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Even the most ardent of Francophiles may not be entirely familiar with the name Yussef Mustacchi, but mention Georges Moustaki and the response is likely to be a knowing and appreciative smile. As you may have guessed, Messieurs Mustacchi and Moustaki are, in fact, one and the same and - whatever you call him - the 72 year old French crooner will be in Israel between May 10 and May 13 for three concerts in Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv.
Moustaki has been wowing millions of fans of chanson music across the globe for nearly half a century, spinning out beloved ballads like "Ma Solitude" and "Votre fille a vingt ans." Today he is considered the doyen of the genre but his background is hardly that of the classic French singer.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Jewish Greek parents, Moustaki grew up in a highly cosmopolitan atmosphere, speaking Italian at home, Arabic in the street and French at school.
Considering his multicultural beginnings it is small wonder that Moustaki has made forays into a wide range of musical areas, from Brazilian beats to Arabic songs. That diversity notwithstanding, Moustaki is still revered these days as an adored symbol of French music.
How, then, does he manage to filter and blend all the cultural streams?
"All my cultural influences enrich me, but I am still French," he says. "I express myself in French and I feed off French culture. My career path came to fruition when I chose to live in France."
Moustaki developed an interest in French literature and music from an early age, learned to play the piano and fired his creative imagination by listening to songs by the likes of Charles Trenet, Tino Rossi and Edith Piaf. When he was 17 he relocated to Paris and initially earned a living as a traveling salesman, peddling poetry books provided by his brother-in-law who ran a bookstore in the French capital. It was when he caught legendary singer-songwriter Georges Brassens' act in a night club that he began to get serious about pursuing a musical career of his own.
Yussef soon became Georges - in honor of his mentor - and, by a stroke of luck, one day Brassens turned up at Moustaki's brother-in-law's bookstore when the youngster was there. Moustaki seized the opportunity to show Brassens some of the songs he'd written and, as they say, the rest is history.
Mind you, Moustaki hardly enjoyed a meteoric rise to success. Inspired by his fortuitous encounter Brassens Moustaki began knocking cabaret doors, meanwhile keeping body and soul together by writing a cultural column for an Egyptian newspaper. In 1958 guitarist Henri Crolla introduced the young songwriter to Piaf, who had already attained iconic status by then, and the two endured a year-long tempestuous professional and romantic liaison, with Moustaki writing the lyrics for her hit number "Milord".
Above all, Moustaki is known for his velvety vocals. He appears to be capable of expressing the fiercest emotions in effortless style. "[Venezuelan-born French early twentieth century composer] Reynaldo Hahn said there is no need to sing above the level of your heart," Moustaki continues. "I think like him - that you can say everything without raising your voice, even when there are strong emotions involved."
At one point, Moustaki's career path also crossed that of one our own men of words and letters, the late author and enfant terrible Dan Ben Amotz, with Amotz providing the lyrics for the Moustaki number "Demande". "I was very close to Dan," the French chansonier recalls. "I like the lyrics he wrote for Demande, and I feel a great bond with the song. I'll sing it in Israel, in Hebrew."
Moustaki, who will appear here as part of his year's Culture of Peace Festival, says he also feels a strong bond with his own Jewishness. "To be a Jew is an integral part of me. It is an echo of my feelings and my sensibilities."
Georges Moustaki will perform at Hechal Hatarbut in Petah Tikva on May 10, and at Tzavta in Tel Aviv on May 11 and 13.
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