When did it become cool to like Nana Mouskouri? Well, for those (liable to be relatively few) people asking this question, the answer is that it didn’t.
Sat, as I was, in the marvellous amplifying vacuum that is Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, it didn’t feel as if I was on the cutting edge of music performance. Surrounded as I was by an audience that was probably at least fifty percent in their dotage (and I had a good view from the upper balcony), I was expecting a very tame affair. Not to say that there were not much younger people there, because there was; Mouskouri has been recording and performing for around sixty years, and I imagine she continues to amass new fans. I was also reminded that many artists performing at the Bridgewater are also seasoned recognised talents, who have often sold millions of records. I had the pleasure of seeing Tony Bennett and Nancy Sinatra here nine years ago (not on the same bill I have to say!) Those artists are popular in a way that transcend considerations of ‘cool’ and fashionable. So if I was in any doubt about Mouskouri, I was about to find out for sure.
Her band took to the stage first; a traditional set up of guitars, keyboards and percussion, before the arrival of the lady herself. Now, this was billed as ‘The Birthday Tour’, to lead up to Nana’s birth date of 13th October. However, she had officially retired some years before, so her return to performing (and recording) was an opportunity I wasn’t going to let pass. The woman is now 80, but she moved around that stage like someone half her age. She still looks the same as well: centre parting in place and wearing her black rimmed spectacles. But let’s be honest with each other, in that sense, perhaps what constitutes ‘80’ is perception rather than reality. Mouskouri’s reality is that she performs and sings and that was exactly what she was going to do. And why the hell not? Also, Mouskouri was one of my late mother’s favourites, and I suppose in a strange way, I felt I was going to this gig for Mum. It was to give the night an extra resonance, which in the end was rather bittersweet, but made it so moving.
Nana took us through several traditional songs from various languages, including her native Greek, as well as several signature songs from her career. To my generation, her 1986 UK No. 2 hit “Only Love” is probably the best known, but there were surprises in there as well. Nana’s humble reverence of music’s evolution and her belief that the stage is for the younger performer, led to a tribute to artists that have followed her footsteps. I was most definitely not expecting Mouskouri to cover an Amy Winehouse song, but she can evidently cut through the media debacle to see clearly what Winehouse was: a great Jazz singer. As Jazz was one of Nana’s early musical loves and influences, this tribute is not as unusual as it might sound. She sang “Love is a losing game” with dignity and conviction; although it was one of the few times her veteran voice cracked a little, it was marvellous.
But yes…the voice. Bob Dylan once described her as having one of the greatest voices, and he was so right. It’s simultaneously fragile and vulnerable whilst also retaining remarkable power and poise; and despite the years its still echoes with crystal beauty. Nana’s statuesque daughter Lenou arrived mid set, to sing a trio of songs and presumably give her mother a rest (although at no point did Nana Mouskouri look remotely fatigued, standing for most of the concert and barely pausing between songs except to introduce her band, crack warm jokes and reminisce about her career: all welcome anecdotes. Nothing new was said there, but it was nice to hear it all again). Lenou was a pleasant revelation, and although she has inherited her mother’s gift for song interpretation; her voice is arguably not as unique as her mother’s, but it is still a marvellous instrument. By the time of the encore, the whole auditorium was singing along with Nana for the “White Rose of Athens”. This was followed by a standing ovation with flowers being thrown at the stage and whistles of appreciation coming from the audience, and any thoughts about what is cool or fashionable were long since forgotten.
So, Nana Mouskouri; often revered, often lampooned (I’m thinking of Benny Hill here), but never cool, has apparently sold more recordings than any other female artist. She has been recording since the 1950s, before official monitoring began, so they can’t say for certain and officially quantify that. But it’s likely she’s the leader; you’d put good money on it: around 350 Million records is the ballpark figure. I never thought I’d see the Greek singer perform. As I said, she’d already retired from live performance, considering the stage a place for the young. But the love of the spotlight is evidently strong, despite her famous stage fright. And as Nana considers aloud to us, if you can still do it and want to, then who is to deny you that opportunity? People, like me, evidently still want to see her. It is an inspiring message to us all, I think. Her sincere voice and choice of songs touch something in this audience, and in me. Nana’s songs of love are never bitter but they are often bittersweet; but hers is not an ugly music, and although there were teary eyes in there that night I believe it’s because she sings about love in a way that makes people recall the best of things. As Leonard Cohen once said of her, “I heard you then and I hear you now. I am still listening. We all are. May you continue to be as you have always been – strong, clear, simple and true.”
A wonderful evening. And Mum, you would have loved it.
Classic Mouskouri from the archives: