October 2005

Essays

Soft touch

By Robert Forster
Soft touch
Falling for Nana Mouskouri

In a far corner of my mind there has always been a place for Nana Mouskouri. She resides there with a few others: Marcel Marceau, Charles Aznavour, Juliette Greco. Postwar bohemians. Cafe performers who got onto TV or into the concert halls early, who had a few hits or breakthrough shows, who managed to expand it into a European career and then tour the rest of the world, usually to the outposts of their own community. But the sun is going down. Marceau and Aznavour are in their eighties, Greco in her seventies. How old is Roger Whitaker? James Last is doing techno in Germany. And Nana has decided to call it a day.

It’s funny how we allot certain people places in our imagination, and then over the years, as each new morsel of information comes in, we add it to the drawer we have of that person, never perhaps making anything anywhere near a complete picture, but gathering facts here and there that round the person out a little. In 1962 Nana made an album in New York called The Girl from Greece Sings, produced by heavy-duty soul and R&B ace Quincy Jones. I found out that early in her career she sang Bob Dylan songs. And then this: in 1969 she went to a concert at the invitation of Leonard Cohen, who had also asked Dylan along. Dylan asked her who her favourite singer was. She answered Oum Kalthoum. Dylan was stunned. She was his too. Small morsels, but they added to the picture.

Nana’s genius is that she has never changed. To the broadest edges of showbusiness change is encouraged. Madonna and Kylie Minogue live and die by it. Nana still has the jet black shoulder-length hair. The black-rimmed glasses. And the faint smile. Contempt? Worldweariness? Who knows? But it’s been there, staring out from ads in metropolitan newspapers, for as long as I can remember. It was there again in June when her final ever concert tour of Australia was announced.

I’d see her on German TV variety shows in the 1990s, still stiff after all those years. She exuded mystery. There was either a great intellect behind this or nothing at all. Given the Dylan covers, the choice of Oum Kalthoum and the connection with Cohen, I thought there had to be something. Plus I dug the curtain of black hair, the glasses, the almost medicated impassiveness of everything she did.

Now I’m in seat T32 of the Sydney Opera House – 20 rows back and she looks fantastic. Before her entrance we were shown a five-minute film of her career. There was lots of great ’60s and ’70s footage, and then a cut to Nana on the streets of Kenya in the late ’90s drew a gasp from the audience. She looked fuller in the face, and older. The shock of seeing this up against the sculpted ancient footage had momentarily set up a what-are-we-going-to-see-here scenario. But there she is, in sparkling white, hair black, high heels, trim. The remarkable Nana.

And then bang, she goes straight into Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You”. It’s her first message to us on a night of farewells. The show is split in two: the first part is more experimental and roaming, and in the second half come the show-stoppers. Strangely enough, for someone who has sung so much, her voice gets better and stronger as the show goes on. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is followed by a wonderful version of “Scarborough Fair”. Her tactic is to drain the songs of a little of their sensuality and mystery, to interpret them for their melodies. She uses her voice as an instrument, treating the songs the way a great instrumentalist would, coasting on the melody and joyfully exposing the craft and beauty of the notes. She switches to a warmer, more lilting tone, for a brace of Greek folk songs. And then comes Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, in French, not some truncated version but the whole four verses, six minutes long, with the band on full throttle, Nana’s arms flailing in the air. It brings the night alive and sends us out to the foyer, buzzing.

The crowd is European, with hardly an Aussie accent to be heard. There are people in their late-fifties to seventies, well-dressed, with gold chains on handbags and coiffured, luxuriant hair. Their children are here too, brought up on Nana, sons in their twenties who have come with their mothers.

Then she’s back, this time in red. Her band are a six-piece in black suits and white shirts. The pick of them is the drummer, who adds some much-appreciated drive to the proceedings. But no one ever encroaches, no one goes off the leash. This is Nana’s show. It’s restrained; nothing really catches fire. This is smooth, studied professionalism, one show on a world tour that has been rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Except that right in the centre rests the one point of uncertainty, of hesitancy: Nana herself.


There are two wonders of the show. The first is this sense of vulnerability she projects. In an age of sock-it-to-’em showbusiness – think Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand – it is a pleasure to hear and watch a performer within themselves. Nana is about nuance. Maybe it’s a European trait, but it is so appealing to see someone so talented and secure in their gift who has no desire to pummel or annihilate the people that pay to see her. And this is why they love her – she has a soft touch.

The second wonder is her artistry. Her band’s restraint gives her the room to soar. Her repertoire swings from movie themes to ’60s singer-songwriters, to Broadway and beyond. She’s middle of the road but all over the road; in lesser hands it would make for a wild mix. Yet everything she sings has gravity, no matter how far she strays into kitsch, and she can stray a long way. But she never loses herself. The songs anchor her. Her cool, crystal voice pulls her through, bringing new meaning to songs you have heard many times before.

The second half of the show is the highlight. She talks more – this is, after all, her farewell, and she wants to impart her life and her music one last meaningful time. So she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (her father was a movie projectionist) and then a stunning, jazzy “Autumn Leaves”. Her big ballads – “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, “The Rose”, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” –capture the youthful bohemianism of the audience’s past. She loves the ’60s singer-songwriters and it is uplifting to hear a genuine ’60s spirit breathe life into them. In a far-off galaxy, Nana Mouskouri may be the outermost edge of folk rock.

She leaves in triumph. No tears. A wave. An armful of red roses. Good on her for leaving now. This isn’t Cher on a battleship or being lowered from the ceiling in a cage. This is a 70-year-old Greek woman getting out of showbusiness; a very fine voice, wrapped in artistic temperament, slipping out into the night.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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