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Nana Mouskouri "Music brings me peace, love and hope"

Eleven years ago Choice interviewed the international singing star Nana Mouskouri as she prepared for the final stages of what had been a three-year farewell tour.

Seven years later she was back performing, this time in the company of her daughter, Helene (also known as Lenou), and later this year 83-yearold Nana will take to the stage once more at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert is celebrating a remarkable 60-year musical career, during which time Nana has sold more than 350 million records and sung in more than 15 languages

And you do not have to delve too far into her life story to understand why the girl from Crete has found it so hard to give up on her music. As Nana told Choice back in 2007: “I was a war child, and as a young girl singing was a liberation. Throughout my career I have found peace, love and hope through the music. It’s always been special for me.”

Nana was born Ioanna Mouschouri (Nana was her childhood nickname) on October 13, 1934 in Chania, the capital of Crete. She was the youngest of two daughters, and when she was three her parents, Constantine and Alice, moved the family to Athens.

The young Nana was shy, plump and bespectacled, but she inherited a love of music from her mother, who took great delight in teaching her children native Greek folk songs

Constantine worked as a projectionist at an open-air cinema in Athens and from an early age Nana and sister Jenny would stand at the side of the stage dreaming that they were the heroines in their favourite films

When the films weren’t showing the girls would go up on the stage and sing to an empty auditorium, just for the fun of it

“I was very shy as a child,” Nana recalled for a 2008 BBC documentary, “and sometimes I think I became a singer because I wanted to communicate. When I was singing I felt as light as a bird, things were better for me in that moment.”

In 1941 Athens fell to the Nazis, and suddenly life became very frightening. People were being executed in the street and food was scarce, with the family forced, at times, to subsist on snails and frogs. There then followed a prolonged, and bloody civil war that left a lifelong mark on the young Nana

“’What is war’, that was the first question I ever asked,” Nana recalled. “My father said it was when people do not like each other. Later on I thought there was a war in our house as well.”

The problems at home were caused by Nana’s father, who had taken to gambling, which left the family short of money. For Nana’s mother, music offered a brief respite. “My mother dreamed of being a singer and had a lovely voice. But there was something sad about her, so the singing was an escape, a way of forgetting.”

Her own musical ambitions having been thwarted by the demands of marriage and a young family, Alice worked hard to send her children to study opera at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire. However, after a year Nana’s parents found they could not afford to fund both girls, so Jenny graciously agreed to leave and allow Nana to continue her studies

Although at the time regarded as the more talented of the two children, Jenny knew how important music was to her sister

“Nana’s passion for singing was much greater than mine,” Jenny said many years later

“She thought I would be very unhappy if I didn’t sing,” Nana said, “but for years I felt very guilty having stopped her realising her dream.”

And, as it turned out, Nana’s talent was unique – a medical examination revealed that she only had one functioning vocal cord, which explains the astonishing purity of her voice, as well as its remarkable range.

But Jenny’s sacrifice appeared to be in vain, for, although Nana applied herself to her studies, the Conservatoire forced her to leave because she had started singing in Athens bars and clubs to help support the family.

Nana was, however, able to use the training she had received at the Conservatoire to provide her own, unique interpretations of a wide range of material, something that would serve her well in the years to come.

Her first big break came when the American aircraft carrier USS Forrestal stopped off in Athens in May 1959. Entertainment was laid on for the 5000-strong crew and Nana was recruited as a last-minute addition to the bill.

There was only one problem; she didn’t look right. “The impresario was completely disappointed with my appearance, because I was a big girl with my glasses. I kept saying ‘is it more important to look nice than sing well? I don’t look very nice but I do sing’.”

