek out warmer and cleaner air in the French Riviera.
In his last interview given to Nice-Matin newspaper in February 2013, Moustaki said, "I regret not being able to sing in my bathroom. But singing in public, no. I've done it all... I've witnessed magical moments."Cite error: The named reference BBC_2013-05-23 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Cite error: The named reference irishtimes.com was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Willsher, Kim (May 24, 2013). "Georges Moustaki obituary". The Guardian (London). "Georges Moustaki, Who Wrote Songs For Edith Piaf, Dies". May 23, 2013. "Georges Moustaki, Poetic French Singer, Dies at 79". The New York Times. May 25, 2013. "Hundreds attend the funeral of Georges Moustaki". May 28, 2013. "French composer and singer Georges Moustaki dies at 79". May 23, 2013.
Death, tributes and funeral
Georges Moustaki died on May 23, 2013 at a hospital in Nice, France, after a long battle with emphysema.
The French president, François Hollande, called Moustaki a “hugely talented artist whose popular and committed songs have marked generations of French people.” French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti hailed Moustaki as an “artist with convictions who conveyed humanist values… and a great poet”. Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë remembered Moustaki as “a citizen of the world who was in love with liberty, a true rebel until his last days,” who had given France “unforgettable compositions and lyrics.” Juliette Gréco, one of France’s biggest singers in the 1960s, grieved the loss of a “poet” and “unique person”. “He was a fine, elegant man who was infinitely kind and talented,” she told RTL radio.
Moustaki's funeral was held on May 27, 2013. It was attended by his widow Annick Cozannec and their daughter Pia, the French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti and numerous personalities from the entertainment world – Guy Bedos, Véronique Genest, Maxime Le Forestier, Jacques Higelin, Brigitte Fontaine, Arthur H, Valérie Mairesse, Hervé Vilard, Irène Jacob, François Corbier, Cali, Sapho, Enrico Macias, François Morel, Costa Gavras.
Moustaki was buried according to Jewish rites in a family vault at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris a few meters from the grave of his former amour Édith Piaf.Cite error: The named reference BBC_2013-05-23 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Mortaigne, Véronique (May 23, 2013). "Mort de Georges Moustaki, le chanteur du 'Métèque'" [Death of Georges Moustaki, singer of 'Métèque']. Le Monde (in French). Retrieved May 23, 2013. "Georges Moustaki, Poetic French Singer, Dies at 79". The New York Times. May 25, 2013. "George Moustaki, Singer Who Worked With Edith Piaf, Dies at 79". May 23, 2013. "French composer and singer Georges Moustaki dies at 79". May 23, 2013. Cite error: The named reference euronews.com was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "Le chanteur était inhumé lundi au Père-Lachaise". May 27, 2013. "Dernier hommage à Georges Moustaki au cimetière du Père Lachaise". May 27, 2013.