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Georges Moustaki, an icon of La Chanson Française – A Tribute

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 Commons)

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 illness.
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 all.

 


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Georges Moustaki, an icon of La Chanson Française – A Tribute