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My name is Nana March 20, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life Greek, Music Life Greek.

In her autobiography, Nana Mouskouri recounts her life to Fotis Apergis

nana_mouskouri.jpg  Arguably the most popular Ambassador of Greek music abroad, now conducting her farewell world tour, Mouskouri recounts key moments in her life and work.

As a child Nana Mouskouri was shielded from the real world by her spectacles, the accessories that were to become her trademark feature later on. Shy and insecure by nature, she lived in a make-believe world, assuming the roles of leading performers in the Hollywood musicals she watched at the open-air cinema in Koukaki, where her father worked as a projectionist. Reenacting Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, one of her favourite pastimes, little did she know of the success that was awaiting her “Over the Rainbow”. Nor could she imagine that apart from becoming an Ambassador of Goodwill for Unicef she would come to be widely recognised as the Ambassador of Greek music across the five continents. “The batman’s daughter”, a nickname she carried heavily due to her father’s gambling addiction, had done it, glasses on.

Mouskouri’s 50-year habitation in music is documented for the first time in a 400-page autobiography released in Greek by Livanis Publications. Featuring rare photographic material, My Name Is Nana is a retrospective of the popular singer’s life and work, recounted by Mouskouri and conveyed in writing by Fotis Apergis. The lively account, enhanced by a first-person narrative, is a must-have for fans, but also an interesting read that is shedding light onto the fascinating career of a singer who in the early ’60s and ’70s found herself on top of the world’s charts next to The Beatles and Elton John and in the ’80s even outrivalled Madonna in the British charts.

Nana’s story, however, is most gripping in that it highlights a legendary era through the singer’s encounters, some lingering others more transient, with emblematic figures that left their indelible mark on both Greek and foreign music. Maria Callas, Nikos Gatsos, Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis, Melina Mercouri but also Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Marlene Dietrich are some of the most striking references that pop up in her book, all names that carry with them echoes of nostalgia, and occasionally bitterness, but also funny incidents that lighten up the mood.

It seems that Callas’ prophetic words of advice to young Mouskouri when she attended her programme at the popular Asteria stage were not lost on Nana. “It’s better to become an excellent singer of ‘light’ songs rather than an average opera singer,” Callas had said. Though Mouskouri had studied for eight years at the conservatory, she was dropped from Alexis Solomos’ staging of Lysistrata in 1957, where she was to act as the chorus leader, on the pretext that a representative of ‘light’ Greek song had no place at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Mouskouri’s insistence to serve Greek music would bear fruit a few years later when she won first prizes at the first and second Greek Song Festivals in 1959 and 1960 and came first at Barcelona’s First Festival of Mediterranean Song in 1960. It was her singing during the same year in “Ta Paidia tou Peiraia”, Manos Hadjidakis’ Oscar-awarded soundtrack for Jules Dassin’s film Never on Sunday (1960) starring Melina Mercouri, that would pave the way for an international career.

Spreading her wings abroad, Mouskouri would leave behind her two mentors: Nikos Gatsos, “my second father who taught me to think and feel, the friend and the brother I never had”, and cosmopolitan Manos Hadjidakis, “who unexpectedly combined the most foreign of instruments and influences from the East and the West”. In the following years, Mouskouri’s relationship with Manos would go through ups and downs, once she ventured on an international career he did not approve of her interpretation, but was eventually restored in 1987 with a reunion concert at the Panathenaic Stadium. Her bond with Gatsos, the acclaimed Greek poet, however, was maintained throughout the years with endless phone calls making up for long distances.

Pursuing an international career across the five continents, starting from Germany, France and the UK, Mouskouri relentlessly practised foreign-language skills so as to be able to interpret songs in the language of the country she was visiting, be it China or Finland. German newspapers would refer to her as “the voice of nostalgia”, while on many occasions people would mistake her for another famous Greek, Melina Mercouri.

In the years to come she became friends with Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsborough wrote a song for her, she sang a duet with Art Garfunkel in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Park and lent her voice to Michel Legrand’s soundtrack for Jacques Demy’s film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), starring Catherine Deneuve. Quincy Jones invited her to sing with him in New York. “He was my teacher on stage. He taught me how to present a recital on my own with no other artist on stage except for my musicians.” Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Sting and Elton John were among the brand names that attended her first concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, while at New York’s Olympia Theatre, another prestigious venue that would welcome her in the near future, she was overwhelmed by Edith Piaff’s performance. Back in Greece to celebrate her 50th birthday in 1984 with a concert at the Irodion (Herod of Atticus ancient theater), she felt at home again. “On such a night I could bid farewell to life,” she points out.

In a life that reads like a fairytale laid with platinum and gold records and many awards, including IFPI’s Multimillion Platinum Award in 1995, there were bitter moments like when Theodorakis came up with his own version of Yannis Ritsos’ Epitaphios, featuring Grigoris Bithikotsis, at the same time when Hadjidakis and Mouskouri were working on their own rendition.

But there are funny stories, too. Over a bottle of whisky, Mouskouri, together with Gainsborough and Rod Stewart, would admit her stage fright that led Gainsborough singing with his back to the audience and her with her arms behind her back. “We were three cowards with a different repertoire,” she points out. Bob Dylan, who along with Leonard Cohen made it to one of her concerts, ended up staying till the interval though he had pressing commitments elsewhere. And on a night of poker she brought luck to heartthrob Alain Delon, who agreed to part with her only after she had given him the pendant that brought her luck in the Barcelona contest.

While commenting on the punk scene of the 80s, Mouskouri passes criticism on Greek music today. “But I preferred the punks much more to all these test-tube singers who have no sensitivity whatsoever… They just benefit from the system of TV reality shows and radio playlists and do whatever is expected of them in exchange for a success that lasts no more than a season.”

The book My Name is Nana (published by Livanis) is available at central bookstores. All photographic material in this story has been drawn from the book.

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