Popular singer: 1934 -
Her voice brings back memories of crackly cassettes from the 1970s played in the tiny stereo system of my parents’ peoplemover on long journeys. Ever since I can remember, Nana Mouskouri’s distinctive sound has been part of my music collection. The Greek songstress has carved out a career spanning generations – my tapes came to me from my mother, to her from my grandfather.
When you possess a full, shimmering soprano like Mouskouri's, you could practically sing the phone book, and leave an audience in bliss.1
Joanna (Nana) Mouskouri was born in Crete in 1934. She was born of fairly poor parents, and first learned to sing from the movies – her father was a projectionist. Her mother had dreamed of becoming a singer, and pushed her daughters to do likewise.
Nana had some slight imperfection in her vocal chords, yet she studied for nine years at the Athens Conservatory. Her studies there came to an end when her professors, finding that she was singing Jazz and pop in her spare time, told her to choose between the classical or the popular styles. She chose the latter, and left the Conservatory.
Mouskouri’s decision to devote her career to popular music rather than classical was probably influenced by her success in the first Greek Song Festival in 1959. Shortly after her advent into this new field she released her first record. The Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis wrote several songs for her, including the now famous “White Rose of Athens” – her first million selling recording. She recorded it in several languages – Greek, English and German amongst them.
She formed a pop group, The Athenians, with her husband George Petsilas on guitar. In 1962 she traveled to America to record an album of Great American Themes. She began touring with Harry Belafonte, who had heard and loved her work. Nana toured throughout Europe, Australia, Asia and New Zealand, choosing France as her new home. Her albums began to go gold, then platinum, and she won several awards. By the end of the sixties, Mouskouri was fixed as an international name in music.
At the end of the sixties and into the seventies, Nana became a well known television personality with her show “Nana and Guests” (sometimes billed as “The Nana Mouskouri Show”). The format seems strange to me when I hear about it now, but was very common then. Nana would sing a song, converse with her guest of the day, sing another song, do a little more chatting, and so on. Guests were generally other musicians, pan-flute player Gheorghe Zamfir in particular made frequent appearances.
Nana’s popularity continued to climb through the seventies and eighties. Bob Dylan composed a song for her ("Every Grain Of Sand" on Song for Liberty (1970) - Thanks Professor Pi for that info). She recorded and toured almost constantly – recording still in several languages – German, English, French, Portugese…in Japan she performed several songs in Japanese. Mouskouri generally traveled with foreign language dictionaries – learning the languages of the songs she sings.
In the nineties, Mouskouri branched out even more. She had never had as much exposure in America as in other countries – so she launched a tour and a CD and became as much of a legend in the states as in Europe. In addition, she became the world representative of the entertainment business at UNICEF, and the Greek Deputy to the European Parliament. Nana Mouskouri’s career continues in full swing today, she is still recording and still performing.
The magic of a song is to belong to every one at the same time for different reasons2
Nana’s appearance has long been a trademark – straight black hair parted in the centre, with large black rimmed glasses. Her glasses caused controversy when she first began appearing on television – glasses onscreen were unheard of, but contact lenses were very expensive and she couldn’t afford them. By the time she could afford contact lenses, her glasses were so well known that to discard them would have probably negatively affected her career.
How to describe Nana’s voice? It is distinctive, with a European tang unusual to my Australian ear. Her diction is unusually excellent, her vowel sounds very pure – adding to the foreign sound of her words. The slight vibrato sound is attractive, as are her trilled “r”s. Like Judith Durham (of The Seekers) I suspect her of deliberately singing ever so slightly sharp of the note – giving a brightness to her tone.
And yet with all this, I find the best word for her voice is “pleasant”. I have not the education to tell what is lacking, but I would never rank her as a “great” singer. Nice to listen to, oddly addictive, but no diva. Perhaps some support is lacking, and her tone has at times a certain breathiness to it. Whatever the faults of her voice, Nana Mouskouri has carved herself out a career in music, in the most unlikely fashion, spanning half a century.
1 music critic Paul Robicheau
2 Nana Mouskouri
and information from my mum!