NEW YORK – When she sings the Manos Hadjidakis hymn to the capital of Hellas with its immortal name, “Athina,” Nana Mouskouri is the soul of Greece.
And her soulfulness is not of gossamer stuff. It packs a cultural, even an economic force. Mouskouri is an artist of such extraordinary power and appeal that there were periods in her long international career when her international record sales constituted a significant share of Greece’s exports.
Mouskouri’s “out of retirement” tour has her currently in Canada, one of many places she loves and whose citizens adore her sultry evocations of songs that range from classical to jazz to Greek and her beloved Hadjidakis.
A classically trained singer – her teachers were not pleased with her jazz interests – Mouskouri began her musical career in Greece in 1957. Soon she was singing in Germany and France and later she travelled to the United States, forging her remarkable connection with her fans around the world.
One of the nicest things about being a Mouskouri fan for Greek-Americans is that they share their experience with non-Greeks who love the iconic entertainer.
Born Ioanna Mouskouri on Crete, she grew up in Athens and first came to the United States in 1962. It was a brief visit to record her first album with Quincy Jones, the renowned musician, producer, and humanitarian. When she returned in 1963 to sing with Harry Belafonte she stayed longer.
Mouskouri is active with a variety of philanthropic causes, and not only as a fundraiser. She was actually a field worker for UNICEF, and her experience of the struggle for civil rights and the era of JFK and Martin Luther King made a great impact on her.
Her connections with people of different backgrounds are not accidents, nor are they caused by her musical magic alone. As much as she pours herself into her music, she delves deeply into the causes and issues of the day, especially concerning children.
“It’s important to know what is going on and to think about the future of the world and the children who are being victimized,” she said. There are many issues she feels people should become more educated about, noting that while “things have been achieved,” speaking of the great civil and human fights victories of the 1960s, “the world does not stop and we need to go further and in some place we must start over due to the many recent wars.”
Mouskouri came to America in the wake of the great successes of Dimitri Mitropoulos and Maria Callas, both of whom she had the joy of knowing, but she immediately established herself as a unique presence.
Growing up in Athens, she loved it when her mother, who is from Corfu, would sing Greek folk songs, but her world was opened wide by her father, who was a projectionist in the local movie theater. “There I learned by watching Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Lena Horne.”
“I was part of the generation born between two world wars and I was nine when the occupation of Greece ended. In the late 40s I was inspired by jazz I heard on radio Tangier…I grew up with Nat King Cole, and I was very jazz-oriented,” she told TNH.
She also loves opera, and considers Callas her musical icon, “But I received my Greek artistic identity from Nikos Gatsos, the poet, and composer Manos Hadjidakis,” she said. “They were original. It was a new era for Greek music when they arrived.”
And when she did, too.
Mouskouri said Jones first heard singing in German, but when he heard her Greek records, he loved them and made it known “If she can sing in English I would like to record with her,” and everything began there, she said.
“I have sung so many styles of music and I have learned from other cultures, but my biggest influences came from the United States and Canada.”
She agrees that her ability to connect with people all over the world is connected with the interplay of cultures she felt as a child with roots in Crete and Corfu, both places with layers of culture and civilizations.
Growing up under all those influences, she was learning continuously, “I am still learning,” she said, adding that learning other languages is important to one’s humanity and enriches one’s nationality.
Mouskouri sings in Spanish, English, French, German, and Italian. “Each language has its own character…French is a very important language to sing…it’s very serious, very rich.” Even German, which sounds harsh to some people, she finds very interesting, and has beautiful songs. “You enjoy the sounds you sing and hear also. It’s not only the meaning. “
But she feels music is its own language and believes that “people feel a need to connect with other cultures and to be inspired…that’s what our Greek culture did for a long time and still does.”
She said all the great musicians she worked with were interested in learning about other cultures and to perform their music, and they were thrilled to discover the music of Hadjidakis, Xarhakos and Theodorakis, which put Greece on the world’s cultural map.
“And people liked it, that’s why it has been popular for so long,” she said.
“They were young and very enthusiastic and they created a unique style of music. I am one of those lucky people singing that type of music and the people never tire of it.”
Asked if people like them are miracles in a culture, she said,”They were exceptionally talented people, but timing is also very important. At that time, the world needed that. Now they need something else.”
There were also other international talents during that period, like Michel Legrand in France, whom Hadjidakis loved that who was also part of the phenomenon. Mouskouri loved working with Legrand, and told TNH “I found outside Greece the equivalent of what I found in Greece.”
What she dislikes is Greek musicians’ habit of imitating people who are successful. “That is not the way to do it. The way is to have a new idea that surprises people, but I am sure there will be wonderful things.”
HOPE FOR GREECE
It is impossible for Mouskouri not to speak about what her country is going through, but she began by noting that young artists and musicians are doing remarkable things in Greece.
“Nobody needs this crisis,” she said with sadness, “but when there is a crisis, a war, a dictatorship, I think the artists come to express in the best way what they feel and what the people need to hear, and each person who hears it adopts it in their own way,” she said.
“This is the magic of the music and I think a crisis, even though it’s a sad thing, always brings something better. All of a sudden their world is shaken up from a certain status and they have to find new solutions. Music is the same way. Musicians must find something new and I’m sure the young people will.”
And she knows Greece has been through worse times, occupation during WW II and the poverty of the post-war period.
She recalled that when she was very young and sang with dance bands, there were nights when the owner would tell her she would not get paid because the crowd was too small. “Our generation came from nothing and all we could hope for was a better future, and whatever we received was a blessing.”
“Greece is a very optimistic country. We will come out of this – maybe sooner than other countries,” she said, but Mouskouri regrets that the first targets of austerity cuts are music and art, because in a crisis they may be even more important. “The youth are the future and we have always been a very artistic people,” and she believes their talent must be cultivated.
Her voice being so soulful, she was asked if she enjoys singing the music of the Orthodox Church. “I was in America when Patriarch Bartholomew visited in the late 1990s and the tour ended with a big concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine… where I sang some Orthodox hymns.”
The memory is “one of the best souvenirs” of her travels.
“Through my singing I try to find peace and love. That’s what I search for in my songs,” and her relationships with people. “When you treat people with respect, you receive that in return.”
Asked if singing is a spiritual exercise for her, Mouskouri responded: “excitement!”
The reminiscence put her in a philosophical vein.
“Life is very difficult, but it is worth living. What is important is to learn to receive your disappointments and successes together, without holding onto the disappointments – you learn from them however…do what you love to do, and do it right. Courage and strength are needed because if you fail, you must move on, and you must believe that one day you will succeed.”
She added “I can say that because my life was not a bowl of cherries, but in the end, I received so much love and satisfaction from singing that it was worth the fight.”