And could she sing. Nana had hardly begun her opening number when she heard screams and whistles and saw the sailors throwing their hats in the air. She was called back for encore after encore and was the undoubted star of the show

By now Nana was regularly singing at the Zaki club in Athens and it was here that she came to the attention of the composer Manos Hadjidakis who, in collaboration with the poet Nikos Gatsos, started writing songs for her

“When they came into my life they gave me songs that were not like anything else, and they gave me an identity as a Greek singer,” she recalled

Nana made a brief appearance in the 1960 film Rendez-Vous in Corfu singing the Gatsos and Hadjidakis song My Love is Somewhere, and another 1960 Greek film Never On A Sunday brought her to a worldwide audience when she recorded the theme tune, also written by Hadjidakis. Although she did not perform the song in the film, it was Nana’s version that became a big global hit and one of her best-loved songs.

The film, and the song, helped to spark an interest in Greek culture and music around the world, and Nana became a musical ambassador of sorts for her country. In 1960 she recorded five Hadjidakis songs – in German – for a German documentary, Greece: Land of Dreams, and found she had a talent for singing in different languages. French producer Louis Hazan had signed her to the Fontana record label and The White Rose of Athens, originally recorded for the documentary, became a big hit in Germany, selling more than a million copies. She would eventually record the song, an adaptation of a Greek folk melody, in several languages and it would become her signature tune.

In December 1960 Nana married her musician boyfriend George Petsilas – reputedly the first man she ever kissed. George’s group The Athenians would be Nana’s backing band during her golden years of the Sixties and Seventies, and they would have two children together, Nicolas and Helene, before divorcing in 1973.

Nana’s career took a major step forward when, in 1962, she travelled to New York to record an album, The Girl From Greece, with the distinguished producer and arranger Quincy Jones, who would, much later, produce Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad albums.

“Going to America was like going to dreamland,” Nana said, “but the best thing about it was being able to record with fabulous musicians. Everyone would play together for take after take until we got it right.

“For three weeks we went to all the clubs and I heard great singers like Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald, which really inspired me.”

She had mixed feelings, however, when Louis Hazan told her she was to appear as a supporting artist at the prestigious Olympia music hall in Paris. On a previous visit to the French capital Nana had heard Edith Piaf sing at the venue, and the resulting feeling of unworthiness had led her to almost give up on her singing career.

“I thought I had no right to be on that stage. You cannot call yourself a singer when you have seen Miss Piaf,” Nana said.

But, encouraged by Hazan and his wife, Nana persevered and also started to take more care over her appearance.

“My father had wanted a boy so I grew up with this complex. I didn’t trust myself, I didn’t like myself, because my father did not like the idea that I was a girl. So I tried not to be a girl.”

With her appearance at the Olympia looming, Nana lost ten kilosin threeweeks. Her performance turned out to be a triumph, and five yearslatershewas back at the venue, but this time as the headliner

In 1963 Nana represented Luxembourg in theEurovision Song Contest in London, (Greece would not take part in Eurovision until 1974 because so few people in the country owned a television). Although she had already had hits in France, Germany, Britain and the United States by this time, it was still a daunting prospect

“Eurovision was the first time I had performed on television without an audience, and it was very strange. Technically I wasn’t used to it and I don’t think I performed right.”

She only came eighth, but made an impression on the programme’s director, Yvonne Littlewood. “I just liked the voice,” Yvonne said, “and I thought she had a personality; I suppose it was unusual to see a singer wearing glasses. She didn’t look like everybody else, she didn’t have blonde hair, she was very distinctive in her appearance, which I think was a bonus, not a disadvantage.” Yvonne Littlewood booked Nana to host a show as part of a series on folk music she was putting together, and viewers responded so enthusiastically that she was given her own BBC series, which started in 1968, ran for eight years and was broadcast all over the world.

Audiences responded to Nana’s exoticism – package holidays to Greece were still in their infancy – and also her ability to communicate with the viewer, often prefacing a song with a short explanation of its meaning.

And, although following the appearance at the Olympia Nana had agreed to take more care of her appearance, there was one area where she would not compromise.

In 1964 Nana had been booked on a tour of America and Canada with the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, who requested that Nana perform without her glasses.

“She had such a beautiful face without the glasses,” Belafonte said many years later, “she didn’t have this façade behind which she could hide, and I thought if she took off the glasses more of her would be revealed, but she became deeply uncomfortable.”

