I remember: Nana Mouskouri

Joy Persaud

In a career spanning 50 years, Greek singer Nana Mouskouri has released over 200 albums in ten different languages. She looks back on growing up in war-torn Athens and finding international fame…

…My father was a projectionist working in Athens

in an open-air cinema so my early days were very nice. When I was three years old, we were living behind the screen, because there was a small house with a garden there—my father was also working as the guardian of the cinema at that time.

 

…We had a space with chickens—

there was a lot of poultry—and also pigeons, and a little dog. But, of course, at four or five years old, war came so everything changed. I didn’t automatically understand what the war was at that age, but slowly, you saw people going away [and] you saw soldiers arrive…

What I mostly remember from the war is the sound of sirens and planes flying over, and running to find somewhere safe to seek refuge. It was quite wild all the time. There were lots of frightening things then.

When the Allied forces came, we were given chocolates by the soldiers as they passed by us children.

 

…The first thing I asked my father was, “What is war?”

A young Nana with her parents, Constantine and Alice, and sister Eugenía

It was sad but I asked that because I always heard it—I’d heard him saying to my mum that there was a war on but I didn’t know what the word meant.

He didn’t answer me at the time; he went out to the front to fight with the soldiers. When he came back from the army, he explained, “War is when people don’t love each other.”

 

…Becoming an incurable optimist because we must hope for the best and realise that life can be happy.

There’s always some way it ends though, and then the sorrow comes. I found love in life but this is a little bit more difficult because your happiness doesn’t always depend on you. You can try to make [your life] happy but you are not allowed to do that—it needs everybody [involved]. Happiness is something that is worth fighting for.

"I used to sing under the moon and the sky… there was something in the air"

 

…After the war, I started to search for love and peace.

I thought, If there will be love somewhere, then there will be peace as well. You know why? It’s because peace and love are not something material or something very easy to handle. They’re not something that you can put in your pocket and say, “Now I have it” and then they [will] be there forever. You have to work very hard.

I work hard all my life thinking about that and, of course, you find love, then you find peace and then, again, it goes somehow. So, you have to learn to water it, to treat it in a way that, you know, [helps it to] live longer. This is the dream of the little girl from all those days ago.

 

…When I was a child, we were together as much as possible as a family.

They were different times—the Forties and the Fifties—they were happy times, of course, after the war, but there was also a civil war. There was a lot of movement in the country, but I had a very happy childhood. My parents were working, they were looking after us, and they gave us everything.

 

…I started singing at the same time that the war started

 Promotional photo of Nana circa 1968

because it was this really, really frightening thing that everyone was talking about. I learned songs from the films my father used to play. At the beginning it was movies with no speaking—silent movies.

I was also learning Greek songs from my mother, who used to sing too, and I’d go up in front of the big screen in the empty house and sing under the moon and the sky… There was something in the air. I was dreaming of what little girls dream of—of being a bird or to travel—or to just sing with another bird as you do when you are a little one…

 

…When I was small, if I was tired I would always cry and try to sing a few words

and if I was happy, I would cry again. I discovered that both crying and laughing had something to do with music—it was the music moving me and the emotion that made me more sad or more happy.

 

…My sister and I went to the Athens Conservatoire because we both loved music and singing,

so we had a chance to finish school and do what we wanted to do, to be what we wanted to be. I stayed at the Conservatory for eight years. I think my classical music studies helped me—it was a wonderful experience and a wonderful discipline that I followed all my life and this gave me a lot of possibilities as a singer.

 

…in about 1956, they thought it was too much for me,

singing popular music and doing the sort of contests where the young singers go and sing. My professor refused to send me to take my diploma because they thought I was doing the wrong thing, singing in clubs.

 

…One night at the club I was singing in,

the year was 1957 or something like that, Maria Callas was there and she asked me if I was at the Conservatory because she had the feeling that my voice was well-worked and she liked me very much.

I told her my story and she said to me, “You know, in life you must think of one thing: it doesn’t matter what you do with your voice, the most important is why you do it and how you do it”. When I meet young people today I tell them it doesn’t matter what you sing—it’s how and why. You must do it with love—there is no other reason.

"It doesn’t matter what you sing—it’s how and why. You must do it with love—there is no other reason"

 

…Harry Belafonte was in London in the early sixties and he saw me on television.

He went back to the US, phoned Quincy Jones and said, “You know French singers very well, can you tell me who this girl with glasses is? She sings very nicely”.

Quincy said, “No, she’s not French, she’s Greek.” Quincy and I worked together on a few albums—it was really wonderful.

 

…The 1963 Eurovision Song Contest was a wonderful thing,

although I was badly placed—I was number eight. Yvonne Littlewood was the producer that year and England was producing the Eurovision show.

After a few months, Yvonne called me in Paris and she said, “I would like to see you,” so we talked and she told me that she wanted to do a musical series with me.

Nana Mouskouri was a TV series in the Seventies with guests where I was presenting, and I’m sure that programme helped me to become better known internationally.

 

…My involvement with unicef.

I think that being involved in fundraising for UNICEF was one of the best accomplishments that I could have in my life, because working for children around the world—what UNICEF do—is wonderful work.

It’s very, very satisfying. I still do whatever I can. I’m not based in one country—we work from New York or Geneva, or wherever I am, and they give me different connections.

 

…In the nineties, I was an MEP and I stayed in parliament for five years.

At the time they told me, “You are going to help your country”, but I was not good for it. I would say it was a great experience, though. I still really respect the European Parliament.

I know, like anything in life, that there are days when there are things we do badly and then we try and help to make everything better. It was interesting but I couldn’t stay in it because I didn’t have the right knowledge.

 

…When my children were little, I was travelling a lot

Nana in her London home with her two children, Nicolas and Hélène

back-and-forth. The nanny looked after them, but they always had a family life. Now I have three grandchildren through my son and I believe I am a good mother and a good grandmother. I’m very proud of my children.

 

…When I was in London, I met many, many singers and actors so it was like a big school for me.

I was into The Beatles at the time. I wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll of course, but I loved rock ‘n’ roll anyway. The Beatles and The Stones really were my favourite groups and I met them many times. It was fantastic.

That’s the thing about British actors and singers, they’re not snobs with the others; they accept you and they’re really interested in all music and arts. So I was among young singers and was accepted there for what I was doing.

 

Nana Mouskouri will perform at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on October 17. Book via ticketline.co.uk or venue box office.