May 3, 1934, is the birthdate of the Egyptian-French composer and performer Georges Moustaki, briefly beloved of Edith Piaf and champion of the “mongrels” of humanity. With a background as eclectic and cosmopolitan as one can imagine – including coming from the capital of multiculturalism, Alexandria – the polyglot Moustaki wrote songs for many of France’s most popular chansonniers and became a beloved entertainer in countries around the world.
Georges Moustaki (born Giuseppe Mustacchi) was the third child of Sarah and Nessim Mustacchi, Jews of Italian-Greek Sephardi descent, both of whom had been born on the Greek island of Corfu. In Alexandria, they owned the highly regarded Cité du Livre bookshop.
Giuseppe, who was alternately known as Joseph and Yusef, and his two older sisters, were brought up speaking Italian at home, comporting themselves in Arabic in the street, and attending a French-language school.
In 1951, when he was 17, Giuseppe spent a summer in Paris, where one of his sisters now lived. So much did he enjoy himself that he asked his parents to allow him to remain there. His brother-in-law, also a bookshop owner, employed him as a door-to-door seller of volumes of poetry.
Understandably in need of supplemental income, Giuseppe began singing and playing piano in Paris nightclubs. He also changed his given name to “Georges,” in tribute to his idol, the singer Georges Brassens.
When he finally met Brassens, it was Moustaki’s good fortune that the French crooner took him under his wing and began introducing him to a wide range of artists and Left Bank intellectuals.
Edith Piaf is touched
Although Moustaki became a highly successful performer in his own right, he was before everything known as a songwriter, whose clients included such stars as Yves Montand, Serge Reggiani (“Ma Liberté,” “Ma Solitude”); Barbara (the stage name of Monique Serf), who performed his song “Sarah”; and Juliette Gréco.
In the late 1950s, Moustaki received an introduction to the great dith Piaf, who, having already heard his praises, now asked to hear him sing. Moustaki later told The Guardian, “I picked up a guitar and I was lamentable. But something must have touched her. She asked me to go and see her perform that same evening at the Olympia music hall and to show her later the songs I had just massacred.”
Despite his being two decades younger than her, Moustaki became not only Piaf’s songwriter but also her lover. Although their “devastating, mad love,” as it was described by Libération, lasted for only a year, the professional relationship continued a while longer. In 1959, he wrote the lyrics for the song “Milord,” with music by Marguerite Monnot. Sung by Piaf, and covered later by Bobby Darin and Cher, “Milord” – about a working-class French girl who falls for an upper-class British traveler – was a big hit.
Wandering Jew in France
Moustaki’s most productive years were the 1960s and ’70s, during which he also began appearing onstage, singing in French, Italian, English, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish.
When Reggiani rejected his song “Le Métèque,” Moustaki decided to record it himself, producing a recording that spent six weeks at number one on the French charts. The title is French slang for a low-life immigrant, and the song’s narrator indeed describes himself as a “wandering Jew” and cultural “mongrel” in an unwelcoming France.
According to the composer, what he had written as “a small, subliminal settling of scores” ended up becoming “the hymn of anti-racism and of the right to be different, the cry of revolt of all minorities.”
With his long, shaggy locks – which turned white as he aged – and his dreamy eyes, Moustaki became a beloved personality, not only in France but certainly across the Mediterranean. Over the years, he wrote some 300 songs, and recorded 20 studio albums. He released his last disc, “Solitaire,” in 2008.
Soon after, during a performance in Barcelona, he announced to the audience that it would be his final appearance, as he was suffering from a severe bronchial illness.
Moustaki died of emphysema in Nice, on May 23, 2013. Although he had expressed a desire to be buried in Alexandria, he was laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.
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