Nana remembered it well: “I sang for two nights without my glasses, but the third night I said, ‘Mr Belafonte, I cannot continue without my glasses.”

Harry gave way; what mattered to him was that magical voice. “You read in classical literature about the voice that sounds like a nightingale, but I didn’t really believe it until I heard Nana sing.”

The glasses became an important Nana trademark, and part of her appeal. She showed that you could wear glasses and still be beautiful, but perhaps Belafonte was right; they were also a mask to hide behind, a sign of an inner vulnerability. Performing on stage helped to keep those inner doubts in check.

“I was not a very stable person,” Nana admitted. “Music and being on stage gave me a sense of balance and helped me stay on the right track.”

When her children came along Nana found a deeper fulfillment, but was also torn between her need to perform and her duty to Nicolas and Helene

“When they were very young and we were touring they would come with us. The problems started when they went to school and they had to stay at home; they had to have a steady life.”

The family eventually moved to Geneva, where the children had a full-time nanny to look after them while Nana and George were touring.

Looking back on her childhood, Helene said: “We would prefer to see her on stage and doing her career, travelling the world and totally fulfilled and happy rather than forcing herself to stay home with us, because she was not the home mum type.”

By the early Seventies Nana was a global star and a regular on British television, performing twice at the Royal Albert Hall, while her album Over and Over, which included songs by Tom Paxton and Paul Simon, stayed on the UK album charts for two years.

But all was not well behind the scenes; the strain of constant touring and being in the media spotlight leading to Nana and George’s divorce.

“I have made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I felt my big failure was my divorce,” Nana said. “But I learned it was better to divorce than stay in a relationship and fight. I think my children would have been more unhappy if they had seen us arguing all the time, just like I had seen my parents do.”

In 1981, Nana made a record that was a departure from her usual romantic ballads, Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. The piece, which was sung in French, was the idea of Andre Chapelle, Nana’s music producer, and new romantic partner, whom she would eventually marry in 2003.

The song became a big international hit and its theme, a celebration of liberty, was close to Nana’s heart as her home country had descended into chaos following a military coup in 1967.

“We didn’t go back after the junta came to power, but we tried to do what we could from outside,” Nana said.

Democracy was finally restored to Greece in 1974 and in 1984 Nana was asked to perform at a concert marking the republic’s tenth anniversary, her first performance back home since 1962.

In the mid-Eighties she was back in the charts again with Only Love, the theme to the TV series Mistral’s Daughter. At the beginning of the Nineties music started to take a secondary role to Nana’s burgeoning political career as, in 1993, she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, highlighting the plight of underprivileged children around the world.

The following year Nana was elected to the European Parliament. “I thought I would be helping my country. I wanted to be a bridge between Greece and the European community. But I didn’t know how it worked, I didn’t know how to write a report. I was a bit of a curiosity, people would ask what was I doing there.”

Nana took her role as an MEP very seriously but decided to stand down after her first five-year term.

“After the war in Kosovo I felt I couldn’t stay in the parliament,” she explained. “The European Union was supposed to prevent war, so to allow this war in our region was wrong. And I felt I could be more use to organisations like UNICEF outside the parliament.”

By the early Noughties Nana had returned to singing, embarking on that protracted and, as it turned out, premature farewell tour

Most recently she has recorded an album of songs from the Greek Islands and another of duets with French contemporaries. At the Royal Albert Hall concert Nana will perform a selection of her greatest hits, as well as tracks from her recently released 134th record, Forever Young, which features cover versions of songs she describes as “the soundtrack of her life”, by such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Singing for an audience is still what motivates Nana, and gives her the clarity she has not always had in her personal life

“The biggest doubts I have are before I go on stage. But after a few songs, I have a total freedom to be myself because I know the audience trusts me. But the confidence I have on stage I do not always have in my life.”

Nana Mouskouri is performing at the Royal Festival Hall on October 17. For ticket details, and to book, go to: (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/venues/royal-festival-hall) or tel: 020 3879 9555. They are also available from: (ticketline.co.uk)

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