By Jai Pee
Georges Moustaki (born Giuseppe Mustacchi in Corfu in 1934) is no
more. He died in Nice one year ago. Gone are the throaty persistent words of
his penetrating songs and the forceful rhythms of his guitar playing.
Moustaki shot to fame in 1969 with his 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.’
Georges Moustaki at the Grand
Gala du Disque Populaire, 1974 (Photo from Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia
Although he had achieved considerable success as a
songwriter for others prior to that (he wrote Milord for Edith Piaf, a hit
in the UK as well as other countries) he was little known in his own right
as a performer. He had a torrid love affair in the early 60s with Edith Piaf
who regarded him as an extraordinary songwriter.
Moustaki was of Italo-Greek descent and lived his early life in Alexandria,
Egypt – but after a teenage visit to Paris, he fell in love with the city
and its culture and persuaded his father to allow him to return there to
work. So at the age of 17 Moustaki worked 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, the true intellectual centre of Parisian
alternative culture close to the apartment of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartr.
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.
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, Juliette Greco, Pia Colombo,
and Tino Rossi, as well as for himself. 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 the great actor and singer Serge Reggiani, and ‘La
Longue Dame brune’, written for the singer Barbara. But his greatest success
was in 1969 with the song ‘Le Métèque’. Serge Reggiani rejected the song and
the record companies refused to produce it. Moustaki then sang it himself
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. His deep-throated gravelly voiced
version of this adorable song made him a superstar almost overnight. He then
went on to become an icon of La Chanson Française.
In 2008, after a 50-year career during which he performed on every
continent, Moustaki recorded his last album, Solitaire. In 2009, he told a
stunned audience that he was giving his last public performance as he would
no longer be capable of singing because of an irreversible bronchial
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 Moustaki’s funeral was held on May
27, 2013. He was buried according to Jewish rites in a family vault at the
Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, appropriately just a few meters from the
grave of his former love Édith Piaf.
Having met Moustaki at a concert in Manchester UK in the early 90s and
having been an avid fan since I heard his songs ‘L’Homme au coeur blessé’
and ‘Le Facteur’ on a juke box in a café bar in Lyon in 1968, I feel I have
lost a friend: his singing was so intimate. How fortunate we are in this day
and age to have the technology to perpetuate the music of people like him
through their many recordings. He was an inspiration and great example to us